Only Reflect …

Educational discourse on reflection – for a long time now – has intrigued and puzzled me. Reflection, it would seem, is an incontestable academic virtue. Reflection and reflective practice are so embedded and widely accepted in educational discourse that it seems heretical to question the faith placed in reflection. It seems very counter-intuitive to suggest that reflection is not necessarily a virtue or that there is a misplaced faith in reflection. However, I am going to raise some concerns I have which indicate why I fail to share much of the enthusiasm for reflection and reflective practice.

The first concern is: what do we mean by reflection? Is there a generally accepted meaning attached to the notion of reflection?

I would argue that reflection is beyond discursive control, where its meaning is extremely nebulous and it can be assimilated into many incommensurable (pedagogical, epistemological and ideological) frameworks. In short, despite the widespread use of ‘reflection’, the meanings attached to and invested in reflective practice are heterogeneous. This would appear to suggest conceptual confusion around the notion of reflection. Fendler captures this succinctly:

Today’s discourse of reflection incorporates an array of meanings: a demonstration of self-consciousness, a scientific approach to planning for the future, a tacit and intuitive understanding of practice, a discipline to become more professional, a way to tap into one’s authentic inner voice, a means to become a more reflective teacher, and a strategy to redress injustices in society. Reflective teaching has become a catchall term for competing programs of teacher education reforms.

Fendler (2003:20).

What diverse definitions and models of reflection share is a belief that reflection leads to transformation be it of the self, education or society. My second concern is that there appears little evidence that reflection leads to transformation. Akbari (2007), for example, states that there is a lack of evidence of a link between reflective practices and improved teacher or student performance. Why, then, do we place so much faith on the basis of so little evidence? Finlay, echoing Brookfield (1991), claims ‘there are few intellectual quests so enthusiastically lauded for such meagre, unsatisfactory returns’ (Finlay, 2008:10).

My third concern pertains to the focus of reflection. What is the object of reflection? The self? Pedagogy? Ideology? Students? Seemingly, we can ‘reflect’ on anything and anyone. Regardless of the object of reflection, the self (in its affective, social and intellectual dimensions) appears central. And this is where a whole series of further concerns emerge. Focusing on the self might entail ‘hermeneutic narcissism’ (Maton, 2003:53): unable to write about anything except ourselves and revealing nothing other than ourselves (with all of the attendant dangers of revealing more of ourselves than we would like to).

The temptation to focus on the self is ever more tempting if we are encouraged to accept that:

the author is the only person who can analyse these … [personal reflective] experiences and then turn them into a reserve for his or her own personal development.

Bailey et al., 1996:27.

Their [teachers’] thinking is relative to their entire social experience. And this ‘positionality’ of knowing depends, of course, on past as well as present and anticipated experience so that a teacher’s previous knowledge becomes one more position from which to know.

Freeman, 2002:9.

In short, the self, through reflection on experience, becomes the source of and limit on ‘knowledge’.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. Knowledge is diminished, reduced to whatever emerges from private reflection. Isn’t this a peculiar notion of knowledge? Can knowledge be discursively conjured from whatever thoughts, opinions and beliefs (how do we distinguish between them?) we happen to muster and assemble from (highly fallible memories of) ‘experience’? Can or should the value of knowledge be measured more in terms of who produces ‘knowledge’ and the processes by which it is produced than an examination of what is produced or constructed? Can we ‘own’ knowledge? Why should we carry, if indeed we can, the burden to continually produce knowledge through intense introspection on personal experience?

Is reflective practice no more than a transmissive pedagogy by the back door? By this I mean that where traditional pedagogies focus on the transmission of content knowledge, reflective practices focus on the transmission of codified ways of thinking. Rather than being taught what to think, do reflective practices insist on telling us how to think? Do we need to be told and shown how to reflect? Should we all, regardless of age, experience, culture, context, our own desire to reflect, be subjected to (assessed) reflective practices? Is it appropriate for everyone and at all times?

