What is Reflective Practice?
Reflective practice is, in its simplest form, thinking about or reflecting on what you do. It is closely linked to the concept of learning from experience, in that you think about what you did, and what happened, and decide from that what you would do differently next time.
Thinking about what has happened is part of being human. However, the difference between casual ‘thinking’ and ‘reflective practice’ is that reflective practice requires a conscious effort to think about events, and develop insights into them. Once you get into the habit of using reflective practice, you will probably find it useful both at work and at home.
Reflective Practice as a Skill
Various academics have touched on reflective practice and experiential learning to a greater or lesser extent over the years, including Chris Argyris (the person who coined the term ‘double-loop learning’ to explain the idea that reflection allows you to step outside the ‘single loop’ of ‘Experience, Reflect, Conceptualise, Apply’ into a second loop to recognise a new paradigm and reframe your ideas in order to change what you do).
They all seem to agree that reflective practice is a skill which can be learned and honed, which is good news for most of us.
Reflective practice is an active, dynamic action-based and ethical set of skills, placed in real time and dealing with real, complex and difficult situations.
Moon, J. (1999), Reflection in Learning and Professional Development: Theory and Practice, Kogan Page, London.
Academics also tend to agree that reflective practice bridges the gap between the ‘high ground’ of theory and the ‘swampy lowlands’ of practice. In other words, it helps us to explore theories and to apply them to our experiences in a more structured way. These can either be formal theories from academic research, or your own personal ideas. It also encourages us to explore our own beliefs and assumptions and to find solutions to problems.
Developing and Using Reflective Practice
What can be done to help develop the critical, constructive and creative thinking that is necessary for reflective practice?
Neil Thompson, in his book People Skills, suggests that there are six steps:
- Read - around the topics you are learning about or want to learn about and develop
- Ask - others about the way they do things and why
- Watch - what is going on around you
- Feel - pay attention to your emotions, what prompts them, and how you deal with negative ones
- Talk - share your views and experiences with others in your organisation
- Think - learn to value time spent thinking about your work
In other words, it’s not just the thinking that’s important. You also have to develop an understanding of the theory and others’ practice too, and explore ideas with others. Reflective practice can be a shared activity: it doesn’t have to be done alone. Indeed, some social psychologists have suggested that learning only occurs when thought is put into language, either written or spoken. This may explain why we are motivated to announce a particular insight out loud, even when by ourselves! However, it also has implications for reflective practice, and means that thoughts not clearly articulated may not endure.
It can be difficult to find opportunities for shared reflective practice in a busy workplace. Of course there are some obvious ones, such as appraisal interviews, or reviews of particular events, but they don’t happen every day. So you need to find other ways of putting insights into words. Although it can feel a bit contrived, it can be helpful, especially at first, to keep a journal of learning experiences. This is not about documenting formal courses, but about taking everyday activities and events, and writing down what happened, then reflecting on them to consider what you have learned from them, and what you could or should have done differently. It’s not just about changing: a learning journal and reflective practice can also highlight when you’ve done something well. Take a look at our page What is Learning? to find out more about the cycle of learning (PACT) and the role that reflection (or ‘Considering’) plays in it.
In your learning journal, it may be helpful to work through a simple process, as below. Once you get more experienced, you will probably find that you want to combine steps, or move them around, but this is likely to be a good starting point.
The Reflective Learning Process
|Identify a situation you encountered in your work or personal life that you believe could have been dealt with more effectively.|
|Describe the experience|
|What happened? When and where did the situation occur? Any other thoughts you have about the situation?|
|How did you behave? What thoughts did you have? How did it make you feel? Were there other factors that influenced the situation? What have you learned from the experience?|
|How did the experience match with your preconceived ideas, i.e. was the outcome expected or unexpected? How does it relate to any formal theories that you know? What behaviours do you think might have changed the outcome?|
|Is there anything you could do or say now to change the outcome? What action(s) can you take to change similar reactions in the future? What behaviours might you try out?|
The Benefits of Reflective Practice
Reflective practice has huge benefits in increasing self-awareness, which is a key component of emotional intelligence, and in developing a better understanding of others. Reflective practice can also help you to develop creative thinking skills, and encourages active engagement in work processes.
In work situations, keeping a learning journal, and regularly using reflective practice, will support more meaningful discussions about career development, and your personal development, including at personal appraisal time. It will also help to provide you with examples to use in competency-based interview situations.
See our pages on Organising Skills and Strategic Thinking to find out more about how taking time to think and plan is essential for effective working and good time management, and for keeping your strategy on track. This is an example of the use of reflective practice, with the focus on what you’re going to do and why.
Reflective practice is one of the easiest things to drop when the pressure is on, yet it’s one of the things that you can least afford to drop, especially under those circumstances. Time spent on reflective practice will ensure that you are focusing on the things that really matter, both to you and to your employer or family.
Reflective practice is a tool for improving your learning both as a student and in relation to your work and life experiences. Although it will take time to adopt the technique of reflective practice, it will ultimately save you time and energy.