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Reflecting on ‘Reflective practice’ Essay

“Maybe reflective practices offer us a way of trying to make sense of the uncertainty in our workplaces and the courage to work competently and ethically at the edge of order and chaos…” (Ghaye, 2000, p.7)

Reflective practice has burgeoned over the last few decades throughout various fields of professional practice and education. In some professions it has become one of the defining features of competence, even if on occasion it has been adopted – mistakenly and unreflectively – to rationalise existing practice. The allure of the ‘reflection bandwagon’ lies in the fact that it ‘rings true’ (Loughran, 2000). Within different disciplines and intellectual traditions, however, what is understood by ‘reflective practice’ varies considerably (Fook et al, 2006). Multiple and contradictory understandings of reflective practice can even be found within the same discipline.

Despite this, some consensus has been achieved amid the profusion of definitions. In general, reflective practice is understood as the process of learning through and from experience towards gaining new insights of self and/or practice (Boud et al 1985; Boyd and Fales, 1983; Mezirow, 1981, Jarvis, 1992). This often involves examining assumptions of everyday practice. It also tends to involve the individual practitioner in being self-aware and critically evaluating their own responses to practice situations. The point is to recapture practice experiences and mull them over critically in order to gain new understandings and so improve future practice. This is understood as part of the process of life-long learning.

Beyond these broad areas of agreement, however, contention and difficulty reign. There is debate about the extent to which practitioners should focus on themselves as individuals rather than the larger social context. There are questions about how, when, where and why reflection should take place. For busy professionals short on time, reflective practice is all too easily applied in bland, mechanical, unthinking ways, Would-be practitioners may also find it testing to stand back from painful experiences and seek to be analytical about them. In this tangle of understandings, misunderstandings and difficulties, exactly how to apply and teach reflective practice effectively has become something of a conundrum.

This paper explores current ideas and debates relating to reflective practice. In the first two sections, I review key definitions and models of reflection commonly used in professional practice. Then, in the reflective spirit myself, I critically examine the actual practice of the concept, highlighting ethical, professional, pedagogic and conceptual concerns. I put forward the case that reflective practice is both complex and situated and that it cannot work if applied mechanically or simplistically. On this basis, I conclude with some tentative suggestions for how educators might nurture an effective reflective practice involving critical reflection.

Defining reflective practice

…reflection can mean all things to all people…it is used as a kind of umbrella or canopy term to signify something that is good or desirable…everybody has his or her own (usually undisclosed) interpretation of what reflection means, and this interpretation is used as the basis for trumpeting the virtues of reflection in a way that makes it sound as virtuous as motherhood. Smyth (1992, p.285)

The term ‘reflective practice’ carries multiple meanings that range from the idea of professionals engaging in solitary introspection to that of engaging in critical dialogue with others. Practitioners may embrace it occasionally in formal, explicit ways or use it more fluidly in ongoing, tacit ways. For some, reflective practice simply refers to adopting a thinking approach to practice. Others see it as self-indulgent navel gazing. For others still, it involves carefully structured and crafted approaches towards being reflective about one’s experiences in practice. For example, with reference to teacher education, Larrivee argues that:

“Unless teachers develop the practice of critical reflection, they stay trapped in unexamined judgments, interpretations, assumptions, and expectations. Approaching teaching as a reflective practitioner involves fusing personal beliefs and values into a professional identity” (Larrivee, 2000, p.293). In practice, reflective practice is often seen as the bedrock of professional identity. “Reflecting on performance and acting on refection”, as McKay (2008, Forthcoming) notes, “is a professional imperative.” Indeed, it has been included in official benchmark standards laid down for professional registration and practice (see table 1 in Appendix 1).

One example is in the way it has been included, explicitly and implicitly, in all Project 2000 curricula for Nursing Diplomas, while reflection is highlighted as a pivotal skill to achieve required Standards of Proficiencies in nursing and other health professional education (NMC, 2004; HPC, 2004). It has also become a key strand of approaches to the broader field of continuing professional development, work-based learning and lifelong learning (Eby, 2000; HPC, 2006).

