When I talk about reflective practice in my classes, I often start the discussion with the question: What makes “reflection” different from just “thinking about”?
This conversation-starter frequently leads to a robust analysis of what reflection is, and we often come back to the fact that effective reflection depends on the questions you ask. Some questions lead to a deeper analysis of the nuances of our experiences so that the lessons learned from them have real impact. Some questions guide us to look at our underlying assumptions and to think more critically about what happened and why.
To design effective activities meant to promote reflection, or to use reflective practice for ourselves, we need to focus our attention on crafting the best questions for our purpose.
Richard Cotter and John Cullen just published an interesting article that gets to the heart of the matter by proposing a conceptual typology of how reflection is used as a learning technique. (See Reflexive Management Learning : An Integrative Review and a Conceptual Typology in the June 2012 issue of Human Resource Development Review 11(2).)
Specifically focusing on the literature on reflection in the management development context, Cotter and Cullen identified five approaches to reflection (they use the overarching term reflexive management learning).
In one approach, our aim is simply to provide time and space for reflection. This is no small feat, as many designers well know. Our hyperactive world leaves many people either very uncomfortable with stopping to think, or with no time for it.
A second approach is to organize a social forum for reflection – to bring many minds to the task of reflecting on the topic at hand. It can be very important to draw in many perspectives on an issue, and to provide the safe space to listen to alternate points of view and to allow people to challenge each other’s interpretations and assumptions.
A third approach is to deliberately challenge the “values, beliefs, and working assumptions” that are at play. This is a sometimes hard to pull off, but necessary in some instances. The aim is to “jolt” people “out of their existing modes of thinking” so they can explore new ideas. Any of us who have tried to do that know that it’s a tricky proposition to maintain a safe learning environment and still push people a little out of their comfort zones.
Fourth is an approach that Cotter and Cullen characterize as “confessional” which is perhaps not as scary as it sounds (or maybe it is). Learners’ individual perspectives can be deeply personal, and we may need to coax and challenge them into articulating their beliefs. It may take some self-disclosure ourselves in order to make this safe. The perspective of this school of thought is that real change begins by owning our own beliefs and behaviors.
A fifth approach to reflection is from the critical perspective – its aim is to get learners to analyze the moral implications of actions. Like the confessional approach, this can really press on learner’s patience and willingness to engage – especially if they start to recognize a real differential between what they think is right and what they believe the organization expects.
The typology will help me to describe reflective practice in a more complex way – giving me words and concepts to describe the differences in depth and potential outcomes that can be gained from reflective exercises. The article does not provide much in the way of specific techniques for engaging each type of reflection – but that may be found, I think, by exploring the many references in the article.
I’ll likely make this reading required for future class discussions on the topic of reflective practice. It provided real food for thought for me on my brief walk in the summer sunshine and breezes this afternoon – so I thought I would pass it along.