The Reflective Practice Guide: An interdisciplinary approach to critical reflection - Barbara Bassot 2015


The important role of reflective practice is well recognised in a wide range of professional areas, including education, health, management and social care. If you are a student on a professional undergraduate or postgraduate programme, you will no doubt be asked to undertake a module (or more) on reflective practice, where you will be expected to engage in the process of reflecting on your developing knowledge and skills. As research has developed in this area, many people have come to realise that reflecting on experience alone is not enough. To take a genuinely reflective approach you need to be able to think about your emerging practice at a deeper level, questioning your approach, engaging with your feelings, questioning your assumptions and gaining greater self awareness. This is commonly referred to as critically reflective practice.

There are many books written on the subject of reflective practice. Typically, books are written within a particular academic discipline, e.g. education (in particular teaching), health (in particular nursing), and social work. Your tutors will undoubtedly recommend books written by those in their own discipline, and you should certainly follow their recommendations. However, there is much to be learned when the boundaries of academic disciplines are crossed. A recent ESRC project, ’Critical Reflection in the Professions’ examined how research can enable reflective practice to be taken further forward. One of the main aims of the project was to bring together academics from a number of different disciplines to discuss how critical reflection can be researched and taught more effectively, in particular across disciplines.

The aims of this book are twofold. First, it is the first book of its kind to take a specifically interdisciplinary approach, drawing on literature from a wide range of academic areas, including those mentioned above. Throughout the book, you will be introduced to a wide range of theories and models that can help you to engage in critical reflection on your studies and professional development. This will enable you to read outside your own particular academic discipline. For example, student teachers will be able to read extremely helpful approaches from nursing and vice versa; this will be new material for many. In addition, many professional practitioners now work in multi-professional contexts and an understanding of reflective practice from fields outside your own will also be very helpful.

Second, this is a practical book that will help you to engage in critical reflection. In each chapter there are a number of examples and case studies drawn from a range of professional contexts to illustrate how the models can be applied in a variety of settings as well as your own. In addition, there are reflective activities in each chapter to help you to apply the theories and models to your own professional development.

Throughout the book the term ’client’ is used to refer to the people who you engage within your role as a professional practitioner. If this is not an appropriate term for your particular context, please feel free to use an alternative, such as patient or student.

The book has twelve chapters and takes you on a journey from reflective practice to critically reflective practice. Reflective practice encourages us to review our learning experiences in order to seek improvement — to make our work even better. Critically reflective practice asks us to engage with our emotional responses and to be prepared to challenge some of the assumptions we might be making about people and situations. Here, it is important to recognise that issues of power in professional relationships and within organisations are often at work.

Chapter 1 begins with definitions of what reflective practice is and examines the reasons why professionals need to reflect critically on their work and practice. It considers the three key areas of professional knowledge, skills and attitudes, followed by a discussion of the learning journey from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. Brookfield’s (1995) four theoretical foundations of reflective practice are examined, as are the importance and dangers of tacit knowledge and reflection-in-action (Schön, 1983). The chapter then explores critical reflection as a choice and the need for busy professionals to make time to reflect in order to reap the benefits of investing time in it.

The focus of Chapter 2 is on self-awareness: a key aspect of beginning to practice reflectively. Becoming more self aware is an ongoing process; and the helpful concept of the metaphorical mirror through which practice can be critically evaluated is introduced. The chapter then moves on to explore the vital question ’How do I learn best?’ and draws on Honey and Mumford’s (2000) work on learning styles. The strengths and allowable weaknesses of the styles are explored, in particular how to maximise strengths and minimise allowable weaknesses. The chapter concludes with an exploration of the use of SWOT/B (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats/Barriers) and SWAIN (Strengths, Weaknesses, Aspirations, Interests and Needs) analyses as tools for personal and professional development. This is followed by a discussion of theories of motivation and Transactional Analysis drivers.

Chapter 3 focuses on the role of writing in reflection; this often enables us to reflecting at a deeper level. However, writing reflectively presents many challenges and we often need help to know how to start. Some tools for reflective writing are presented, in particular the benefits of using a reflective diary or journal are explored.

The focus of Chapter 4 is on learning from experience and considers some seminal work; Kolb’s (1984) learning cycle and Schön’s (1983) reflection-on-action. It poses the question ’Is this enough?’ and whether or not we always learn from experience. Two models that are easy to apply (the ERA model - Experience, Review, Action and Driscoll) are also explored. The concept of transformative learning is introduced and the chapter concludes with why we do not always learn from experience.

Chapter 5 asks us to consider which kinds of experiences we learn the most from — positive ones or negative ones — and presents two contrasting models of reflection. Many people advocate that we learn from critical incidents, sometimes called problematic experiences (Osterman and Kottkamp, 2004), whilst others argue that we need to focus on positive experiences (Ghaye, 2011).

By Chapter 6 we are at the half way point on our journey and begin to explore critical reflection in more depth. Here, we explore the area of engaging with emotions and feelings in professional practice and question whether or not professionals can be truly objective. The chapter highlights why personal feelings need to be processed and the perils of failing to do so. ’The Almond Effect’ is introduced and the work of Gibbs (1998) and Boud, Keogh and Walker (1995) are highlighted.

Chapter 7 is all about bringing our assumptions to the surface so we can understand them and the ways in which they influence our professional practice. It considers what assumptions are, how they come about and how they can be questioned. The work of Brookfield (1995), Argyris’ Ladder of Inference (1992) and Argyris and Schön’s (1974) concept of double loop learning are considered as tools to help us to challenge our assumptions.

Most of the book before this point is about reflection as an individual activity. In Chapter 8 the focus is broadened to discuss the vital role of feedback in the learning process and learning from others in the context of professional development. Characteristics of good and poor feedback are explained and the role of critical friendship is highlighted. A model for effective supervision and the Johari Window as a feedback tool are explored.

Chapter 9 continues this theme with its emphasis on reflecting in groups, and includes useful strategies and exercises for the group context. It also considers how groups can be facilitated effectively.

Chapter 10 deals with a broad range of issues related to the management of change and the challenge of constant and often rapid change in professional practice. It highlights strategies for coping with change, whilst exploring some theoretical approaches from business and management (in particular the work of Lewin) that can help us understand change better and analyse our responses to it.

The focus of Chapter 11 is on critically reflective practice as a way of being. This involves being open to change, dealing with issues of vulnerability and taking a questioning approach to practice. The work of Johns is central to this chapter and a consideration of professional practice as artistry. The chapter also considers the possible benefits of ’mindfulness’ strategies in helping professional practitioners to manage stress.

The book concludes with Chapter 12, which seeks to bring together many of the aspects of the book in an integrated model for reflection. It also considers Senge’s concept of personal mastery and the importance of having a clear vision for our practice in order to generate the creative tension we need to keep moving forward. This emphasises the need to continue to learn throughout our professional lives.

I hope that this book will enable you to develop your knowledge and understanding of critically reflective practice and that it will help you in your personal and professional development as you seek to support others in your practice.

Barbara Bassot