Thoughts on the reflective practitioner

In the article “Focus: Becoming a reflective practitioner”, the Higher Education Academy interrogates the concepts of reflection and reflective practice identifying them as  “two of the key buzzwords in professional and education practice at present”.
They provide their definition of reflection, in the process breaking down what they see as the “key stages in reflective practice” as well as  “the main reflective practice skills”.
The practitioner or educator is encouraged to practice “reflection on current practices”, in other words reflection with a view to bringing about change following scrutiny of evidence base. This process is characterised in terms of David Schon’s characterization of ‘reflection on action’. They also note that “another aspect to reflective practice is ‘reflection in action’”.

In this post I’d like to take some time to critique the HEA’s characterization of reflective learning as ‘the process of internally examining and exploring an issue of concern, triggered by an experience, which creates and clarifies meaning in terms of self, and which results in a changed conceptual perspective.’  It would seem that this definition is incomplete. Surely we need to consider reflection on successful outcomes. It is perhaps obvious that we reflect on matters of concern, as this is one way we can learn from our mistakes, but I do not think this is enough. Furthermore, the idea that experience “clarifies meaning in terms of self” does not fully take into account the interaction possibilities of reflection and in some case the absolute need for interaction with others in order for reflection to occur.

The HEA also notes “ stages or levels of reflection have been identified”, citing Mezirow’s  identification of seven steps of reflectivity. The authors appear to Atkins’ critique of these multiple levels on the basis the “the differences between authors’ accounts of the reflective processes are largely those of terminology, detail and the extent to which the processes are arranged in hierarchy.”  Atkins identifies three stages of reflective practice:

  • Awareness
  • Critical analysis
  • New perspectives

Atkins again takes the negative experiences as a trigger for a reflective moment suggesting “ there may be an unexpected negative outcome of a usually reliable treatment option or perhaps a strong emotional reaction on the part of a learner”. One of my main problems with this definition of reflection is that it just assumes that reflection is ‘reactive’ This conceptualisation of awareness suggests that reflection relies on a negative trigger. In my view however, reflection on positive outcomes and success presents a greater analytical challenge. Often it is difficult to identify why we are successful in particular practices or achieve specific outcomes with ease. If we are to replicate that success however, reflection after the fact is particularly needed. Such analytical reflection on success is also a crucial teaching tool.

The ‘critical’ aspect of reflection, which is underpinned by a detailed analysis of both reflection in action and reflection after action is for me the pivotal driver of reflection. The need to critique a situation both while it’s happening and after with the benefit of hindsight is integral for keeping the reflective action valid and live. This critical analysis goes a long way toward validating reflection. While I agree with the authors that this second stage “involves a critical analysis of the situation that leads to an examination of feelings and knowledge” my sense is that critical analysis needs to be a bit more objective. Certainly feelings and emotions provide the starting point for many critiques, but the further one is able to move from the initial emotive stimulus, the clearer and the more transferable that critique will turn out to be. The authors note that “this process may also involve ‘thinking on action’ where the analysis may involve the generation of new knowledge requiring the process of critical thinking. This process entails ‘association, integration, validation and appropriateness. It is at this point that we may start to look for the evidence base or ‘public propositional knowledge’”. Again, at this stage in the reflective process I would expect that if we are to call it ‘critical analysis’ then the generation of knowledge is not optional but rather a requirement that measures the success and efficacy of that reflection.

New perspectives – The authors of this article note that “the third stage involves ‘the development of a new perspective on the situation.’”. To my mind this involves the distillation of the critical analysis process and the ability to transfer that knowledge to other practices. Here the authors persuasively argue that during this stage we move “from a position of a detached observer, to one of becoming involved’”. Paradoxically this reinforces my argument that the second stage of the process is one that is eventually an objective process.

The HEA defines “reflective practice skills” which, they say, the individual needs  in order “to acquire the skills of reflective practice”. These are:

  • Self awareness – the skill which allows us to honestly examine our feelings in a specific situation; only once we are able to articulate and analyse what has happened can we proceed to “effective” reflection.
  • Description – the ability to recollect and articulate specific events as a cogent narrative
  • Critical Analysis – the ability to separate, distill and analyse aspects of a situation or an event with objectivity. This skill also requires an honest approach and one based on integrity if we are to push the boundaries of our thinking and to challenge the status quo.
  • Synthesis – following the objective analysis, the ability to own the experience just described and to take it forward
  • Evaluation – the ability to make judgements about the worth of something

Synthesis and evaluation may combine to create a conclusion, which may be new; following this process a decision can be made about whether a change in our practice is required.The HEA concludes that “self-awareness, description, critical analysis and evaluation are important skills for reflection. Reflection itself is a complex but vital skill which is central both to the our capacity to learn from experience and to apply that learning to our professional practice.” While of course it’s absolutely crucial that reflection is considered and organised, the steps neatly laid out above do not always occur in that order – sometimes they are not all present but that does not make that the reflection is invaluable. Reflection is a critical skill and like any other skills is improved with time and practice.

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