Reflective practice is "the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning". According to one definition it involves "paying critical attention to the practical values and theories which inform everyday actions, by examining practice reflectively and reflexively. This leads to developmental insight".
Reflective practice can be an important tool in practice-based professional learning settings where individuals learning from their own professional experiences, rather than from formal teaching or knowledge transfer, may be the most important source of personal professional development and improvement. Further, it is also an important way to be able to bring together theory and practice; through reflection you are able to see and label schools of thought and theory within the context of your work. What is important about reflection throughout your practice is that you are not just looking back on past actions and events, but rather you are taking a conscious look at the emotions, experiences, actions, and responses, and using that to add to your existing knowledge base to draw out new knowledge, meaning and have a higher level of understanding. As such the notion has achieved wide take-up, particularly in professional development for practitioners in the areas of education and healthcare. The question of how best to learn from experience has wider relevance however, to any organizational learning environment. In particular, people in leadership positions have a tremendous development opportunity if they engage in reflective practice.
- 1 History and background
- 2 Models of reflective practice
- 3 Application
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
History and background
Reflective Practice was introduced by Donald Schön in his book The Reflective Practitioner in 1983, however, the concepts underlying reflective practice are much older. John Dewey was among the first to write about Reflective Practice with his exploration of experience, interaction and reflection. Other researchers such as Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, William James and Carl Jung were developing theories of human learning and development. Marcus Aurelius' Meditations has also been described as an example of reflective practice.
Dewey’s works inspired writers such as Donald Schön and David Boud to explore the boundaries of reflective practice. Central to the development of reflective theory was interest in the integration of theory and practice, the cyclic pattern of experience and the conscious application of that learning experience. For the last 30 years, there has been a growing literature and focus around experiential learning and the development and application of Reflective Practice. Reflective practice also contributes to learning and expressing our own and others' stories (Ivan, 2012).[full citation needed]
Donald Schön’s 1983 book introduces concepts such as ‘reflection on action’ and ‘reflection in-action’ where professionals meet the challenges of their work with a kind of improvisation learned in practice. Reflective Practice has now been widely accepted and used as developmental practices for organisations, networks, and individuals. As Boud et al state: "Reflection is an important human activity in which people recapture their experience, think about it, mull it over and evaluate it. It is this working with experience that is important in learning." Reflective Practice can be seen and has been recognised in many teaching and learning scenarios, and the emergence in more recent years of blogging has been seen as another form of reflection on experience in a technological age.
Models of reflective practice
The concept of Reflective Practice centers around the idea of lifelong learning in which a practitioner analyses experiences in order to learn from them. However it is important to note that events experience and events retold hold their own importance. When experiencing something (reflection-in-action), we are learning, however it can be difficult to put emotions, events, and thoughts into a coherent sequence of events. When retelling/rethinking about events we are better able to categorize events, emotions, idea, etc. and be able to link our intended purpose with the actions that we carried out. Only from here can we remove ourselves and your direct emotional attachment from an action, and look at it from a critical standpoint; when retelling it is as if we are taking ourselves out of the action and are telling a story of a sequence of events. Reflective Practice is used to promote independent professionals who are continuously engaged in the reflection of situations they encounter in their professional worlds. Several models of reflection exist and are used to draw lessons out of experiences.
Argyris and Schön 1978
Argyris and Schön pioneered the idea of single loop and double loop learning in 1978. The theory was built around the recognition and amendment of a perceived fault or error. Single loop learning is when a practitioner or organisation, even after an error has occurred and a correction is made, continues to rely on current strategies, techniques or policies when a situation again comes to light. Double loop learning involves the modification of personal objectives, strategies or policies so that when a similar situation arises a new framing system is employed.
