By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. (Confucius, quoted in Hinett, 2002, p. v)
There are in our existence spots of time /… whence … our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired; /… Such moments
Are scattered everywhere. (Wordsworth,  2004, p. 208)
How can we develop the practitioner from the practice? (GB)
How can we know the dancer from the dance? (Yeats, 1962, p. 128)
Reflective practice is a state of mind, an ongoing attitude to life and work, the pearl grit in the oyster of practice and education; danger lies in it being a separate curriculum element with a set of exercises. Brookfield calls it ‘a reflexive habit … second nature’ (2009). It enables us to make illuminative sense of where we are in our own practice, and our relation to our profession and our institution: we don’t travel far with it. Yet it makes the difference between 20 years of experience and merely one year of experience repeated 20 times (Beaty, 1997, p. 8).
Reflective practice can enable (future) professionals to learn from experience about: themselves; their studies, their work; the way they relate to home and work, significant others and wider society and culture; the way social and cultural structures (e.g. institutions) are formed and control us. Indeed, having the ability to reflect is a key element of employability in today’s professions (Wharton, 2017). Professionals face complex and unpredictable situations; they need complex and diverse reflective and reflexive processes. Engaging in these critically will be reflected in the quality of their work or studies (see Whelan and Gent, 2013). It brings greater unity and wholeness of experience to the practitioner and greater empathy between them and their client. Job satisfaction will increase, and work-related stress decrease (Alarcon and Lyons, 2011).
Perhaps the most accessible form of freedom, the most subjectively enjoyed, and the most useful to human society consists of being good at your job and therefore taking pleasure in doing it – I really believe that to live happily you have to have something to do, but it shouldn’t be too easy, or else something to wish for, but not just any old wish; something there’s a hope of achieving. (Levi, 1988, p. 139)
If it wasn’t for reflective practice, [stuff] would undoubtedly go around and around in my mind.
It is much more helpful to get it out of my head and onto the paper and look back.
I feel I can genuinely ask my clients, ‘unpick unpick unpick, cry, open up’… because I have done it, I know what I am asking you to do is really difficult, but I also know that it is a really helpful.
You relate the clinical work to the theory in reflective practice, and that gives you that 360° knowing, ‘now I understand what the book is talking about’.
(Reflective practitioners quoted in Collins, 2013, pp. 54, 83, 84, 88)
Reflective practice can give strategies to bring things out into the open, and frame appropriate and searching questions never asked before. It can provide relatively safe and confidential ways to explore and express experiences otherwise difficult or impossible to communicate. It can challenge assumptions, ideological illusions, damaging social and cultural biases, inequalities; and it questions personal behaviours that perhaps silence the voices of others or otherwise marginalise them. This book consistently enables enquiry into:
- what we know and wish or need to explore further
- what we know but do not know we know
- what we do not know and want to know
- what we think, feel, believe, value, understand about our role and boundaries
- how our actions match up with what we believe
- how to value and take into account personal feelings.
Practitioners explore and experiment with difficult areas of experience, such as:
- how to perceive from others’ perspective
- how to value others’ perspective, however different they are from us
- what we can change in our context; how to work with what we cannot change
- how others perceive us, and their feelings and thoughts about events, and our actions
- why we become stressed, and its impact on life and practice
- how to counteract seemingly given social, cultural and political structures.
We know a great deal more than we are aware, absorbing information unwittingly. We have challenging material shoved into boxes mentally labelled do not open. We have not celebrated and learned from positive experiences (Ghaye, 2011).
Donald Schön’s Swampy Lowlands
Schön (1987) described professional practice as being in a flat place where we can’t see very far. Everyone would love to work on a high place from which all the near valleys and far hills are in view. Everyday life, work and learning rarely have signposts, definitive maps, or friendly police to help with directions. The teacher in the classroom, clinician in the consulting room, healthcare professional with a patient, social worker in the client’s home, lawyer with a tricky issue, member of the clergy, or the police officer themselves, relies on knowledge, skills and experience, and what they can glean quickly from immediate sources. Each one is rarely certain what is needed now. We cannot stand outside ourselves and our work (from the cliff), in order to be objective and clear. We work and learn in
the ‘swampy lowlands’ (Schön, 1987) by trial and error, learning from our mistakes. Everyone gets it wrong sometimes and has to live and work with the consequences.
Reflective practice makes maps. Everyone needs thorough methods to sort through and learn from muddles, uncertainties, unclarities, mistakes and anxieties. All need to perceive hitherto unnoticed issues, which will otherwise cause greater and greater problems. How do we know which way to go, to avoid sinking into Schön’s bog? How do we know which unclear path to take at a junction as they all seem to lead further into the swamp?
