Reflective practice

Reflective practice is the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning. In its simplest form it involves thinking about, or reflecting on, what you do. It is closely linked to the concept of learning from experience. Of course, most of us think about what has happened, it 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. Reflective practice is a process by which you: pause and think about your practice; consciously analyse your decision making; and draw on theory to relate it to what you did (or didn’t do) in practice.

The challenge lies in the fact that learning can be difficult, even at an individual level. Accepting new information that challenges the way we think and the things we do is, even with the best of will, difficult to undertake, to accomplish, and to sustain. Because of this, learning – which mostly upsets beliefs and habits in individuals and organizations – is not often embraced easily and enthusiastically, even though there is a growing, and sometimes powerful, recognition of the need for change.

Regardless of its difficulty, reflective practice can be an important tool in practice-based learning settings where people – and agencies and communities – learn from their own professional experiences, rather than relying solely on formal learning or knowledge transfer. Reflective practice is linked closely with monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and is supported through approaches such as action research and adaptive management. The following links look more closely at reflective practice, and tools and techniques that support its introduction and use in teams, communities and institutions.

www_iconWhat is reflective practice. This short web page from Brightside reminds us that engaging in reflective practice should help to improve the quality of professional practice, and close the gap between theory and practice. It also provides a number of  examples of reflective practice to illustrate various methods. Collectively these highlight links to the Kolb learning cycle and techniques such as After Action Review.

Bridging disciplines, knowledge systems and cultures. This 2014 paper by Will Allen and colleagues outlines an action research approach to support a research-based group with a range of disciplinary and stakeholder expertise to critically reflect on their engagement practice and identify lessons around how to collaborate more effectively. Finally, they discuss the implications of these experiences for other researchers and managers seeking to improve engagement and collaboration in integrated science, management and policy initiatives.

Reflecting on reflective practice. This paper by Linda Finlay explores current ideas and debates relating to reflective practice. The paper begins by reviewing key definitions and models of reflection commonly used in professional practice. The discussion highlights ethical, professional, pedagogic and conceptual challenges to implementing it in practice. Finally some suggestions are made for how educators might nurture an effective reflective practice involving critical reflection.

Reflection and reflective practice in health professions education: a systematic review. This paper by Karen Mann and colleagues uses a literature review to evaluate the existing evidence about reflection and reflective practice and their utility in health professional education. The aim is to understand the key variables influencing this educational process, identify gaps in the evidence, and to explore any implications for educational practice and research.

How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. This chapter by Jack Meziro  elaborates on the concept of reflection in an attempt to develop a theoretical foundation for explaining how transformations occur in adult learning.

www_iconReflective practice. This Wikipedia entry provides an introduction and history to the concept. It introduces many models of reflective practice which have been created to guide reasoning about action. These include Borton, Kolb and Fry, Argyris and Schön, Gibbs and others. The concept’s application is then highlighted in different sectors including education, health, sustainability and environmental management.

Strategic learning in practice: Tools to create the space & structure for learning. This 2012 guide by Jewla Lynn recognizes that organizations do not routinely learn unless they are purposeful about creating both the space and the structure for collective dialogue and exchange. Her brief goes on to explore two tools that organizations can use for this purpose: i) Theories of Change that create the structure for learning and function as living documents that are equally relevant to planning, implementation, and learning; and ii) strategic Learning Debriefs that create the space for learning through reflective practice designed to move from learning to action. See also the 2011 report, Evaluation to support strategic learning: principles and practices , by Julia Coffman and Tanya Beer.

www_iconAfter Action Review (AAR). An After Action Review (AAR) is a simple process used by a team to capture the lessons learned from past successes and failures, with the goal of improving future performance. It is an opportunity for a team to reflect on a project, activity, event or task so that they can do better the next time. It can also be employed in the course of a project to learn while doing. AARs should be carried out with an open spirit and no intent to blame. This one from the CGIAR knowledge sharing toolkit.

www_iconAfter Action Review. Another AAR guide from the Leading Virtually team. This on-line material provides guidelines, facilitation tips and an AAR sample to see what they might look like. Another page on AARs is provided through the BetterEvaluation AAR page www_icon, which also provides guidance to a “Retrospect” as a variation.

www_iconReflective practice. Links to a number of papers focusing on the development of best practices in reflection. From the people who amasses evidence-based tools and peer-reviewed research to advance best practices in global learning, community-university partnership, & sustainable development.

Managing critical reflection in practice requires the use of a range of processes and techniques. This concept is necessarily closely linked with a range of other topics on this site. There are direct links with planning, monitoring and evaluation, participatory action research, Theory of Change (TOC), and the other strands involved in social learning.