Based on the works of John Dewey, Schön derives the notions of “…reflection-on-action, reflection-in-action, responding to problematic situations, problem framing, problem solving, and the priority of practical knowledge over abstract theory…” (2010, P. 311, Sharpiro).[full citation needed] Reflection-in-action can be described as the ability of a practitioner to ‘think on their feet’, otherwise known as ‘felt-knowing’. It revolves around the idea that within any given moment, when faced with a professional issue, a practitioner usually connects with their feelings, emotions and prior experiences to attend to the situation directly. Reflection-on-action on the other hand is the idea that after the experience a practitioner analyses their reaction to the situation and explores the reasons around, and the consequences of, their actions. This is usually conducted through a documented reflection of the situation. However, this notion goes beyond just looking back on experiences and exploring the reasoning behind actions. Rather, it brings into action Schön’s notion of “…responding to problematic situations, problem framing, problem solving, and the priority of practical knowledge over abstract theory…” (2010,Sharpiro, p. 311).[full citation needed] For Schön professional growth really begins when you start to view things with a critical lense, by doubting your actions. By creating doubt, it brings about a way of thinking that has you questioning and creating “problems” out of your actions. Then through careful planning and systematic elimination of other possible situations, doubt is settled, and you are able to affirm your knowledge of the situation; you are able to think about possible situations and their outcomes, and deliberate whether you carried out the right actions. In Schön terminology, you are framing your actions into problems (doubting your actions), you are then responding to the problematic situations (you are attending to the doubt that you have just created from your actions), and then you are looking at possible real world solutions that you could have undertaken to solve the problems/doubt that you created.
Kolb was highly influenced by the research conducted by Dewey and Piaget in the 1970s. Kolb’s reflective model highlights the concept of experiential learning and is centered around the transformation of information into knowledge. This takes place after the situation has occurred and entails a practitioner reflecting on the experience, gaining a general understanding of the concepts encountered during the experience and then testing these general understandings on a new situation. In this way the knowledge that is gained from a situation is continuously applied and reapplied building on a practitioners prior experiences and knowledge.
Graham Gibbs discussed the use of structured debriefing to facilitate the reflection involved in Kolb's "experiential learning cycle". He presents the stages of a full structured debriefing as follows:
- (Initial experience)
- "What happened? Don't make judgements yet or try to draw conclusions; simply describe."
- "What were your reactions and feelings? Again don't move on to analysing these yet."
- "What was good or bad about the experience? Make value judgements."
- "What sense can you make of the situation? Bring in ideas from outside the experience to help you."
- "What was really going on?"
- "Were different people's experiences similar or different in important ways?"
- Conclusions (general):
- "What can be concluded, in a general sense, from these experiences and the analyses you have undertaken?"
- Conclusions (specific):
- "What can be concluded about your own specific, unique, personal situation or way of working?"
- Personal action plans:
Gibbs' suggestions are often cited as Gibbs' reflective cycle or Gibbs' model of reflection (1988), and simplified into the following six distinct stages:Therefore, offering constructive vital questions to assist in structuring reflection of learning experiences (Finlay, 2008).
- Action plan.
Johns’ model is a structured mode of reflection that provides a practitioner with a guide to gain greater understanding. It is designed to be carried out through the act of sharing with a colleague or mentor, which enables the experience to become learnt knowledge at a faster rate than reflection alone. Johns highlights the importance of experienced knowledge and the ability of a practitioner to access, understand and put into practice information that has been acquired through empirical means. In order for this to be achieved reflection occurs though ‘looking in’ on ones thoughts and emotions and ‘looking out’ at the situation experienced. Johns draws on the work of Carper (1978) to expand on the notion of ‘looking out’ at an experience. Five patterns of knowing are incorporated into the guided reflection, having a practitioner analyse the aesthetic, personal, ethical, empirical and the reflexive elements experienced through the situation. Johns’ model is comprehensive and allows for reflection that touches on many important elements.
Critically reflective practitioners constantly research their assumptions by seeing practice through four complementary lenses: the lens of their autobiography of learners of reflective practice, the lens of learners' eyes, the lens of colleagues' perception and the lens of theoretical, philosophical and research literature. Reviewing practice through these lenses makes us more aware of the power dynamics that infuse all practice settings. It also helps us detect hegemonic assumptions - assumptions that we think are in our own best interests, but actually work against us in the long run (BROOKFIELD 1998). To become critically reflective, Brookfield thinks that the four lenses stated above will reflect back to us stark and differently highlighted pictures of who we are and what we do. Lens 1: Our autobiography as a learner is an important source of insight into practice. As we talk to each other about critical events in our practice, we start to realize that individual crises are usually collectively experienced dilemmas. Analysing our autobiographies allows us to draw insight and meanings for practice on a deep visceral emotional level. Lens 2: Our learners' eyes. Seeing ourselves through learners' eyes, we discover that learners are interpreting our actions in the way that we mean them. But often we are surprised by the diversity of meanings people read into our words and actions. A cardinal principle of seeing ourselves through learners' eyes is that of ensuring the anonymity of their critical opinions. You have to make students feel safe. Seeing our practice through learners' eyes helps us teach more responsively. Lens 3: Our colleagues' experiences. Our colleagues serve as critical mirrors reflecting back to us images of our actions. Talking to colleagues about problems and gaining their perspective increases our chance of finding some information that can help our situation. Lens 4: Theoretical literature. Theory can help us "name" our practice by illuminating the general elements of what we think are idiosyncratic experiences.