I remind us of Schön’s powerful image because we cannot climb out of the lowland, but do the best we can down here. There often seems no clear reason for choosing this path through tussocks or that one over a muddy stream. What and who can we trust here? That bright green grass looks inviting, but I sink up to my knees in water. What is my compass?
We do have compasses and maps: Schön (in Argyris and Schön, 1974) called them our theories-in-use, which he said we develop within our practice as ‘a conversation with the situation’ (Schön, 1983, p. 76). But these maps are indistinct because they are tacitly rather than consciously used: our actions are governed by habitual patterns and ways of being. We use our theories-in-use unwittingly. If I were questioned about an action I would respond with espoused theory which I have thought out, but is possibly at variance with what I actually do.
So to develop my practice, gain greater effectiveness, I need to observe and understand my theories-in-use, what I actually do, alongside my espoused theories, what I believe I do. And as far as is practically possible I need to bring these into congruence (close to being the same thing). What equipment can I rely upon in this foggy swamp? Where, when and how do I begin?
I begin with reflective practice. We really are thrown onto our own resources in the everyday work and study environment, and have to trust what equipment we have: reflective practice can provide the very best. Schön said the process of trial and error and learning from mistakes is artistry. The reliable map and accurate compass are reflection and reflexivity.
Schön gave us the swamp image because he knew that all education requires entering a place of not-knowing, of having to ask significant questions to find out. The traveller on the educative journey through difficult terrain has to trust their few pieces of equipment. They might have helpers along the way, but no definitive guide. Being guided with certainty through the swamp would not be educative.
We learn by doing, through the very struggle to make our own judgements, not by being told where, when and how to turn, who to trust and
what is the correct path. The reflective educative process is one of each individual constantly asking why
of everything, from the individual case to the running of the whole organisation. Albert Einstein ( 2002) was successful partly because he doggedly and constantly asked questions with seemingly obvious answers. Childlike, he asked why?, how?, what?, rather than accepting givens or assumptions. He had the confidence to stay with and be open to: ‘love[ing] the questions themselves
like locked rooms’, and certainly ‘liv[ing]
the questions’ (Rilke,  1993, p. 35).
There are no single answers to ‘How could I have done better?’ Yet more questions arise instead, such as ‘If I had done this, which I think would have been better, what would the patient/doctor have felt?’ Answers tend to put a stop to the enquiring process; more and more pertinent questions take us deeper (see David et al., 2013). As Master’s student Ann commented: ‘No wonder it all takes so much time!’ Exploring issues in depth and width can take time. Though enlightenment can arrive after 15 minutes’ writing, as you might discover here.
Now might be a good time to check out what reflective practice writing is. You can find a quick summary in the online resources.
Write to Learn
You may have noticed this in the Preface of the book. Each chapter includes Write to Learn
. These exercises can take very different lengths of time. Some are very affirming, some challenging; all result in positive writing. Each can be done individually or by a facilitated group: many are useful for initial group forming. See Chapter 8
for more advice on starting writing. For now:
- This is unplanned, off-the-top-of-the-head writing; try to allow yourself to write anything.
- Whatever you write will be right; there is no critic, red pen poised.
- All that matters here is the writing’s content; if you need to adjust grammar and so on, you can – later.
- Ignore the Inner Saboteur who niggles about proper form and grammar, or says your writing is rubbish.
- This writing is private, belongs to the writer, who will be its first reader.
- No one else need ever read it, unless the writer decides to share it with trusted confidential other(s).
- Before doing any of the exercises here, or in other chapters, do a six-minute-write about anything to limber up before starting (see Chapter 8).
- Reread all the writing with care and attention before reading it out to anyone.
- Writing can then be shared fruitfully with another or a group, if this seems appropriate.
Advice for facilitators
It helps the process if:
- each writer reads silently back to themselves before reading to a group or partner
- each person knows at the start they will be invited to read out
- everyone is offered the option of not reading if it feels inappropriate
- you know that many exercises occasion laughter, some tears: both are fine
- a facilitator gives instructions in numbered order
- participants finish writing each section before hearing the next
- minimal explanations are given: people usually ‘play the game’ if they trust the facilitator.
Try this next exercise to get you started.
- Write anything about your name: memories, impressions, likes, hates, what people have said, your nicknames over the years: anything.
- Write a selection of names you might have preferred to your own.
- Write a letter to yourself from one of these chosen names.