Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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Succeeding in postgraduate study

3 Parallels between critical reflective practice and the scientific method

If you are already familiar with the scientific method, you will probably have picked up on the similarities between critical reflective practice (discussed in Session 7) and the process of scientific enquiry. Dr Luke Mathieson (2016), a computer scientist and mathematician from the School of Engineering and Computer Science, University of Newcastle, Australia, draws specific attention to some important parallels in his article ‘Synergies in critical and reflective practice and science: science as reflection and reflection as science’, reinforcing concepts that were introduced earlier in this session.

Activity 2 Reflecting on synergies in critical reflective practice and science

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes

The following activity is based on the article entitled ‘Synergies in Critical and Reflective Practice and Science: Science as Reflection and Reflection as Science [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’ written by Luke Mathieson from Newcastle University, Australia. Read the Abstract and the sections on ‘Action Research’ (pp. 4–5), ‘Models of Science’ (pp. 5–6), ‘The Scientific Method’ (pp. 7–8), and the ‘Conclusion’ (pp. 9–10), then consider the extract below and answer the questions that follow.

In the Abstract of this article, Mathieson states that:

While science and critical reflective practice attempt to build models about different parts of our world – the natural world and the world of professional practice respectively – both embody certain underlying aims and methodologies. Indeed, it is striking that in these definitions the simple replacement of the terminology of reflective practice with the terminology of science (or vice versa) leads to a perfectly comprehensible definition of either.

  • What does Mathieson mean by this?
  • In what ways does he draw parallels between science and critical and reflective practice?
  • Do you agree with his argument? Is it logical or does it come as a surprise?
  • What would you consider to be the key differences, if any, between critical reflective practice and the scientific method?
  • Why do you suppose it is important to highlight the close relationship between science and critical reflective practice?


In the Abstract of the article, Mathieson refers to science and reflective practice as ‘empirical practices’, and considers action research (pp. 4–5 and figures 3 and 4) and the scientific method (pp. 7–8 and figures 5, 6 and 7) as exemplars of ‘models in practice’ that underpin critical reflective practice and the scientific method, respectively.

He goes on to say that ‘it can be noted that research itself is a form of professional practice’ and that although ‘action research attempts to draw a contrast to experimental research in that experimental research controls (or attempts to control) all variables in a situation, leading to an isolated environment’, participatory action research ‘explicitly employs a cyclical approach in which action and research are planned, enacted, observed, evaluated and critically reflected on in iterative cycles’ (p. 4).

Mathieson further elaborates that ‘science could be conceived of as a reflection on nature, in contrast to the human-practice focus of critical reflective practice’ (p. 6). He also explains that ‘one of the key elements of science is that its conclusions are built on observation; that is, its claims should be empirically falsifiable… able to be challenged and perhaps disproved… Although not formulated in this manner, critical reflective practice employs the same idea: models are formulated … and tested in practice to discern their applicability; they are compared against observation and either empirically falsified or partially validated’ (p. 6). He also highlights the ‘four basic steps’ or components of the scientific method: (i) observation (of a phenomenon), (ii) hypothesis (attempting an explanation), (iii) prediction (based on the hypothesis), and (iv) experimental testing (of the hypothesis) (p. 7).

Mathieson certainly makes a strong case, drawing attention to the cyclical nature of the respective models that underpin action research and the experimental process. He argues the notion that representations (or ‘models’) of the scientific method, while varying in their degree of complexity and detail ‘all have at their heart this repeating cycle of observation, hypothesis, prediction and testing’ (p. 8), and that reflection is an integral part of the observation of results. He compares this with the cyclical process of ‘experience, reflection, formation of abstract models, and testing’ which are used to describe critical reflective practice, and further notes that ‘the scientific method emphasises critical reflective thought’ (p. 8 and figure 7).

Given that critical reflective practice and the scientific method share basic methodological philosophies, the apparent synergy should not come as a surprise – both are practically oriented, and concerned with acquiring knowledge, and using it to advance understanding and capabilities. It could also be argued that both rely on an examination of knowledge that is dependent on experience (which Mathieson refers to as ‘a posteriori’ knowledge (p. 9)), and will therefore need to be tested empirically. Mathieson stresses this point, stating that ‘an examination of a posteriori knowledge leads naturally to empiricism’ (p. 9).

Concerning key differences, Mathieson’s argument that ‘experimental research controls (or attempts to control) all variables in a situation, leading to an isolated environment’ might hold true, but the exclusivity implied by his stance that ‘the scientific method focuses on natural phenomena and systems’, whereas ‘critical reflective practice takes as its subject systems and processes enacted by humans in a societal context’ (p. 8) is certainly open to further questioning and debate. His point that the scientific method is the ‘key methodological philosophy that guides scientific practice’, through which evidence that is obtained must be empirical and measurable (or ‘quantifiable’) is less ambiguous, albeit this has been framed in a rather tortuous way (footnote, p. 7).

An independent observer looking in would perhaps view these two fields of thought (the scientific method and critical reflective practice) as being far removed from each other, with little similarity between them. From Mathieson’s perspective, highlighting the close relationship is particularly important for overcoming academic partitions (or barriers), preventing ‘silos’, helping to draw ideas from wider sources, extending discourse to new participants, and linking disciplines together. In Mathieson’s own words: ‘Academic disciplines tend to wall themselves off from each other. In the best case this leads to unnecessary repetition of important research. In the worst, one discipline might actively shun ideas from another, to both their detriment… there is no reason why this should remain the case’ (p. 10).

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