Rolfe’s reflective model is based around Borton’s 1970 developmental model. A simplistic cycle composed of 3 questions which asks the practitioner, What, So What and Now What. Through this analysis a description of the situation is given which then leads into the scrutiny of the situation and the construction of knowledge that has been learnt through the experience. Subsequent to this, ways in which to personally improve and the consequence of ones response to the experience are reflected on.
Based on Schön's theory and writings of Otl Aicher, Christian Gänshirt proposes the concept of the Design Cycle to describe the reflective and repetitive structure of design processes, assuming that this structure is underlaying all such processes. The Design Cycle is understood as a circular time structure, which may start with the thinking of an idea, then expressing it by the use of visual and/or verbal means of communication (design tools), the sharing and perceiving of the expressed idea, and starting a new cycle with the critical rethinking of the perceived idea. Anderson points out that this concept emphasizes the importance of the means of expression, which at the same time are means of perception of any design ideas. These means or design tools enable and structure the visual and verbal design thinking. Wortmann argues that Gänshirt’s design cycle and Schön’s reflection-in-action are descriptive models that integrate designing as a spontaneous act and designing as an explicit process.
Reflective Practice has been described as an unstructured approach directing understanding and learning, a self regulated process, commonly used in health and teaching professions, though applicable to all professions. Reflective practice is a learning process taught to professionals from a variety of disciplines by practitioners, with the aim of enhancing abilities to communicate and making informed/balanced decisions. The practice has historically been applied most in the educational and medical field. When reflection in action and reflection on action described by Donald Schon are utilized in practice and when practitioners are able to identify these actions they become better at reflective practice. Professional Colleges such as the College of Nurses and College of Dental Hygienists are recognizing the importance of reflective practice and require practitioners to prepare reflective portfolios as a requirement to be licensed, and for yearly quality assurance purposes.
In education, reflective practice refers to the process of the educator studying his or her own teaching methods and determining what works best for the students. It involves the consideration of the ethical consequences of classroom procedures on students.
The appeal of the use of reflective practice for teachers is that as teaching and learning are complex, and there is not one right approach, reflecting on different versions of teaching, and reshaping past and current experiences will lead to improvement in teaching practices. Schön’s reflection-in-action assists teachers in making the professional knowledge that they will gain from their experience in the classroom an explicit part of their decision-making.
According to Paterson and Chapman (2013), reflection and learning from experience is key to staying accountable, and maintaining and developing aptitude throughout your practice. Without reflection you as a practitioner are not able to look objectively at your actions or take into account the emotions, experience, or responses from your actions to improve your practice. Through the process of reflection teachers are then held accountable to their teaching practice to students, parents, administration, and all interested state holders; to the standards of practice for teaching (in Ontario)- commitment to students and student learning, professional knowledge, professional practice, leadership in learning communities, and ongoing professional learning. Reflection is a vital process of learning from experience that allow you to evolve as a practitioner; through learning from past experiences, it allows you to develop a more through schema for practice. Through reflective practice, you as a teacher are committing yourself to students and student learning; you are looking back on your practice and reflecting on how you have supported students through treating them “…equitably and with respect and are sensitive to factors that influence individual student learning” (2013, Ontario College of Teachers). By this, you are asking yourself, have I to the best of my abilities supported student learning, and provided all of my students with an entry point into learning. Through reflective practice you are reflecting on your professional knowledge and professional practice; you are looking at how you teach and the information and forms of learning you are bring to your students, and taking a critical look at whether or not you are current and if your ways of teaching are having an impact on student learning that they will be able to translate into future endeavors. If this is not the case you are then addressing the standard of ongoing professional learning. Here you are looking at and trying to recognize where you need to enhance your own learning so that it had a bigger benefit to student learning. In addition, teachers are the leaders in their learning communities; it is from their cues and attitudes that their learners develop from. Through reflection, and sharing this with your learner, you are showing strong leadership because it shows that you are willing to learn from your mistakes and improve your practice for all of those affected by it (2013, Ontario College of Teachers).
As Larrivee argues, Reflective Practice moves teachers from their knowledge base of distinct skills to a stage in their careers where they are able to modify their skills to suit specific contexts and situations, and eventually to invent new strategies. In implementing a process of Reflective Practice teachers will be able to move themselves, and their schools, beyond existing theories in practice. Larrivee concludes that teachers should “resist establishing a classroom culture of control and become a reflective practitioner, continuously engaging in a critical reflection, consequently remaining fluid in the dynamic environment of the classroom”.
