Learning from positives and negatives

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

Learning from positives and negatives

Critical incidents

’You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.’

(Johnny Mercer, 1944)


In the previous chapter our focus was on learning from experience, and how we do this has been the topic of much discussion and debate. For example, what kinds of experiences help us to maximise our learning? Many writers suggest that we learn most from things that we find difficult, for example things that ’go wrong’ or do not go according to plan. Such approaches focus on issues connected with problem solving and are often referred to as ’deficit models’. Others advocate that we need to focus on the positives in order to learn from what is working well. In this chapter, two particular models are highlighted: one that focuses on problem solving and the other, advocating a more holistic approach, emphasising the positive. Events that are significant in our learning are often referred to as critical incidents and this is where this chapter begins as we now move on to consider how we can reflect at a deeper level about our practice.

What is a critical incident?

Many professionals in a wide range of settings use the technique of critical incident analysis in their practice in order to reflect at a deeper level about their work. Having considered how we can reflect on our work through learning from experience (see Chapter 4), we now need to delve deeper in order to begin to analyse and critically evaluate our practice, thereby moving from reflection towards critical reflection.

Initially used by Flanagan (1954) whilst diagnosing problems experienced by aircraft pilots, the term critical incident is often used in health settings where a patient’s condition can become critical, sometimes very quickly. However, many professionals find the term useful when thinking about what they can learn from particular situations they face in their day-to-day practice. Such incidents may not always be critical in the literal sense of the word, although for professionals who work in very challenging situations they can be.

When seeking to identify what constitutes a critical incident, the following questions can give us some pointers.

• How do I feel? This will be examined in some depth in the next chapter, but our feelings often give us a good initial indication as to whether an incident is critical or not. We might feel irritated, angry, anxious or disturbed and have the kind of discomfort highlighted by Driscoll (2007) when he asks if we feel troubled in any way in Step 2 of his cycle (see Chapter 4).

• Is this what I expected? Often an incident becomes critical when we are surprised by events and things do not turn out as we expect. This means that we need to examine our assumptions (see Chapter 7) to try and identify why we expected certain things to happen and not others.

• What do I do now? Critical incidents can ’stop us in our tracks’ and make us question how we should proceed. This is particularly the case when we are new to practice and we can find ourselves thinking ’How do I handle this? or ’What on earth do I do now?’ This is because such an incident highlights some kind of gap in our knowledge and experience.

• Other people seem to be able to cope with this, so why am I finding this so challenging? It is important to remember that an incident is only critical from the perspective of the particular individual. Something that you may find difficult, others may find easy and vice versa. This is because each of us has different levels of experience, but also we have all had different experiences in our past that can affect how we see things in the here and now. Such things can be discussed in the safety of supervision (see Chapter 8), assuming, of course, that this is available.

Several tools for critical incident analysis have been developed for use in different settings and they have the following areas in common regarding how an incident can be analysed effectively.

1 An account of the incident (often written) to start the process of analysis.

2 My initial responses and the responses of those around me.

3 The issues and dilemmas that this incident highlights.

4 The learning that I take from the incident.

5 Outcomes from the incident.

Reflective activity 5.1

Now think of a recent incident that you would describe as critical. Use the five headings above to help you to examine it.

Case study 5.1

Luke is training to be an occupational therapist and is enjoying his placement at a rehabilitation centre for people who have suffered severe strokes. He gets on very well with a particular patient who jokingly discloses that he has been trying to walk on his own and, as a result, has had a few falls in his room. Luke knows that the patient should not be doing this as he could injure himself. He feels anxious and uncomfortable when he discusses this with the patient, particularly when the patient then asks him not to tell anyone else. Luke promises that he will not say anything if the patient agrees not to try and walk again without help. Luke takes some time to write about this following his shift, and still feels very uncomfortable with the situation. He realises that he doesn’t know enough about the situation and that he could be preventing better care. He feels that he does need to tell a manager and that he should not have promised to say nothing. He decides to go back to the patient concerned and explains to him that he needs to inform a manager. Luke explains to the patient that he has his health and recovery in mind and wants him to be able to go home as soon as possible, as he knows this is what the patient wants too. The patient accepts that Luke needs to disclose the details of the conversation and decides that he would prefer to disclose this himself with Luke’s support, as this will also help him to communicate his frustrations regarding his progress.

The problematic experience

Writing from the perspective of education, Osterman and Kottkamp (2004) argue that we learn most from experiences that are problematic; hence, this is where our focus should be. They see reflective practice as a way of ’overcoming organizational habit and facilitating significant change’ (Osterman and Kottkamp, 2004: 23).

As professional practitioners we can face a wide range of challenges in our practice, such as:

• Needing to meet targets possibly at the expense of meeting the needs of the people we are supporting.

• Pleasing our managers at the expense of our colleagues or clients.

• Keeping within budgets whilst also coping with high levels of demand for our time and work.

• Wanting to be seen as professionally competent whilst maintaining our integrity.

• Day to day situations that we find difficult to deal with.

