Reflection - a useful tool or a paper-pushing exercise?
Anyone who has trained to teach in the last decade or so will have found themselves buried under the weight of reflective logs, journals, diaries - whatever you call them, you possibly still have dozens of them floating around your hard-drive. ‘Reflection’ is also a word we hear regularly in training and professional literature, usually accompanied by eye-rolling and an overriding fear that we just don’t have time for it.
All this being said, does reflection in any form have a place in our professional practice? David Kolb, renowned educational theorist, goes so far as to argue that ‘reflective observation’ (both of ourselves and those around us) is not only desirable but in fact crucial to effective teaching. You can see Kolb’s four-stage reflective process reproduced here, courtesy of Leeds Beckett University:
Kolb’s process could perhaps be summarised thus: the experience cannot change without the reflection, as the reflection precedes either a reinforcement of behaviour or an alteration. To put it another way: we can’t move forward without looking at where we’ve been.
Makes sense, right? However, the initial issue remains that many (if not most) of us are put off the term ‘reflection’ due to it being enforced in the early years of our training and then, in some establishments, continually enforced in what can feel like an unnatural fashion. So how do we reclaim the very human and necessary process of action, reflection, conceptualising and planning?
I would suggest that, as professionals, we separate ‘reflection’ from its purpose for trainees. After all, those reflective logs, journals and diaries had a purpose in those years that goes beyond the actual reflections they contained: to teach the importance of regular reflection through a scaffolded structure; to ensure compliance with expectations within the professional standards; to provide evidence. Those forms of reflections therefore served a very specific and finite role within the training years and were never intended to be taken forward in the same format.
Whatwas always supposed to be taken forward was the attitude of reflection - the process by which we begin to naturally and even subconsciously assess our reactions, lessons and days, make a judgement, and decide whether or not these are moments to emulate or avoid in the future. Some of us reflect on the journey home, at the gym or whilst cooking a meal. Some of us write diaries, send text messages or make phone calls. Each person has multiple ways in which they reflect which look nothing like the formula required in training. The danger is not that we stop reflecting, but rather that we find the word so frustrating that we stop acting upon it!
It’s time to reclaim the word ‘reflection’. We need to let go of any latent frustrations we may have about the expectations of our training years - those expectations were necessary, formulaic and finite. Now, we need to ensure that the process of reflection flourishes within our schools and allows for creativity and progress.