Reflective and reflexive 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. Reflexivity is finding strategies to question our own attitudes, thought
processes, values, assumptions, prejudices and habitual actions, to strive to understand our complex roles in relation to others. To be reflexive is to recognise we are active in shaping our surroundings, and begin critically to take circumstances and relationships into consideration rather than merely reacting to them, and help review and revise ethical ways of being and relating in our world.

The challenge lies in the fact that thinking about these things 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, (reflective and reflexive) 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 their difficulty, striving for reflective and reflexive practice is important tool in work and other settings where people – and agencies and communities – learn from their own professional and practical experiences, rather than relying solely on formal learning or knowledge transfer. Both forms of practice are linked closely with planning, monitoring and evaluation (PM&E), and is also supported through approaches such as action research and adaptive management. The following links look more closely at reflective practice, and how to support its introduction and use in teams, communities and institutions. The final set of links provide guides to the use of After Action Reviews (AARs) and Strategic Learning Debriefs in this context.

Reflection and reflexivity: what and why
This chapter by Gillie Bolton from her book – Reflective Practice: Writing & Professional Development – introduces and describes reflective practice, outlining its political and social responsibility. Reflection and reflexivity are defined and explained. Another useful introductory page – What is reflective practice – 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.

Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning
Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary P. Pisano, and Bradley R. Staats (2016) Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper 14-093
The authors show that the effect of reflection on learning is mediated by greater perceived ability to achieve a goal (i.e., self-efficacy). Together, these results reveal reflection to be a powerful mechanism behind learning, confirming the words of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.” Key concepts include: i) learning from direct experience can be more effective if coupled with reflection-that is, the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience; ii) reflecting on what has been learned makes experience more productive; and iii)  reflection builds one’s confidence in the ability to achieve a goal (i.e., self-efficacy), which in turn translates into higher rates of learning.

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.

Reflective 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.

Reflexive monitoring in action: a guide for monitoring system innovation projects
This 2010 guide by Barbara van Mierlo and colleagues is about monitoring projects that aim to contribute to the sustainable development of a sector or region by working on system innovation. It also offers practical guidelines that will help put that monitoring into practice and aid selection and use of the appropriate tools.

After Action Reviews (AARs) and Strategic Learning Debriefs

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, and should be carried out with an open spirit and no intent to blame.

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.

After 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 , which also provides guidance to a “Retrospect” as a variation.

Listen to others, listen to yourself: Combining feedback review and reflection to improve iterative design
This conference paper by Yu-Chun Grace Yen and colleagues found that reflection activities are essential for the effective improvement of iterative design tasks. They observe that performing reflection after feedback review led to the largest increase in perceived quality for the revised designs, and performing reflection and feedback review regardless of the order resulted in the most extensive revision. Our results also showed that performing the reflection alone yielded outcomes that were similar to when only reviewing feedback, and either activity led to better outcomes than the control condition (no feedback or reflection). They conclude that designers should perform a lightweight, explicit reflection to enhance their iterative process, and discuss implications for feedback platforms.

Reflective 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.