Osterman and Kottkamp put forward an experiential learning cycle with many similarities to the work of Kolb (1984) (they based their work on his cycle), but also some key differences. The first step on the cycle is Problem Identification (as distinct from Concrete Experience); this emerges from practice when, for example, a particular outcome is not what was desired or expected. Just like a critical incident, this reveals a gap in our knowledge and practice. Such experiences present themselves as problems that demand our attention and make us want to work towards a possible solution by engaging in a learning process.

In these situations it can be tempting to skip to solutions (rather like the person in Figure 4.2, or the person who ’tracks’ across the top of Jarvis’, 2003 cycle, Figure 4.7) instead of taking the time to analyse what happened. Hence the second step on the cycle, Observation and Analysis, is seen to be the most important step and the most complex. Here, Osterman and Kottkamp delve into the realm of assumptions using Argyris’ (1982) Ladder of Inference (see Chapter 7). This asks us to analyse carefully what took place and to question our perspectives. They helpfully use the metaphor of lenses to show how the same thing can be seen in different ways depending on the lens we chose to look through, like for example when we use a camera. It is also important to remember that lenses can, of course, be clouded or distorted. This step on the cycle involves observing and analysing the situation and ourselves, thereby taking ’a dual stance being, on the one hand, the actor in a drama and, on the other hand, the critic who sits in the audience watching and analysing the whole performance’ (Osterman and Kottkamp, 2004: 23).

Observation and Analysis is followed by Abstract Reconceptualization (as distinct from Abstract Conceptualization in Kolb’s cycle) as we re-think our ways of thinking and acting. Here, new ideas and possible practices emerge through a deeper understanding of the situation and the event. As a result we reconceptualise; that is, we begin to think about the event differently, giving us new thoughts and ideas which can be transferred into different strategies for action that we can try out in the final step on the cycle, Active Experimentation.

Case study 5.2

Errol is training to be a Maths teacher in a secondary school and is finding some aspects of the work challenging. In particular, having always enjoyed Maths himself, he finds it difficult when some students do not seem to be interested in his lessons. The behaviour of the students can then become difficult to manage and before long Errol starts to dread particular lessons, particularly those on a Friday afternoon. Errol discusses this with his mentor who helps him to identify the problem. They then spend some time analysing the problem from a number of different angles. As a result, Errol begins to understand that his expectations of some of the students are too high and that many of the concepts he is trying to put across are abstract. He decides to use more concrete examples in his explanations and sets tasks that are much more practical and applied in his next lesson. In addition, he asks the students to discuss their work in pairs and to mark one another’s work. Errol enjoys facilitating the lesson and, towards the end, tasks are discussed in a plenary session where he can assess what each student has learned. As he goes through the tasks with them, he asks the students to write on their own work so that he can be sure that they understand if they went wrong and how they could improve.

Critiques of Osterman and Kottkamp’s work are similar to those of Kolb as, again, the cycle shows four steps, one following the other in a particular sequence. Of course, as we know, things do not always happen in such a neat and tidy fashion. In addition, the model is based on the assumption that a problem can be identified, but in practice that will not always be the case as sometimes we might struggle to see beyond the event itself, depending on our perspective and our previous experiences. It is important to emphasise that the model also seems to demand that we see ourselves as part of the problem. When analysing problems we need to be careful not only to see other things connected with the situation and other people as the problem, as this could mean that our observations and analysis are flawed. Like other reflective models, this model demands that we engage in critiquing ourselves as well as others and the situation itself.

Osterman and Kottkamp’s model could be described as a deficit model. Such models can give the impression that we can only learn from problems or from things that go wrong. Without careful consideration, we can forget to look at aspects of our professional practice where things are going well.

Reflective activity 5.2

Now think about a problematic experience you have had recently and analyse it using Osterman and Kottkamp’s cycle.

Learning from positive experiences

Written from the perspective of positive psychology and appreciative enquiry, Ghaye’s (2011) work takes a different stance and argues that we need to focus on positive experiences as a source for learning and development. Only paying attention to problems or negative experiences can trap us in negative cycles of thinking, thereby making us too pessimistic about our work and trapped in what he calls ’deficit based actions’ (Ghaye, 2011: 9). An emphasis on the positive can do much to motivate us and encourages us to capitalise on what is working well.

Ghaye (2011: 2) describes his reflective approach as ’strengths based’ and, in contrast to Osterman and Kottkamp, he states clearly that ’It is not always necessary to first analyse the problematic aspects of the situation/experience’. He puts forward the following six key ideas in relation to reflection.

1 It is linked to practice and can help us to develop new ideas for high quality work.

2 It is linked with our feelings (see Chapter 6).

3 It is often structured and organized.

4 It often focuses on looking back on past experiences, but should also consider what is happening in the present.

5 It plays an important part in helping us to see what we are good at, what we can achieve and how we can improve.

6 It can be triggered by many different things, particularly questions we can pose in relation to our practice (see below).

