What is 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 (opposite) — 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.

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. 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.