Given its growing emphasis in professional practice and education, it would seem important to explore the concept of reflective practice in some detail. To this end, this section distinguishes between different types of reflective practice and looks at the sister concepts of reflection, critical reflection and reflexivity. Reflection ‘in’ and ‘on’ practice

Dewey (1933) was among the first to identify reflection as a specialised form of thinking. He considered reflection to stem from doubt, hesitation or perplexity related to a directly experienced situation. For him, this prompted purposeful inquiry and problem resolution (Sinclair, 1998). Dewey also argued that reflective thinking moved people away from routine thinking/action (guided by tradition or external authority) towards reflective action (involving careful, critical consideration of taken-for-granted knowledge). This way of conceptualising reflection crucially starts with experience and stresses how we learn from ‘doing’, i.e. practice. Specifically Dewey argued that we ‘think the problem out’ towards formulating hypotheses in trial and error reflective situations and then use these to plan action, testing out our ideas.

Dewey’s ideas provided a basis for the concept of ‘reflective practice’ which gained influence with the arrival of Schon’s (1983) ‘The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action’. In this seminal work, Schon identified ways in which professionals could become aware of their implicit knowledge and learn from their experience. His main concern was to facilitate the development of reflective practitioners rather than describe the process of reflection per se. However, one of his most important and enduring contributions was to identify two types of reflection: reflection-on-action (after-the-event thinking) and reflection-in-action (thinking while doing). In the case of reflection-on-action, professionals are understood consciously to review, describe, analyse and evaluate their past practice with a view to gaining insight to improve future practice.

With reflection-in-action, professionals are seen as examining their experiences and responses as they occur. In both types of reflection, professionals aim to connect with their feelings and attend to relevant theory. They seek to build new understandings to shape their action in the unfolding situation. In Schon’s words: 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 behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. (Schon, 1983, p. 68)

For Schon, reflection-in-action was the core of ‘professional artistry’ – a concept he contrasted with the ‘technical-rationality’ demanded by the (still dominant) positivist paradigm whereby problems are solvable through the rigorous application of science. A contemporary example of this paradigm is the evidence-based practice movement, which favours quantitative studies over qualitative ones, and established protocols over intuitive practice. In Schon’s view, technical-rationality failed to resolve the dilemma of ‘rigour versus relevance’ confronting professionals. Schon’s argument, since taken up by others (e.g. Fish and Coles,1998), was as follows: Professional practice is complex, unpredictable and messy. In order to cope, professionals have to be able to do more than follow set procedures. They draw on both practical experience and theory as they think on their feet and improvise. They act both intuitively and creatively.

Both reflection-in and on -action allows them to revise, modify and refine their expertise. Schon believed that as professionals become more expert in their practice, they developed the skill of being able to monitor and adapt their practice simultaneously, perhaps even intuitively. In contrast, novice practitioners, lacking knowing-in-action (tacit knowledge), tended to cling to rules and procedures, which they are inclined to apply mechanically. Schon argued that novices needed to step back and, from a distance, take time to think through situations. Whether expert or novice, all professionals should reflect on practice – both in general and with regard to specific situations. Schon’s work has been hugely influential – some would say ‘canonical’ – in the way it has been applied to practice and professional training and education. For example, in the health care field, Atkins and Murphy (1993) identify three stages of the reflective process.

The first stage, triggered by the professional becoming aware of uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, is akin to Schon’s ‘experience of surprise’ (what Boyd and Fales, 1983, identify as ‘a sense of inner discomfort’ or ‘unfinished business’). The second stage involves a critical analysis of feelings and knowledge. The final stage of reflection involves the development of a new perspective. Atkins and Murphy argue that both cognitive and affective skills are prerequisites for reflection and that these combine in the processes of self-awareness, critical analysis, synthesis and evaluation (see Appendix 2). In the education field, Grushka, Hinde-McLeod and Reynolds (2005) distinguish between ‘reflection for action’, ‘reflection in action’ and ‘reflection on action’ (see Appendix 3).