Reflective Practice is associated with learning from experience, and is viewed as an important strategy for health professionals who embrace lifelong learning. Due to the ever changing context of healthcare and the continual growth of medical knowledge, there is a high level of demand on healthcare professionals' expertise. Due to this complex and continually changing environment, healthcare professionals could benefit from a program of reflective practice.
Price (2004 ) recognizes that there are several reasons why a healthcare practitioner would engage in reflective practice: To further understand yourself, motives, perceptions, attitudes, values and feelings associated with client care; To provide a fresh outlook to practice situations and challenge existing thoughts, feelings as well as actions; To explore how the practice situation may be approached differently.
In the field of nursing there is concern that actions may run the risk of habitualisation, thus dehumanising patients and their needs. In utilising Reflective Practice, nurses are able to plan their actions and consciously monitor the action to ensure it is beneficial to their patient.
The act of reflection is seen as a way of promoting the development of autonomous, qualified and self-directed professionals. Engaging in Reflective Practice is associated with the improvement of the quality of care, stimulating personal and professional growth and closing the gap between theory and practice. Activities to promote reflection are now being incorporated into undergraduate, postgrduate and continuing medical education across a variety of health professions Mann (2009) found through her research that in practising professionals the process of reflection appears to be multifactorial and to include different aspects. In addition to reflection both on and during experiences that the anticipation of a challenging situation also stimulated reflection. Practicing professionals vary in their tendency and ability to reflect.
Davies (2012) identifies that there are both benefits as well as limitations to reflective practice:
Benefits to Reflective Practice
- Increased learning from an experience for situation
- Promotion of deep learning
- Identification of personal and professional strengths and areas for improvement
- Identification of educational needs
- Acquisition of new knowledge and skills
- Further understanding of own beliefs, attitudes and values
- Encouragement of self-motivation and self-directed learning
- Could act as a source of feedback
- Possible improvements of personal and clinical confidence
Limitations of Reflective Practice
- Not all practitioners may understand the reflective process
- May feel uncomfortable challenging and evaluating own practice
- Could be time consuming
- May have confusion as to which situations/experiences to reflect upon
- May not be adequate to resolve clinical problems 
Environmental management and sustainability
There is some criticism that traditional environmental management which simply focuses on the problem at hand, fails to integrate the wider context in which the environment sits into the decision making. While research and science must inform the process of environmental management, it is up to the practitioner to integrate those results within this wider context. In order to deal with this and to reaffirm the utility of environmental management Bryant and Wilson propose that a “more reflective approach is required that seeks to rethink the basic premises of environmental management as a process”. This style of approach has been found to be successful in sustainable development projects where participants appreciated and enjoyed the educational aspect of utilising reflective practice throughout, however the authors noted the challenges with melding the “circularity” of reflective practice theory with the “doing” of sustainability.
Reflective Practice provides a tremendous development opportunity for those in leadership positions. Managing a team of people requires a delicate balance between people skills and technical expertise, and success in this type of role does not come easily. Reflective Practice provides leaders with an opportunity to critically review what has been successful in the past and where improvement can be made. To support reflective learning organizations have invested in coaching programs for their emerging and established leaders. Coaching is defined by the International Coaching Federation as partnering with clients in a thought provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Leaders frequently engage in self-limiting behaviours because of their over reliance on their preferred ways of reacting and responding. To help support the establishment of new behaviours, coaching is extremely useful as it encourages reflection, critical thinking and transformative learning. Adults have acquired a body of experience throughout their life or frames of reference that define their world. Coaching programs support the process of questioning and potentially rebuilding these pre-determined frames of reference. The goal is for a leader to maximize their professional potential and in order to do this, there must be a process of critical reflection on current assumptions.
Reflective Practice can help an individual to develop personally, and is useful for professions other than those discussed above. It allows professionals to continually update their skills and knowledge and consider ways to interact with their colleagues.
Suggested ways for professionals to practice reflective management include:
- Keeping a journal;
- Seeking feedback;
- View experiences objectively; and
- Taking time at the end of each day, meeting, experience etc. to reflect-on-actions.
- Anecdotal Notes
- Group discussion
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- 11.965 Reflective Practice: An Approach for Expanding Your Learning Frontiers, MIT OpenCourseWare, January 2007
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