Reflective Practice

Authors: Sheila Slesser, Pedro Morago, Linda Bruce and Malcolm Macmillan

Text-based version

1. Reflective Practice

The term 'reflective practice' has firmly entered the vocabulary of professional education in a number of different fields including nursing, teacher education and social work. But what is 'reflective practice' and what does it mean to be a 'reflective practitioner'?

David Boud (1987) has defined reflection as

"... a conscious activity in which we engage to explore our experiences and develop new understandings and conceptualisations." (Boud 1987)

Learning from experience is one of the most fundamental forms of learning but it has tended to be less valued within formal education until recently.

In the 1970s the information transmission model of education was predominant: in this model the role of the educator was to provide knowledge, and the role of the learner to absorb it.

Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educationalist, argued against this 'banking' model of education characterised by the educator making 'deposits' in a passive, disempowered learner.

Other educationalists such as David Kolb (1984) argued that greater emphasis ought to be placed on the learner's ability to actively construct knowledge.

Kolb's model of experiential learning – founded upon earlier work by Dewey, Lewin and Piaget – characterised learning as a process whereby each individual reflected on their experiences to construct and reconstruct their understanding and skills.

Kolb's model of experiential learning is represented in a four stage cycle beginning with concrete experience followed by reflection, followed by abstract conceptualisation, followed by active experimentation.

Kolbs model of experiential learning

John Dewey (1933) placed great emphasis on reflective thought and saw it as an important part of a cycle that enabled us to learn from experience.

He believed that reflective thought began when we found ourselves having an experience that raised some difficulties or dilemmas, which he referred to as a "felt difficulty".

From this experience, Dewey (1933) argued, we then set about reflecting on the problem – asking ourselves the question what's going on?

Then we conceptualised the problem: considering and analysing potential solutions – asking what might I do?

We experiment, or act by trying out a possible solution.

Finally, we consider whether that solution was effective and how it might be further adapted in the future.

Within professional education our interest is not so much in learning from a single experience, or learning in the short term; but more in a long term, developmental process that enables learners to develop well grounded professional knowledge and skills.

Deweys developmental spiral

Dewey suggests we consider professional development as a developmental spiral where the learning from one cycle stimulates the beginning of another and so on thereby providing us with a process that allows us to reconstruct our knowledge and skills in light of new experiences.

Learning Activity 1: Jenny’s reflection

Jenny recently started a Social Work course and has written a reflective account of the first seminar group she attended. She’s used the four stages of the experiential learning diagram to explore here experience below.

Kolbs model of experiential learning

Jenny – “I’m a new first year student and had to attend my first seminar group last week. I was a bit anxious about the idea of talking in a small group, and on the day of the seminar I had problems finding the tutor’s room. By the time I got there everyone was sitting chatting to each other. I walked in, sat on a chair on my own, and kept myself to myself. I didn’t open my mouth during the whole seminar. I felt so stupid and embarrassed.”


Jenny - “Afterwards I had the chance to talk to people, and to my tutor, and to think things over. I realised that everyone was new, and were feeling just as anxious as me. Because I was late I thought the tutor would be angry, and since the class had started I couldn’t interrupt. In fact the tutor had been waiting for everyone to turn up before starting and always makes allowances for people getting lost on the first day. It turns out the way I acted gave the wrong impression to some of my class mates who thought I was being distant and unfriendly.”


Jenny - “I am naturally quite a shy person, especially when meeting people for the first time and this isn‘t the first time my shyness has been mistaken for unfriendliness. Funny thing is that I’ve been reading about body language as part of my course, and the impact of first impressions when working with service users or other professionals. I think this is probably an issue not just for my course but for my work as a social worker. The 'use of self' as my tutor call it.”


