The Reflective Practice Guide: An interdisciplinary approach to critical reflection - Barbara Bassot 2015
The role of writing in reflection
’Writing to me is simply thinking through my fingers.’
(Isaac Asimov, personal communication)
Many writers on the subject of reflection suggest writing as one key way of engaging in the reflective process. In this chapter we discuss how writing can help us to reflect at a deeper level and we look at some tools that can enable us to do this more easily and effectively. In particular, the use of a reflective diary or journal will be highlighted. The chapter concludes with suggestions of other ways to engage in reflection at a deeper level.
So why is writing thought to be important in the area of reflection? There is no doubt that writing in itself is a skilful activity. In primary schools the development of the writing skills of most young children lags behind that of their reading skills. When we were young we probably learned to read more quickly than we learned to write. As a whole, writing is a much more difficult skill to master, hence on any programme of study the most difficult tasks are likely to be the written assignments.
So what makes writing difficult? In the early days of my role as a university lecturer I attended a writers’ seminar with a professor whom I respected and admired. Something he said that day seemed very significant to me and stayed in my memory — his words were ’I write about something in order to understand it’. He was clearly very knowledgeable in relation to his field of study and I had always assumed that he wrote a lot (papers, books etc.) because he understood a lot. In fact, the opposite was the case; it was the process of writing that helped him to understand things.
This is an important point in relation to reflective writing — if you want to understand more about yourself and your practice, you need to write about it. It is almost impossible to write something whilst talking about something else, unless you are writing and speaking things that you know ’off by heart’ (e.g. writing your address whilst reciting a nursery rhyme), and even then it is very difficult to do — I have tried, and so have some of my students! The act of putting pen to paper involves thinking about what you are writing, making decisions about what to write, how to write it, processing your thoughts and explaining what you mean so that, if appropriate, someone else can read it and understand what you have written. Put simply, the act of writing helps us to develop our understanding.
Neuroscience shows us that writing as an activity stimulates the reticular activating system (RAS) at the base of the brain. The RAS acts as a filter for everything our brain needs to process, making sure that we give more importance to what we are actively focusing on at that moment. The act of writing, therefore, enables us to sharpen our focus and will often be a much more effective way of learning something than, for example, discussion. As a result, you will be much more likely to remember what you have written down (there is a good lesson here in relation to taking notes in lectures and seminars) than what you have discussed. And, of course, it gives you a record of your learning that you can go back to.
Moon (2006) identifies some of the aims of reflective diary writing as part of the process of professional learning and development. They are as follows.
• To record experience. Often you think you will remember, but you don’t, particularly at times when you are trying to ’take a lot in’.
• To facilitate learning from experience. It helps you to examine your experiences in some depth.
• To support understanding and how this is then represented. It helps you to understand things and to then be able to discuss them or write about them when being assessed.
• To help you develop critical thinking and a questioning attitude. It prevents you from accepting things ’at face value’.
• It increases metacognition, or thinking about thinking.
• It increases active involvement in learning and the ownership of it.
• It increases thinking skills.
• It enhances problem solving skills.
• It can be used as a form of assessment.
• It enhances the process of reflective practice, enabling you to think at a deeper level.
• It enhances personal development and self-empowerment.
• It is therapeutic.
• It enhances creativity.
• It develops the skills of writing.
• It is a form of self-expression.
• It supports planning and achievement in projects.
• It serves as a means of communication when shared, for example, with a fellow student, tutor or mentor.
But is writing something by hand the same as typing it on a computer keyboard? This is less clear. Recent research with students (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014) suggests that it is not, and shows that they understand more when writing by hand than when using a keyboard. Of course each of us has our own particular preferences — some of us like a nice notebook and pen, others like a laptop, tablet or smart phone. Two things are worth noting: first, when we get to the point where we can type more quickly than we can write, writing then slows us down and gives us more thinking time; in our hectic lives this can be very valuable. Second, it is easier to delete words and phrases when using a keyboard than when writing by hand. This might result in us being too selective about what we write; there is always a temptation to write what we think we should write, rather than what we want to write.
