3. A brief history of reflection for learning



The origins of thinking and writing about reflection started in the last century when John Dewey (1933) first described the concept and how it could help an individual to develop thinking and learning skills.

Dewey defined the concept of reflection as

"the active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further consideration to which it tends” (Dewey, 1933, p 9).

Experiential learning

A wider recognition of the importance of reflection for learning emerged in the mid-1980s in the work of David Kolb (1984) who suggested that learning can happen as result of reflection on experience- experiential learning. He suggested that reflection enables the experiential learner to move through steps from concrete experience to sense-making through reflection. Learners can explore abstract conceptualisation- the application of theory- which informs further action and new experiences.

At the same time in the early 1980s the concept of reflection was developed further by Donald Schön (1982), a social scientist. He developed the idea of reflecting on experience to gain professional knowledge and develop professional skills in his seminal book The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals think in action.

Beyond a 'technical-rational' approach to learning

Schön suggested that practice across a range of key professions: engineering, architecture, management, psychotherapy and town planning have approaches to problem solving in common. He questions the dominant belief in 'Technical Rationality' or an understanding that professional knowledge can be gained by the application of scientific approaches to problem solving.

Schön argues that this approach is inadequate in reality as professional managers face complex problems with no easy 'scientific' solutions or answers.His conclusion is that practitioners need a new way to approach learning and development and he outlines an approach using reflection on action/experience to increase professional knowledge.

  • The knowledge and skills which professionals need to operate successfully and develop through problem solving can be complex and rarely lead to neat scientific answers.
  • Professional knowledge is often tacit and implicit so difficult to explain and as a result cannot be developed through purely rational scientific approaches.
  • The context in which professionals work needs to be considered as it is significant in terms of professional development.

The 'reflective practitioner' concept

Schön also suggests that the 'reflective practitioner' is likely to build knowledge through reflection either as events happen- a process known as reflection-in-action or afterwards- a process he calls reflection-on-action. Reflection can be seen as an important iterative process where reflecting on experience can lead to change and further action.

Timing of reflection: reflection-in-action or reflection-on-action?

Another important aspect of reflection to consider concerns the timing of the reflection. Schön (1983) introduced the concept of the manager as a ''reflective practitioner'' -someone who uses reflection to learn and to find solutions to complex problems in a professional context. He proposes that reflection has two aspects: reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action.

Reflection-in-action refers to the immediate reactions and thinking that occur as people are involved in a new experience- whilst it is happening. Reflection-in-action allows them to consider the reasons why something is happening, as it happens, and then they may choose to do things differently or react 'on the spot'. This could be equated with 'thinking on your feet' or mindfulness and immediate thinking.

Reflection-on-action occurs when the event is considered again after some time. The individual may think more deeply about what happened, what caused the situation, what choices were open to them, why they chose one pathway rather than another. This approach to reflection after the event usually takes more time and requires critical thinking, analysis and evaluation. It means deconstructing an event rationally so removing potential emotional distractions that can prevent clear thinking.

Single/Double-loop learning

Another aspect of reflection for learning involves the concepts of single loop and double loop learning (Argyris and Schön,1974). Single loop learning involves a cycle which repeats and may change as a result of experience. By contrast, double loop learning involves the same cycle of steps though action and reflection but adds a further stage which is a check of overall assumptions- so questioning the original theory and adjusting some of the stages as a result.

Video: Now watch the video of some lecturers at Macquarie University in Australia talking about reflection and reflective learning. Make some notes as you watch on the different approaches they discuss.


Activity 3.1 Observations of good practice

Blog: Now write a brief description in your blog of a recent event at work where you were pleased with the ways things went and say why it went well. The first step in reflection is describing an incident of interest (100-200 words).

You may like to choose a situation that illustrates good practice in one of the following areas of practice

  • leadership
  • team meetings
  • communications
  • positive performance
  • supportive management
  • one of your choice

Please post your thoughts in the chat room under 3.1 if you like. Then read postings from other students. Notice any language which talks about causes as well as the description of effects/events. You might want to post some feedback or comments to others if you wish.


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Last modified: Tuesday, 1 Sep 2015, 14:18