Undertaking reflective practice entails sensitivity to analysing and revealing affective aspects of learning. Learning isn’t arid or bloodless; it requires, for example, certain dispositions, attitudes, desires and motivations to be successful. Emotion is a key dimension of learning. Yet, does that mean we have to display these emotions, analyse them, and, perhaps somewhat therapeutically, overcome (and be seen to overcome) various emotional barriers to learning? Why should I reveal how I feel? How ethical is it to explore (and assess) the emotions of individuals?

In this post I have explored only some of the questions that reflection provokes. I have not touched on the difficulty of teaching reflection, the power relations that might impact on reflective processes and products, the potential poverty of experience to support reflection, how welcome honesty is in reflective writing, or the relationship between reflection and criticality. Nor have I commented on the (frequent?) Road to Damascus syndrome entailing the demonstration of enlightenment from educational ignorance to bliss due entirely to fortuitous and deep soul-searching.

Most importantly I have yet to make any reference to reflection in EAP contexts. I believe that, as EAP practitioners, we need to be very careful and critical if we undertake reflective practice ourselves and even more so if we require this of colleagues. Of equal significance, is a requirement to support and prepare those EAP students who will have to, through possibly no choice of their own, undertake a regime of reflection as part of their EAP programme and/or as part of their future academic studies. In effect, we have to critically engage students with the issues raised here (and their own concerns) so that they are attentive to the risks as well as the affordances of educational models of reflection.

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9 Comments on “Only Reflect …”

  1. Andy Gillett says:

    I don’t really know what to make of this. It might be a good summary of, for example, Schon’s model, and I agree that only thinki9ng about something is not useful, but it doesn’t fit well with my view of reflective practice as exemplified by, for example, Dewey, Kolb & Gibbs.

    I agree with Gibbs 100%
    “It is not sufficient simply to have an experience in order to learn. Without reflecting upon this experience it may quickly be forgotten, or its learning potential lost. It is from the feelings and thoughts emerging from this reflection that generalisations or concepts can be generated. And it is generalisations that allow new situations to be tackled effectively.” (Gibbs, 1988, p. 9)

    So how does one develop as a practitioner? You do something. You think about it. You talk about it. You blog about it. You put it on your web-site. You talk about it at a conference. Hopefully people join in. You do some reading. Maybe some action research. You try something a little different. You see how it works. You evaluate it. You think about it… Isn’t that reflective practice? And is there any other way? I don’t know of any!

    Andy

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  2. Alex says:

    Thanks Andy for your comments. Certainly the way you describe reflective practice for (experienced?) EAP tutors sounds entirely plausible. With your mention of Gibbs, Dewey and Kolb justifies my claim, I think, that reflection and reflective practices has been conceptualised using quite different models and epistemologies.
    The queries I have are less to do with the description above and more to do with:
    The lack of foregrounding of dialogue and collaboration in reflective practice. There seems to me to be an over-emphasis on individualistic reflection. Perhaps more collaborative and dialogic forms of reflective practive practice would be useful to explore. this is hinted at in Andy’s description (conference papers, blogs etc.).
    More attention needs to be paid to the structural and cultural affordances and constraints (micro, meso and macro) that shape opportunities for reflective practice. This means that reflection entails an element of social critique and sensitivity to conditions that are more or less supportive of development through reflection.
    The issue of the purposes of reflective practice needs to be addressed. To what extent should/can reflective practice be directed in any ways we desire? Do we have a responsibility to explicitly link reflective practice to learners and learning? What responsibilities do we have as reflective practitioners?
    Is there much evidence that practitioners are engaged in reflective practice? How is it or can it be measured? Is reflection an entirely private matter? We all ‘think’ as teachers, so, qualitately, what is gained by labeling it ‘reflection’? Does it designate a particular quality of thinking and doing? Should we have the same expectations of all practitioners regardless of personality, experience, circumstances etc.?

