Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Reflective Practitioner

In 1984, Kolb developed an experiential learning model to explain how adults learn. His model provides a process linking education, work, and personal development, which proposes that all learners move through four learning stages: firstly experience, secondly reflection, thirdly abstraction, and lastly active testing (Kolb, 1984; Marriott, 2002 as cited by Adler, Whiting, & Wynn-Williams, 2004, p. 215). We human animals learn by doing, then thinking about what we could have done better. If we don't go through all the stages, we don't learn well - we don't have sticky learning that stays with us for the long-term. And guess what stage most of us are not so good at? You guessed it: reflection.

Reflective practice has been defined as reflecting "on the phenomenon before [us], and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in [our] behaviour. [We carry] out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation" (Schön, 1983, p. 68), and then "interrogat[ing our] own method" (Bryant, ‎Johnston & Usher, 1996, p. 145). So we do, we observe ourselves doing it, we think whether this was a good 'doing' and consider what we could do better next time. Consciously. Deliberately.

While formalised by Donald Schön in his 1983 book, The Reflective Practitioner, this concept is not new. In fact, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations from 167 AD have been described as the earliest recorded example of reflective practice.

If done honestly, reflection is a wonderful tool for deconstructing situations, processes and participants, so that we can clearly consider what went well or what could be improved.
Reflection is a very popular tool where learning needs to take place; so is used extensively in education, health, philosophy... all the social sciences. That includes career practice.

I have mentioned in a previous article the three aspects of a client session that I find useful to reflect upon; attending, empathising and responding. Using a simple structure such as this enables me to consider different aspects of how a session went, to see what learning there might be from it, and what improvements I can then make for the future.

I need to attend to myself as well as to my client. I need to be attentive to how I performed. How I felt. Whether I stayed in the moment with the client. Whether my body language was appropriate. How well I built rapport. How open the client was. How comfortable I feel that the client was.

This act of reflection, when combined with mentoring and independent third party verification - through surveys and observations - helps ensure that my take on reality is largely similar to the rest of the world. I ask for feedback from clients and students regularly using various models - and the best feedback is repeat business and referrals.

I get a wee bit formal with reflection. I have a regular reminder in Outlook to do it. I write it up. I keep a log - just a simple Word table - of the good, the bad and the ugly to re-read, examine and discuss. I detail some things around each event; the date, the place, the people involved and the purpose. I talk about how I felt, as well as the 'facts'. I include positive statements and feedback. I add post scripts after the event, and comments long after, on re-reading. It is amazing how much you can learn when you go back and re-read something you wrote ten years ago, and see how much more you can see in a particular situation now that you were blind to then.

Reflection enables us to see links and flaws in our own mental models that we wouldn't see without making the space to think and being deliberate about it. Without it we can't close Kolb's learning loop.


  • Adler, R, Whiting, R, & Wynn-Williams, K (2004). Student-led and teacher-led case presentations: empirical evidence about learning styles in an accounting course. Accounting Education, June 2004, Volume 13, Issue 2 (pp. 213-229)
  • Aurelius, Marcus (167). Meditations. Retrieved 10 January 2014 from
  • Bryant, ‎Ian; Johnston, ‎Rennie & Usher, Robin; (1997). Adult Education and the Postmodern Challenge. UK: Routledge.
  • Kolb, David A (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. USA: Prentice Hall, Inc
  • Schön, Donald (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action, UK: Temple Smith


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