Here are four important messages in relation to reflective writing: the first is to ’write’ and not to procrastinate. It is very easy to think we will remember things, particularly significant things, but in reality, when life is so busy, we probably won’t. We might be tempted to think ’a lot has happened today, I’ll write about it later’ and events simply overtake us and we then forget even very significant things that we thought we would always remember. The second is to do what suits you best. It can be a mistake to waste time thinking about how to record things. Those with a strong Reflector style (Honey and Mumford, 2000) can easily slip into thinking so much about the kind of notebook to buy, the very best pen, whether to use a laptop or not and so on that they fail to start writing — I know this to my peril! The third is to be realistic. Reflective writing does not need to be ’perfect’ and, indeed, it should not be so; it needs to be manageable. In my experience, an individual can achieve a lot by devoting as little as 15 minutes a week to this type of writing. The fourth is to be practical and not to be hard on yourself. Suffice it to say that it is possible that I might have written a better book if I had written it all by hand first, but this was not something I felt I could contemplate!
Reflective activity 3.1
Now think about what is stopping you from starting to write reflectively. If you have started this process already, how are you getting on? What are you enjoying and what is difficult? Now write some notes.
Case study 3.1
Gloria has recently started a course in social work and is being encouraged by her tutors to write some reflections on her learning. She has never done this kind of writing before, but feels she would like to try to capture some of the many things she feels she is learning. She usually uses a laptop when taking notes, so tries using this for her reflections. Whilst she finds this useful, she is always tempted to delete what she has typed as she feels it is never good enough. Some of her fellow students are writing by hand instead and many of them seem to enjoy it and to find it therapeutic as a means of processing their learning experiences. Gloria decides to try writing this way, but finds it a much slower process. She decides to use her laptop when she feels she hasn’t much time and wants to be sure not to forget things and to write by hand when she has more time. This seems to work well for Gloria and she is pleased to have found a balance that she can work with.
What is reflective writing?
If you are studying on a professional programme, it is likely that you will be asked to write reflectively, so it is important to understand what this means. It is also helpful to understand what it is not. So what do we mean by the term reflective writing?
Reflective writing is always written in the first person. For those who have been used to studying for a while, this will be unusual. Most academic writing is done in the third person (he/she, it, one etc.), but those who write reflectively use the language of I, me, we and us, which makes it more personal than most other forms of academic writing. Bearing in mind that reflective practice demands a high level of self-awareness and writing plays is a key part in helping us to develop this, it should come as no surprise that writing reflectively demands that we write about ourselves.
Reflective writing is critical in nature. As a term, it is important to understand what the word critical means. The first thing that might spring to your mind when you hear the word critical is negative, but this can take you down a dangerous path where you see only the negative things about yourself and your practice. The word critique is more accurate here as reflective writing asks you to evaluate your work. For example, a restaurant critic will offer a critique of their dining experience, focusing on what was good as well as what could be improved, assuming they enjoyed at least some of their food anyway! This means that reflective writing is not descriptive; it is more than simply writing down what happened.
In my experience, some students can struggle with understanding how to write analytically and might receive feedback with comments such as ’too descriptive’ and ’more analysis needed’. Here, the idea of a SWOT analysis (see Chapter 2) is helpful with its emphasis on strengths and weaknesses. Writing about these will make your work more analytical. However, reflective writing also involves considering your thoughts, engaging with your emotions (see Chapter 6) and challenging your assumptions (see Chapter 7). In relation to diaries and journals, reflective writing is honest and spontaneous. This kind of writing is considered in the final section of this chapter. There is no doubt that reflective writing takes time, but many students who engage with it find that it is time well spent.
Table 3.1 Reflective writing
Table 3.1 summarises what reflective writing is and what it is not.
How to start writing reflectively
Whether you are writing an essay, a speech or a book, one of the most difficult aspects is where to start. If you are being asked to write reflectively you may well feel that you do not know where to begin. In my experience, students often pose questions such as ’So, what am I meant to write?’, ’How do I start?’ and ’What if my writing makes no sense?’ The simplest way is just to start writing, and Stage 1 of Bolton’s (2014: 136) exercise entitled the Six Minute Write offers these very useful pointers.