Jenny- “If this happened again I think I would do things differently. For starters I would take time to check the venue and leave in plenty of time to get there. I also need to try to become aware of the impression I’m creating and try to smile and have some eye contact to let the other people know I’m approachable. I could also use ‘small talk’ just to introduce myself, or ask a question if I’m not clear what’s going on. I know it won’t be as easy as it sounds but I’m going to have a go and see what happens. If I freeze up I can always talk to my tutor afterwards.”

Learning activity 2: your reflection

Have you ever had a similar experience? How did you react? How did you feel? Now, what might you do differently? Use the headings below to write your own reflective account about a recent learning experience from your course, or placement, or practice.

If you have the opportunity, use the results in a portfolio or to discuss with your colleagues, tutor or practice teacher.

CONCRETE EXPERIENCE (the lived experience of an event or situation)

REFLECTIVE OBSERVATION (your thoughts and reflections in the experience)

ABSTRACT CONCEPTUALISATION (generalisations made from the experience to other situations based on theory or other generalisations)

ACTIVE EXPERIMENTATION (applying new approaches to the same situation to improve the outcome)

2. Reflective Writing – A Definition

Learners are often asked to write a great deal during a course of professional education. They may be asked to write to demonstrate knowledge, to express an opinion, or to evaluate a theory. For many learners expressing themselves in the written word is a challenge, and for some it can provoke intense anxiety.

Learners also have to learn that different styles of writing are appropriate in different contexts. The highly structured format required within an agency report, is different from the scholarly writing of an academic assignment.

Reflective writing is different from formal academic writing, or structured agency report writing – although it underpins both. Reflective writing is a form of writing that can be beneficial to learners throughout their professional career.

Developing this style of writing can add depth to the process of reflection and enhance the effectiveness of professional practice and the service offered to clients.

A common tool used to develop skills in reflective writing is the use of a reflective journal. A reflective journal can help learners process their thoughts, feelings and actions. By committing reflections to paper the learner can stand back from them and create another opportunity to reconstruct knowledge, awareness and practice.

Writing reflectively is a skill developed over time and so needs practice and perseverance. For many learners using a structure or framework to guide their reflective wrting can be of considerable assistance. Jenny Moon (1999) has suggested that using a structure can enable learners to "..reflect on the appropriate issues and help them 'move on' in their thinking".

Learning activity 3: reflective writing

Jenny Moon (1999) has developed a seven step framework to help learners structure their reflective writing. Use the seven steps below to complete and print a short piece of reflective writing. If you’re not sure which experience to choose, think about an experience associated with a change, a conflict, or a time when you felt appreciated.

Seven steps

STEP 1: PURPOSE (identify the purpose of the reflective activity)

STEP 2: DESCRIPTION (describe the events, context, personal behaviour and feelings)

STEP 3: LINKS (make links with ideas relating to the event: from experience or reading)

STEP 4: REVISITING (revisit the event and interpret it from a different point of view)

STEP 5: STAND BACK (a little later make notes on the events testing the resulting ideas in other situations or discussing them with other people)

STEP 6: RESULTS (identify has been learned or solved, or an area for further reflection that has been identified)

STEP 7: MORE REFLECTION (identify further possibilities for reflection)

3. The Reflective Practitioner

One of Donald Schon's greatest contributions to professional education was to stress the role of reflection within the learning process (Schon 1983). Examining professional practice, Schon identified two types of reflection: reflection–in–action and reflection–on–action.

Reflection–in–action sometimes described as 'thinking on our feet', is the process that allows professionals to reshape the situation or activity on which they are working while it is unfolding.

Reflection–in–action is generally associated with the experience of surprise: Schon suggests that, by "reflecting–in–action", professionals reflect on unexpected experiences and conduct 'experiments' which serve to generate both a new understanding of the experience and a change in the situation.

Reflection–on–action involves reflecting on an experience, situation or phenomenon after it has occurred.

When professionals "reflect–on–action" they explore what happened in that particular situation, why they acted as they did, whether they could have acted differently, and so on.

'Reflection–on–action' is often associated with reflective writing in which professionals reflect on their experiences and examine alternative ways to improve their practice.