Reflective practice and its challenges are my constant. Why is this? Supervision of doctoral students at Buckingham relies on the development of academic reflective practice and necessitates all of us to be research active and meaningfully reflective. To cut a clear path through the intellectual thinking around this process is very time intense and as a subject is multi-faceted.
Much reading, extensive study, writing articles and presenting at conferences in the UK and beyond have still left me believing that I am not broadcasting the joy of grappling with the rich information that we have around us, to understand how and why we do things the way we do. From seminal texts to current publications, reflective practice is not as straightforward as it might seem. The more I read and scrutinise the process, the more it becomes obvious that it is a challenge. There are many models to illustrate the ‘how’ and yet all too often the reflection becomes mechanical, shallow and from a habituated stance.
One reason I will suggest for this, is that we can usually solve problems using an implicit, unconscious understanding of our practice and this generally works. Events are recalled selectively and we are often reluctant to express thoughts that confront the underlying issues, unless we are challenged to do so. Searching for a quick fix, to look at instructions, to tick the box and complete the task is often the ‘go to’ stance to show compliance. Therefore deeper reflection is not explored even though we know that learning must be done to oneself and for oneself to be effective.
Considering that we mostly operate and think in a learning community or collegiate team, we are often working with people who are comparable and share similar material information. This may be because it engenders feelings of positivity and validation of each other’s beliefs, assumptions and perspectives and of course, we use common reflective language that is based in our culture and experiences. Thinking differently can be seen as a distraction and yet diverse cognitive actions can provide a collective intelligence that offers differences in experiences, insights, viewpoints, creativity and problem solving.
I observe and note an inherent symbiotic relationship between communication and reflection. Learning can be hidden unless made explicit and for reflection to be meaningful, it needs to be articulated. So how can we reflect on practice or learning experiences if we are unable to communicate issues effectively? Writing down incidents or stories is proven to be valuable and can move us to an explanation of a situation for ourselves. Taking opportunities to share narratives can often bring to light misconceptions in learning which can then be reviewed. Reflecting on a particular incident that arises from noticing how a colleague did something we take for granted can be a trigger for joint reflection but engaging in analysis is not always easy. Questions of each other are needed such as: “Why was something memorable?”, “What made it so?”, “What was learnt?”, “How might we have dealt with it differently?”, “Do you think ‘X’ had any impact on ‘Y’?” These can provoke talk about underlying assumptions and introduce alternative perspectives. However there is a lot of evidence to suggest that there is little point in reflecting upon practice if nothing happens as a result. The chances of effecting improvements are therefore increased by sharing the outcomes and taking shared responsibilities for the actions.
Our tacit knowledge, our intuitive rather than reflective self, mainly conceal our beliefs and we need to engage in a more systematic self-critical analysis of our current practices. Within the reflective process lies a possibility for change if we acknowledge and verbalise our tacit knowledge. Self-awareness of knowledge is not generally self-evident nor is the fact that it is of value to other professionals. We need to have good levels of narrative thinking and language with which to explain what we know, otherwise it remains unexposed and unaltered because reflection cannot take place.
Dynamic teachers and educators do demonstrate communication that supports learners in expressing cause and effect and they do link events through narrative discourse structures, to understand and express ideas coherently. It is clear that reflective practice is only effective and understood when immersed in performing it, together with follow-up discussion. Simply reading about it or being guided by instructions alone is not enough. Looking at a situation from as many angles as possible, including people relationships, situations, place, timing, chronology, causality and connections, to make situations and people more comprehensible, involves reviewing and reliving the experiences to bring it all into focus.
We need to directly involve ourselves in constructive and critical reflection by challenging ideas. Realising how and why understanding is gained from the ways things are done and acknowledging practice to produce new learning rather than confirming existing positions is vital. Wittgenstein aptly states, that “we need to be teaching a skill that is critical and destabilising, seeking to fracture the artificial unities we construct with our minds, so that we can see differences”, (Heaton, 2009:89).
As practitioner researchers, we empower our doctoral students to analyse their experiences and discover and report new knowledge. Their educational assumptions are rigorously questioned. Issues and problems become questions to investigate and new ways of considering pedagogy become opportunities for learning. I constantly remind everyone that reflective practice is crucial in all of this. We are encouraged.
Hooray for the practitioner Doctorate at Buckingham!
Heaton. J., (2009) Introducing Wittgenstein: A Graphic Guide. London: Icon Books.