• This is a timed exercise, so time yourself and write for six minutes without stopping.
• Write whatever comes to mind and let your writing flow freely.
• Keep writing and do not pause to think too much about what you are writing.
• Do not pause to analyse what you have written, otherwise you will be tempted to write what you think you should write rather than what you want to write.
• Keep writing even if it does not make much sense to you.
• Do not worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar or jargon.
• Allow yourself to write anything.
• This is your writing and whatever you write is correct because it is yours.
• Remember, no-one else needs to read what you have written.
• Stop after six minutes and look at how much you have been able to write.
Reflective activity 3.2
Now try Bolton’s Six Minute Write. Remember to time yourself. Then think about this experience of writing and write some notes on how you got on. Was it easier or more difficult than you thought?
Case study 3.2
Peter has just started a course to train to be a counsellor and his tutor is asking every student to reflect on their learning and the development of their interpersonal skills. Peter is unsure where to start as reflective writing is a new thing for him, so he decides to try the Six Minute Write; this is what he wrote when he tried it.
Well, I’ve never written anything like this before! When I wrote at school I was always told to be really careful — make sure your spelling and grammar are correct, don’t use abbreviations, make it sound formal. This is totally different! Feels quite liberating! But, is it any good? Is this the kind of thing the tutor means? I guess I’ll find out at some point. The tutor says ’Just write what’s in your head’ so here goes. Today we did our first role play exercises and how scary was that? I always knew that the course would involve this and I do enjoy talking with people, but trying out listening skills and asking open questions is all really difficult. I felt so nervous and forgot what to do. The people I was working with seemed so much better than me — I know I’ve got so much to learn it’s frightening. Will I ever be able to do this? I really don’t know, but I do know I’m going to try.
As with Peter, the Six Minute Write should help you to get started. Bolton also puts forward four other stages of reflective writing that you can try, and she suggests other forms that it might take. Stage 2 involves thinking of an experience that you have had and writing about it as if you are telling a story. In Stage 3 you can then read the story (and the six minutes of writing) and respond to it. In Stage 4 she suggests sharing what you have written with someone else — this needs to be someone you know well and trust (see Chapter 8). In Stage 5 she suggests you could begin to develop your work by writing from someone else’s perspective, for example from the client’s point of view.
A structure for reflective writing
If you are new to reflective writing you might find it helpful to have a structure for your writing. This can help you to make a start, and you might then discard it later as your experience in this area grows. Knott and Scragg (2013) offer a very useful structure for writing a reflective journal, which can be helpful for people who are unsure about what to write. This structure is based on three stages, each with useful accompanying questions to encourage reflection at a deeper level.
Stage 1 — Reflecting
Here, the suggestion is that you focus on an issue or a concern that you have in relation to your practice and development. Like Bolton (2014), they advise you to write freely and spontaneously in order to capture your thoughts and feelings.
Stage 2 — Analyse
This is the most complex of the stages and involves responding to the following key questions:
• What is happening?
• What assumptions am I making?
• What does all of this show about my underlying beliefs?
• Are there alternative ways of looking at this, if so what are they? (e.g. from the perspective of someone else — a colleague, the client, a manager). This particular aspect is similar to Bolton’s (2014) Stage 5.
Stage 3 — Action
The focus here is on the action you could take following the analysis. Again, the authors suggest considering some key questions:
• What action could I take?
• How can I learn from this experience?
• How might I respond if this situation occurred again?
• What can I learn from this experience regarding my beliefs about myself?
Reflective activity 3.3
Now try using Knott and Scragg’s structure to reflect on something that has happened this week. How helpful was it?
Case study 3.3
Ella is training as a teacher in early years and wants to develop her reflective writing skills. She decides to use Knott and Scragg’s structure for reflective writing, and here is an example of what she wrote after a particularly difficult day.