    I also think the notions of experience and reflection are often taken at face value (may be correctly) but there are serious underlying philosophical questions relating to the nature of experience and reflection that tend to undermine rather more mundane educational interpretations of these concepts.

    Alex

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    • Andy Gillett says:

      I like Moon’s diagram of reflective writing on page 35 of Jennifer Moon, Learning journals: A handbook for academics, students and professional development. RoutledgeFalmer, 1999. It’s messy and complicated. I’ve put it here for a while: http://www.uefap.com/moon.pdf
      Does reflection have to be formal? Why does it have to me measured?
      As I’ve said before, I can’t imagine any other way of developing oneself. Doing an MA in EAP won’t help if you don’t try out some of the new ideas and see if they work! It’ll be even better if you talk to people – or blog – about it.
      Andy

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  3. Alex says:

    Hi Andy,
    Regarding an MA in TEAP, we will, of course be asking our participants to explore ideas, experiment, reflect even! But what we are aiming at is to heighten participants’ reflexivity – and part of that process is to question basic assumptions such as reflection. And part of reflexivity is to question the commitments we hold and the actions we take. We hope to do all this within a more dialogic and collaborative framework….
    What we don’t want to do is to ignore the complexity, the ambiguities, the contested and indeterminate aspects of being an EAP practitioner, especially at a time when defining an EAP practitioner is itself difficult.

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  4. Avital says:

    “Rather than being taught what to think, do reflective practices insist on telling us how to think?”
    I couldn’t agree more. Throughout by B.Ed studies “reflection” became the singularly most hated word, something of a joke among the students. We would laugh among ourselves at how instructors praised the reflective process as a valuable tool that would help us learn from our experiences, while simultaneously forcing us to mold our thoughts into formats that were comfortable for them. I hope I’m not misconstrued as saying reflection is useless; on the contrary. Reflection is a very effective tool. I believe we need to allow students to perform it in ways that are advantageous to *them*.

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  5. Tyson Seburn says:

    I’m not sure I’m adding particular value to any of the points you make, but reflective practice for me concerns raising my own awareness to my own values in teaching and perhaps how my actions in teaching may not entirely match up with them. This leads to reevaluating those values and/or reevaluating my actions.

    For EAP students, apart from the preparation of future reflective assignments they’ll need to undertake in their content courses (these, from my experience, are growing in presence within an also growing scaffolded assignment process), I think they also need to be directly guided on examining their own beliefs and actions as a student, which aims to lead them to recognising either how they’ve changed through an assignment (or two or three) and how they might handle their own process of learning more effectively in the future. Sure, this can result simply in students writing what they think we want to hear, but even in doing so, the possibility of getting something out of doing so is more likely than if not told to do so at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tyson Seburn says:

      Just to add another quick point – I don’t believe there really is a ‘teaching’ of reflection, but like a lot of EAP (and university content in general), giving well-crafted guiding questions to gently (?) pushes students towards considering values or ideas they may not realise they have.

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  6. To reflect critically on reflective practice is a must surely!? Thanks for the discussion both Alex and Andy.
    In the meantime, at a more basic level, I shall continue to ask my students to “reflect” in my classes on why they give me the answers they do, or make the comments they make. In the spirit of Underhill & Schrivener’s “Demand High” pedagogy, I push my students to think more, deeper, further. For me this is a form of real time reflection, facilitated with plenty of time & space for students to do that on-the-spot thinking. I came to this style of teaching through reflecting on my own practice, student observation & feedback, and new learning acquired via a different field, ie: coaching.

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  7. Paul Holdsworth says:

    A very useful recent survey of the literature about reflective practice is: Catherine Beauchamp (2015) Reflection in teacher education: issues emerging from a review of current literature, Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 16:1, 123-141. She also highlights the lack of a shared definition of reflective practice and the problematic consequences of this.
    My own research suggests that RP is so broad a concept that almost any teacher educator can (and does) claim to be a reflective practitioner, and to be teaching RP to her students, despite the great heterogeneity of their professional practice.

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