They offer a series of technical, practical and critical questions for teachers to engage with. For example, under reflection for action teachers are advised to consider their resources and how long the lesson will take (technical); how to make the resources relevant to different learning styles (practical); and to question why they are teaching this particular topic (critical). Zeichner and Liston (1996) differentiate between five different levels at which reflection can take place during teaching:
1. Rapid reflection – immediate, ongoing and automatic action by the teacher.
2. Repair – in which a thoughtful teacher makes decisions to alter their behaviour in response to students’ cues.
3. Review – when a teacher thinks about, discusses or writes about some element of their teaching.
4. Research – when a teacher engages in more systematic and sustained thinking over time, perhaps by collecting data or reading research.
5. Retheorizing and reformulating – the process by which a teacher critically examines their own practice and theories in the light of academic theories. While Schon’s work has inspired many such models of reflection and categories of reflective practice, it has also drawn criticism. Eraut (2004) faults the work for its lack of precision and clarity.

Boud and Walker (1998) argue that Schon’s analysis ignores critical features of the context of reflection. Usher et al (1997) find Schon’s account and methodology unreflexive, while Smyth (1989) deplores the atheoretical and apolitical quality of his conceptions. Greenwood (1993), meanwhile, targets Schon for downplaying the importance of reflection-before-action. Moon (1999) regards Schon’s pivotal concept of reflection-in-action as unachievable, while Ekebergh (2006) draws on phenomenological philosophy to argue that it is not possible to distance oneself from the lived situation to reflect in the moment. To achieve real self-reflection, she asserts, one needs to step out of the situation and reflect retrospectively (van Manen, 1990). Given this level of criticism, questions have to raised about the wide adoption of Schon’s work and the way it has been applied in professional practice and education (Usher et al, 1997). There have been calls for a more critical, reflexive exploration of the nature of reflective practice.

Reflection, critical reflection and reflexivity

Contemporary writing on reflective practice invites professionals to engage in both personal reflection and broader social critique. For example, work within the Open University’s Health and Social Care faculty has put forward a model whereby reflective practice is seen as a synthesis of reflection, self-awareness and critical thinking (Eby, 2000) (see figure 1). In this model, the philosophical roots of reflective practice are identified in phenomenology (with its focus on lived experience and personal consciousness) and also in critical theory (which fosters the development of a critical consciousness towards emancipation and resisting oppression ).

Roots: phenomenology
– The cognitive ability to think, feel,
sense and know through intuition
– To evaluate the knowledge derived through
self-awareness to develop understanding

Roots: existential
phenomenology and
critical theory
-interpretive and critical theory
– tool for promoting self- and
social awareness
and social action
– improving self-expression,
learning and co-operation
– links theory and practice


Critical thinking
Roots: scepticism and
critical theory
– identifying and challenging
– challenging the importance
of context
– to imagine and explore
alternatives which leads to
reflective scepticism

Figure 1 Skills underpinning the concept of reflective practice. Other authors argue for the concept of critical reflection, which is seen as offering a more thorough-going form of reflection through the use of critical theory (Brookfield, 1995). For adherents of critical reflection, reflection on its own tends to “remain at the level of relatively undisruptive changes in techniques or superficial thinking” (Fook, White and Gardner, 2006, p.9). In contrast, critical reflection involves attending to discourse and social and political analysis; it seeks to enable transformative social action and change. For Fook (2006), critical reflection “enables an understanding of the way (socially dominant) assumptions may be socially restrictive, and thus enables new, more empowering ideas and practices. Critical reflection thus enables social change beginning at individual levels. Once individuals become aware of the hidden power of ideas they have absorbed unwittingly from their social contexts, they are then freed to make choices on their own terms.”