Stage 1 — had a really tricky day today in the nursery. Some of the children seemed to be really difficult and at times it felt like it was all getting on top of me. In particular one little girl seemed to be snatching toys from the other children. Usually I cope well with this, but today I thought I might lose my temper with her. Usually I love my work, and I had designed such a good activity for them, but they just didn’t seem interested. I couldn’t wait till the end of the day. I just wanted to go home and collapse in a heap. Tomorrow will be another day and hopefully it will be better than today — otherwise I think I might give up.
Stage 2 — so what’s going on? I know I love being with children and love the work — so why did it go so badly today? I thought the activity I had planned was really good. But maybe it was too much and too difficult — I think I was really disappointed because I’d put such a lot of work into it. I did spend most of last night preparing it. Maybe the timing wasn’t good? Maybe they were just tired? Or maybe I didn’t explain it properly. Or was it just boring? I know I was tired too, which doesn’t help.
Stage 3 — I think I need to talk to my mentor about what happened. I feel a failure, but need to remember that the children are very young and can only concentrate for so long. I also need to think about the time of day for doing bigger activities. Maybe it would have been better earlier in the day when the children have more energy and can concentrate for longer. I need to be sure to get a good night’s sleep. Maybe I have more energy earlier in the day too — I will definitely talk to my mentor.
Knott and Scragg also suggest looking back over a number of diary entries to see if there are any key themes emerging over time. This can help you to highlight some specific areas you would like to work on.
Using a structure such as this means that your reflective writing will move from mere description of what happened to analysis and evaluation. You will no doubt begin to gain significant insights into yourself and your practice as you document your personal and professional development.
Using a reflective diary or journal to aid professional growth
Many students on professional courses are encouraged to keep a reflective log, diary or journal to aid their professional development. We have already established the role that writing can play in relation to learning, but why is writing regularly seen to be important? First, we need to distinguish the difference between a log, a diary and a journal.
A log tends to suggest describing things that happen, such as logging events. When hearing the word log, some of you might remember the ’Captain’s log, stardate . . .’ where the voyages of the Starship Enterprise were recorded. The purpose of this, like most other logs, is to record what happened. Imagine being a crew member and trying to remember all the different events and galaxies visited — without the aid of a log this would be impossible!
A diary implies regular writing (daily, weekly) and offers some kind of structure, perhaps with spaces to write at regular intervals. Many of us also use diaries to help us to remember dates and times, to plan ahead and to prioritise our work and lives. Losing a diary can make us panic, whether we leave a paper version on the bus or forget to back up our laptop, hence the growth in automated updating systems online. A diary provides a dated record so we can see what happened and when.
A journal is most often a nice quality notebook filled with blank pages. People who enjoy writing might buy a travel journal for a particular period or holiday. It might have a nice cover with a picture of the globe on the outside, but most of the pages inside will be blank, encouraging people to write freely about their experiences. A journal is viewed as a personal item, so what someone buys to use as a journal is an individual choice and will vary greatly; journal enthusiasts may even buy a notebook and decorate the cover themselves. A journal tends to provide a more detailed record of a period of time and is something that can be read in the future to bring back memories of a specific period of time.
In some respects the terminology used to describe what you write in is irrelevant and the quality of what you write is much more important. People who are new to reflective writing might start with a log and move to the more structured form of a diary later as their confidence grows. Others will enjoy the structure of a diary and move on later to a free flowing journal format. Experienced journal writers may start with a blank notebook, but for those who are new to reflective writing this can be a scary prospect.
Engaging in reflective writing is a process and, as well as using something like Bolton’s exercise to help you to get started, it is also well worth considering how you can keep yourself motivated to continue writing. Bassot’s (2013) journal is written for students on professional courses and, as well as providing space to write, it also contains content on a range of topics related to reflective practice; it could be a valuable tool for some. Simple motivational strategies to try to ensure that you find writing enjoyable are important, such as having a nice pen or background and font to use on your tablet.
