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Selbstbetrachtung by Afred Kubin, about 1901
A lady seated by herself
This penultimate scene of the Admonitions Scroll shows a palace lady sitting in quiet contemplation, presumably following the admonitions in the accompanying lines:[1] "Therefore I say: Be cautious and circumspect in all you do, and from this good fortune will arise. Calmly and respectfully think about your actions, and honor and fame will await you."

Human self-reflection is the capacity of humans to exercise introspection and the willingness to learn more about their fundamental nature, purpose and essence. The earliest historical records demonstrate the great interest which humanity has had in itself.

Human self-reflection is related to the philosophy of consciousness, the topic of awareness, consciousness in general and the philosophy of mind.[citation needed]

Self Reflection in Education[edit]

Reflection is part of learning and thinking. We reflect in order to learn something, or we learn as a result of reflecting, (Moon, 2004) As part of education therefore, reflection as a process allows the student to establish connections between new and existing knowledge and experiences, to understand their own position within that relationship and to deepen the level at which they work with them at the academic, personal and professional levels. How one views reflection may be guided by the specific purpose through which it is approached, as can be seen within the work of the key reflective theorists.

Dewey – Reflection as rationality[edit]

When considering reflection we cannot escape the figure of Dewey. John Dewey, saw reflection as a further dimension of thought, and as such in need of education; “while we cannot learn or be taught to think, we do have to learn to think well, especially acquire the general habit of reflection” (Dewey, 1933). For Dewey, reflection is a rational and purposeful act, an “active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and further conclusions to which it leads… it includes a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief upon a firm basis of evidence and rationality” (Dewey, 1933, pg. 118). In this we get a feel of process, but is absent of emotion.

Schön – Reflection and the professional[edit]

Schön’s great contribution has been to bring the notion into the center of any understanding of what professionals do through the ideas of reflection in and on action. The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behavior. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. (Schön 1983: 68)

Schön, however, concentrated on the use of rational reflection within the understanding and development of professional practice. Schön argued that the application of theory within practice is driven by reflection, the use of such a process ultimately leading to a state of expertise. His goal was therefore to make the tacit knowledge which epitomises expertise explicit so that it could be considered and improved, and that reflection-on-action, the retrospective analysis of experience, would drive that process. Interestingly, Schön also proposed a form of reflection-in-action, in which reflection is seen as part of active thought.

Boud & Walker – Reflection as holistic act[edit]

The great strength of the work of Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985) is that they address emotions. For them reflection is an activity in which people ‘recapture their experience, think about it, mull it over and evaluate it’ (ibid: 19), therefore, using helpful feelings and removing or containing obstructive ones.

Interestingly, while Dewey only mentions emotions implicitly and Schön avoids them through his focus on professional expertise, Boud & Walker (1998) specifically question the appropriateness of a reflective process in which personal emotional subjectivity is avoided, highlighting the need to explore a wider range of experiential dimensions. Boud and Walker seek to avoid the dehumanization of the reflective process by offering “the challenge of incorporating ideas about reflection, which in some cases are only partially understood, into teaching contexts which are not conducive to the questioning of experience – that is, situations which do not allow learners to explore ‘a state of perplexity, hesitation, doubt (Dewey 1933), ‘inner discomforts’ (Brookfield, 1987), ‘distorting dilemmas’ (Mezirow, 1990), uncertainties, discrepancies and dissatisfactions which precipitate, and are central to, any notion of reflection” (Boud & Walker, 1998, p. 192).

Kolb’s Learning Cycle, 1984[edit]

David A. Kolb created what has probably become the most famous learning cycle to incorporate reflection as a key process. It incorporates four key elements – concrete experience, observation and reflection, the ability to form new abstract concepts and the ability to test those in new situations – the learning cycle beginning at any one of these points. In essence, where a person carries out an action they can then both observe and reflect upon its underlying processes and possible consequences. Subsequently, the action becomes open to conceptualization as a type of action with generalizable outcomes, a concept that can then be further tested through new experiences in order to both validate them and develop them further.

Gibbs’ Model of Reflection, 1988[edit]

The use of this model represents a fundamental shift from the ideas of Kolb in that Gibbs’ model specifically refers to the key processes within reflection itself, rather than as reflection as a process within general learning. The cyclical model, or more accurately a functional framework for reflective study, assumes repetitive experiential contexts and is split into 6 key areas: Event Description, Feelings & Thoughts, Evaluation, Analysis, Conclusion, and Action Plan.

Johns’ Model for Structured Reflection, 2000[edit]

Johns’ model of guided reflection is a practitioner-based framework of questions designed to highlight the ways in which we seek out and validate experiential knowledge. The framework is centered on five key cue questions, each of which seeks to promote further questioning through detailed reflection, and thus enable experiential learning; Description of the experience, Reflection, Influencing Factors, Evaluation, and Learning. As a practitioner based model, Johns saw the model as part of a shared reflective system that would ultimately promote a community of knowledge through an emphasis on situated learning. Methods of using Johns’ model would therefore require structured formats, such as diaries, and supervisor support and feedback.


Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (1985), Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning, London: Kogan.

Boud, D., & Walker, D. (1998), Promoting Reflection in Professional Courses: the challenge of Context. Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 23(2).

Brookfield, S. D. (1987), Developing Critical Thinkers: challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think, New York: D. C. Heath

Gibbs G. (1988) Learning by doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Oxford Further Education Unit, Oxford.

Johns, C. (2000). Becoming a Reflective Practitioner. Blackwell Science, Oxford

Kolb, D. A. (1984), Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall

Mezirow, J. (1990), Fostering Critical Education in Adulthood: a guide to transformatory and emancipatory learning, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass

Moon, J. (2004) Reflection and Employability, LTSN.

Schön, D. A. (1983), The Reflective Practitioner, London, Temple Smith.

History of Self Reflection[edit]

Prehistoric times[edit]

Prehistoric notions about the status of humanity may be guessed by the etymology of ancient words for man. Latin homo (PIE *dʰǵʰm̥mō) means "of the earth, earthling," probably in opposition to "celestial" beings. Greek ἂνθρωπος (mycenaean *anthropos) means "low-eyed," again probably contrasting with a divine perspective.[citation needed]

Ancient Orient[edit]

From the 3rd millennium Old Kingdom of Egypt, belief in the eternal afterlife of the human Ka is documented. From the earliest times, man made out a claim of dominance of humanity alongside radical pessimism because of the frailty and brevity of human life (In the Hebrew Bible, for example, dominion of man is promised in Genesis 1:28, but the author of Ecclesiastes bewails the vanity of all human effort).[citation needed]

Classical antiquity[edit]

Protagoras made the famous claim that "Man is the measure of all things; of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not". Socrates advocated for all humans to "know thyself," and gave the (doubtlessly tongue-in-cheek) definition of humans as "featherless bipeds" (Plato, Politicus). More serious is Aristotle's description of man as the "communal animal" (ζῶον πολιτικόν), i.e., emphasizing society-building as a central trait of human nature, and "thought bearer animal" (ζῶον λόγον ἔχον, animal rationale)[citation needed], a term that also inspired the species' taxonomy, Homo sapiens.[citation needed]

Middle Ages[edit]

The dominant world-view of medieval Europe, as directed by the Catholic Church, was that human existence is essentially good and created in "original grace," but because of concupiscence, is marred by sin, and that its aim should be to focus on the beatific vision after death. The 13th century pope Innocent III wrote about the essential misery of earthly existence in his "On the misery of the human condition" – a view that was disputed by, for example, Gianozzo Manetti in his treatise "On human dignity."[citation needed]


See Renaissance humanism.

A famous quote of Shakespeare's Hamlet (II, ii, 115-117), expressing the contrast of human physical beauty, intellectual faculty, and ephemeral nature:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

René Descartes famously and succinctly proposed: Cogito ergo sum[2] (French: "Je pense donc je suis"; English: "I think, therefore I am")[3]

Modern era[edit]

The Enlightenment was driven by a renewed conviction, that, in the words of Immanuel Kant, "Man is distinguished above all animals by his self-consciousness, by which he is a 'rational animal'." In the 19th century, Karl Marx defined man as "labouring animal" (animal laborans) in conscious opposition to this tradition. In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud dealt a serious blow to positivism by postulating that human behaviour is to a large part controlled by the unconscious mind.[citation needed]

Comparison to other species[edit]

Various attempts have been made to identify a single behavioural characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other animals. Many anthropologists think that readily observable characteristics (tool-making and language) are based on less easily observable mental processes that might be unique among humans: the ability to think symbolically, in the abstract or logically, although several species have demonstrated some abilities in these areas. Nor is it clear at what point exactly in human evolution these traits became prevalent. They may not be restricted to the species Homo sapiens, as the extinct species of the Homo genus (e.g. Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus) are believed to also have been adept tool makers and may also have had linguistic skills.[citation needed]

In learning environments reflection is an important part of the loop to go through in order to maximise the utility of having experiences. Rather than moving on to the next 'task' we can review the process and outcome of the task and - with the benefit of a little distance (lapsed time) we can reconsider what the value of experience might be for us and for the context of which it was a part.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McCausland, Shane (2003), First Masterpiece of Chinese Painting: The Admonitions Scroll, British Museum Press, p. 78, ISBN 978-0-7141-2417-9 
  2. ^ Descartes, René; Principia Philosophiae (1644), Part 1, article 7:"Ac proinde hæc cognitio, ego cogito, ergo sum, est omnium prima & certissima, quæ cuilibet ordine philosophanti occurrat."
  3. ^ translated, René Descartes ;; notes, with explanatory; Miller, by Valentine Rodger; Miller, Reese P. (1983). Principles of philosophy (Repr., with corrections. ed.). Dordrecht: Reidel. ISBN 90-277-1451-7.