Ghaye discusses four different kinds of reflection. The first two, reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action, are familiar (see Chapter 1). The other two types of reflection may not be familiar yet and they are as follows.

• Reflection-for-action — he describes this as fundamental. He argues that such reflection is undertaken for a particular reason, such as because we want to understand something better, or to develop something or improve it. It is done as part of a process of planning how to address a particular issue.

• Reflection-with-action. The focus here is on thinking that leads to action. This looks forward to things you might do as an individual or with other people in a team.

Ghaye argues that as well as looking back on situations and experiences (reflection-on-action), we also need to examine the present (reflection-in-action) and look to the future (reflection-for action and reflection-with-action).

Ghaye’s strengths-based model offers an approach that encourages us to build on the positives by asking the following questions.

• What is successful right now? (Appreciate)

• What do we need to change to make things better? (Imagine)

• How can we achieve this? (Design)

• Who needs to take action and what will the consequences be? (Act).

In contrast to other cycles, the points above are presented at various places on the capital letter R as shown in Figure 5.1.


Figure 5.1 Ghaye’s R model

Ghaye (2011), p. 18

Case study 5.3

Catherine is training to be a counsellor and is finding certain aspects of this challenging, in particular the role-playing activities. She is always quick to see where she feels she has gone wrong, and in discussion finds it very difficult to say what she is doing well. She discusses this with her supervisor who suggests that she uses Ghaye’s model to help her to identify what she does well. Catherine writes the following reflections in her journal.

• What is successful right now? I am finding the role plays easier now. Today I asked lots of open questions and felt much more relaxed. I know I can communicate well and that people enjoy talking to me. It’s easier when you know people and the students in my group are all very supportive.

• What do we need to change to make things better? Practice, practice, practice. I know this is how I will get better.

• How can we achieve this? I need to find more opportunities to practice using my skills because I’m sure this will help my confidence.

• Who needs to take action and what will the consequences be? Tomorrow I’ll go to the volunteering fair and find out if I can do some voluntary work as I think meeting new people will help. I might be able to get some relevant experience too. I’ve also got to know two people well on my course and one of them has suggested we could get together to practice our skills. This is a good idea and I’ll ask if we can arrange this.

Ghaye’s work provides a useful antidote to many models of reflection that emphasise that we should focus on problems. It seems fair to say that if we only focus on problems or things that go wrong, we can forget the things we do well. This can trap us in negative ways of thinking about our practice, which can be very de-motivating in the longer term. We all need to remember times when we recognise things we have done well as this builds our career happiness (Bassot, Barnes and Chant, 2014) and is important for how we feel about ourselves and our work. The R model itself is clear and easy to remember because it stands out as being different from other cyclical models that are presented as being circular or oval in shape.

However, it is important to remember that focusing too much on the positive can make us too accepting of our practice and can lead us to overestimate how effective our practice actually is — in effect another distortion of the metaphorical mirror (see Chapter 2). This can make us unaware of the things we could have done better. In spite of the focus on positives, Ghaye still speaks of improving practice and making it better, when perhaps to use the term even better would be more appropriate.

Reflective activity 5.3

Now think about a positive experience you have had recently and analyse it using Ghaye’s cycle.

Reflective activity 5.4

Now look back at your notes on Activity 5.2 and compare what you wrote. Which model have you found the most useful and why?


In this chapter we have discussed two contrasting models of reflection — one focusing on problems and the other on positive experiences. It seems clear that there is a place for both in the daily challenges of professional practice. Focusing only on problems can ’weigh us down’ and make us think that our practice is never good enough. Focusing only on positives can deceive us into thinking that what we did was good in the circumstances when it could be significantly improved. A careful balance seems appropriate, and selecting a model for reflection for particular circumstances is just one part of the professional judgement of practitioners. In the next chapter we move on to consider the whole area of engaging with our feelings.


Argyris, C. (1982) Reasoning, Learning and Action: Individual and Organizational, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bassot, B., Barnes, A. and Chant, A. (2014) A Practical Guide to Career Learning and Development: Innovation in Careers Education 11—19, Abingdon: Routledge.

Driscoll, J. (ed.) (2007) Practising Clinical Supervision: A Reflective Approach for Healthcare Professionals, Edinburgh: Ballière Tindall, Elsevier.

Flanagan, J.C. (1954) ’The critical incident technique’, Psychology Bulletin, 51: 327—58.

Ghaye, T. (2011) Teaching and Learning through Reflective Practice: A Practical Guide for Positive Action, Abingdon: Routledge.

Jarvis, P. (2003) ’Adult learning processes’, in P. Jarvis and C. Griffin (eds) Adult and Continuing Education, London: Routledge, pp. 180—98.

Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Mercer, J. (1944) Accentuate the Positive. Available from http://www.lyricsmania.com/accentuate_the_positive_lyrics_johnny_mercer.html. Accessed 7 May 2015.

Osterman, K.F. and Kottkamp, R.B. (2004) Reflective Practice for Educators, 2nd edn., Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.