Case study 3.4
Leroy is training to be a physiotherapist and is facing a challenging placement working with patients who have suffered from spinal injuries. Leroy used to enjoy reflective writing when he began his studies, but now finds that he doesn’t have the time to give to it that he feels he should. Leroy is anxious about his placement as he knows that he will probably face some very demanding situations with patients who have major injuries. He feels that he needs to slow down and take some time to reflect at regular intervals. Leroy decides to ’kick start’ his reflections by buying a small high quality notebook for his reflections. He chooses one that will fit into his pocket at work, so that he can carry it round with him and note things down in it during his breaks. He also decides to write in his notebook for ten minutes at the end of each shift to capture his thoughts. Leroy soon finds that he enjoys writing again and can see that he is processing his professional learning in a more thorough way than he has in the past.
Is it all about writing?
We have established how writing helps us to develop our understanding in all sorts of different areas, but are there other useful ways of doing this too? There is no doubt that technology can play a part in this, particularly if you are a person who loves your laptop, smart phone or tablet like I do. Many of us have now reached the point where we feel bereft if we forget our mobile phone and use laptops or tablets to organise our work and lives. The beauty of being able to ’back up’ everything calms our fears of losing important data should we no longer have our favourite gadget.
So how can we harness such things to advance our reflective skills? Here are some ideas:
• Send yourself a text message or email describing your day, outlining what was enjoyable and difficult about it and then read it.
• Set an alarm on your smart phone to remind you to reflect on significant events on particular days.
• Use your online calendar to give yourself a regular reminder to spend some time reflecting (e.g. weekly).
• Make an arrangement with your critical friend (see Chapter 8) to send a text message at certain times to encourage you to spend some time reflecting, or simply to find out how you are getting on.
For those of you who love all things artistic there are other ways of reflecting by using your artistic flair to help you to reflect. This could include:
• Model making.
• A range of crafts such as sewing, tapestry, quilting.
For those of us who feel this kind of thing is not for us, don’t forget that techniques such as some simple diagrams or mind maps can also work well to help us to illustrate our thoughts.
Reflective activity 3.4
Think of some other resources you can use to help you to reflect. Now write some notes on how and when you could use these.
Case study 3.5
Jane is working in a further education college with students who are speakers of other languages. She wants to encourage them to think about their learning experiences from the past as she feels this will help them to move forward in their studies, but she knows that for some of them, being able to articulate abstract thoughts in English is very difficult. In a tutorial session Jane decides to ask the students to reflect on their learning by using collage. She brings in a pile of old magazines, flip chart paper, scissors and glue and asks the students to choose pictures that represent their education so far. As they are working, she asks the students to write down a few thoughts on what each picture represents. The students enjoy the activity and Jane is surprised that those students who usually find it very difficult to share their thoughts are able to read what they have written in a relatively easy way. Jane joins in the activity too and is reminded of how she feels about her own learning and development. She chooses the following pictures — a clock to remind her of her desire to make time for reflection, a family group to illustrate the support she has from home and a jigsaw puzzle to remind her of the many and varied aspects of her professional knowledge and skills that she is seeking to develop.
In this chapter we have considered a range of issues in the whole area of reflective writing. It is clear that writing helps us to reflect at a deeper level, and some aids have been introduced that should help you to write more reflectively. A useful structure has been presented to help you to get started, whilst encouraging you to use a reflective diary or journal for your professional growth. The chapter concluded with ideas for using other resources to help you to reflect. In the next chapter we move on to the whole area of learning from experience.
Bassot, B. (2013) The Reflective Journal, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bolton, G. (2014) Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development, 4th edn, London: Sage.
Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (2000) The Learning Styles Helper’s Guide, Maidenhead: Peter Honey Publications.
Knott, C. and Scragg, T. (2013) Reflective Practice in Social Work, 3rd edn., London: Learning Matters.
Moon, J. (2006) Learning Journals: A Handbook for Reflective Practice and Professional Development, 2nd edn., Abingdon: Routledge.
Mueller, P.A. and Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014) ’The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking’, Psychological Science, 25: 1159—68.