Reflective Practice

The importance of reflecting on what you are doing, as part of the learning process, has been emphasised by many investigators. Reflective Observation is the second stage (in the usual representation) of the Kolb learning cycle.

Donald Schön (1983) suggested that the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning was one of the defining characteristics of professional practice. He argued that the model of professional training which he termed "Technical Rationality"—of charging students up with knowledge in training schools so that they could discharge when they entered the world of practice, perhaps more aptly termed a "battery" model—has never been a particularly good description of how professionals "think in action", and is quite inappropriate to practice in a fast-changing world.

The cultivation of the capacity to reflect in action (while doing something) and on action (after you have done it) has become an important feature of professional training programmes in many disciplines, and its encouragement is seen as a particularly important aspect of the role of the mentor of the beginning professional. Indeed, it can be argued that “real” reflective practice needs another person as mentor or professional supervisor, who can ask appropriate questions to ensure that the reflection goes somewhere, and does not get bogged down in self-justification, self-indulgence or self-pity!

The quality and depth of the reflection, however, is not specified within this formulation: and it is interesting that two different traditions of professional development emphasise seemingly contradictory aspects. Reynolds (1965), and particularly Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) discuss how developing practitioners come gradually to take for granted aspects of their practice which initially preoccupied them, and move on to be concerned about (reflect upon) wider matters. This taking-for-granted on the one hand, and reflection on the other, offers a view of how reflection-on-action deepens in the course of a career.

See the Learning Curve and Expertise

Argyris and Schön (1978) differentiate between "single-loop" and "double-loop" learning, drawing on a distinction made by Ashby (1960) in a seminal work on cybernetics. For our purposes, single-loop learning is a simple version of the Lewin/Kolb cycle, in which performance is evaluated through reflection and then corrected or improved. In double-loop learning, the whole activity is part of a larger cycle, in which the reflection takes place on the fact of engaging in the activity and the assumptions implicit in it. This is the kind of reflection explored in Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985), and relates to Bateson's learning II and even learning III.

For critical discussion of the idea see Tennant (1997) and for a full exposition see Moon (1999). The latter has an interesting discussion in her chapter 5 of the prominence of reflection in the discourse of professionalism in teaching and nursing in particular. She suggests that it is more about reinforcing professional identity than about improving practice, and comments;

"In education, the main interest in reflective practice has come from teacher education more than those engaged in teaching, or who are concerned about learning..." and

"A generalization that seems to apply to teaching, nursing and social work is the fact that there is relatively little concern for the effect of reflective practice on the subject of the professional's action ... Since the improvement in learning [etc.] is deemed central to the purposes of these professions, this seems to be a surprising omission. ... Copeland, Birmingham and Lewin (1993) ask a critical question: 'Do students of highly reflective teachers learn more or better or even differently?'"

(Moon, 1999:57)


More on Schön and Reflective Practice Links and Bibliography on reflective practice with an education emphasis An ERIC digest on reflective practice

Critical Reflection

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Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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