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Reflective practice is "the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning", which, according to the originator of the term, is "one of the defining characteristics of professional practice".
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. 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.
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.
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 where a practitioner analyses experiences in order to learn from them. Reflective Practice is used to promote independent professionals who are continuously engaged in the reflection of situations they encounter in their professional worlds. There are several models of reflection 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 polices 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.
Schön himself introduced some years later the concept of Reflection-in-action and Reflection-on-action. 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 though a documented reflection of the situation.
Kolb was highly influenced by the research conducted by Dewey and Piaget in the 1970s. Kolb’s reflective model highlights the concept of experimental 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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Other Health professionals
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.
For healthcare professionals Reflective Practice would result in a physician noticing when there is, for example, an unexpected response to treatment, critically reviewing their initial understanding on the problem and generating alternate solutions. This has the added benefit of assisting the health care professional by providing a new learning situation that will develop their skills and knowledge base.
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.
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.
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