Fook and Askeland argue that the focus of critical reflection should be on connecting individual identity and social context: “Part of the power of critical reflection in opening up new perspectives and choices about practice may only be realized if the connections between individual thinking and identity, and dominant social beliefs are articulated and realized.” (Fook and Askeland, 2006, p.53).

For Reynolds (1998), four characteristics distinguish critical reflection from other versions of reflection : (1) its concern to question assumptions; (2) its social rather than individual focus; (3) the particular attention it pays to the analysis of power relations; and (4) its pursuit of emancipation (Reynolds, 1998). By way of example, Reynolds argues that when managers critically reflect (rather than just reflect) they become aware of the wider environment in which they operate. They begin to grasp the social power exercised by their organisation through its networks and relationships. : In the field of teaching, Brookfield (1995) characterises critical reflection as ‘stance and dance’. The critically reflective teacher’s stance toward teaching is one of inquiry and being open to further investigation. The dance involves experimentation and risk towards modifying practice while moving to fluctuating, and possibly contradictory, rhythms (Larrivee, 2000).

A key concept giving momentum to the idea of reflective practice involving both personal reflection and social critique is reflexivity. Reflexive practitioners engage in critical self-reflection: reflecting critically on the impact of their own background, assumptions, positioning, feelings, behaviour while also attending to the impact of the wider organisational, discursive, ideological and political context. The terms reflection, critical reflection and reflexivity are often confused and wrongly assumed to be interchangeable. Finlay and Gough (2003, p. ix) find it helpful to think of these concepts forming a continuum. At one end stands reflection, defined simply as ‘thinking about’ something after the event. At the other end stands reflexivity: a more immediate and dynamic process which involves continuing self-awareness. Critical reflection lies somewhere in between.

Previously, I’ve proposed five overlapping variants of reflexivity with critical selfreflection at the core: introspection; intersubjective reflection; mutual collaboration; social critique and ironic deconstruction (Finlay, 2002, 2003). These variants can similarly be applied to distinguishing between the types of reflection practitioners could engage in when reflecting on practice. Reflective practice as introspection involves the practitioner in solitary self-dialogue in which they probe personal meanings and emotions. Intersubjective reflection makes the practitioner focus on the relational context, on the emergent, negotiated nature of practice encounters. With mutual collaboration, a participatory, dialogical approach to reflective practice is sought – what Ghaye (2000) calls a ‘reflective conversation’.

Here, for example, a mentor and student, or members of a team, seek to solve problems collaboratively. Reflective practice as social critique focuses attention on the wider discursive, social and political context. For instance, the practitioner may think about coercive institutional practices or seek to manage the power imbalances inherent in education/practice contexts. Finally, reflective practice as ironic deconstruction would cue into postmodern and poststructural imperatives to deconstruct discursive practices and represent something of the ambiguity and multiplicity of meanings in particular organisational and social contexts. At the very least, a critical and possibly satirical gaze could be turned to challenging the ubiquitously unreflexive rhetoric of reflective practice.

In practice, introspection is the dominant mode of reflective practice. Sometimes presented as merely a promising personal attribute (Loughran , 2006), it is a predominantly individualistic and personal exercise (Reynolds and Vince, 2004) in which practitioners tend to focus on their own thoughts, feelings, behaviours and evaluations. This passes as legitimate ‘reflective practice’ which professionals then can use to advance their cause to fit formal requirements for continuing professional development.

While such reflective practice may take place in dialogical contexts such as supervision sessions, the onus stays on the individual practitioner to reflect upon and evaluate their own practice. What is lacking is any mutual, reciprocal, shared process. Institutional structures and quality assurance systems encourage, perhaps even require, this individual focus. It starts early on during professional education and training where learners engage professional socialisation and are taught how to reflect, using structured models of reflection.

One of the consequences of the lack of consensus and clarity about the concept of reflective practice is the proliferation of different versions and models to operationalise reflective practice.

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