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Reflective practice – who, what and how?

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

Reflective Practice

Defined as the thinking, meditating or pondering of a situation or event, in context teachers can think about events of the day, a particular session or dealing with a certain individual. Reflective practice, whether concerned with the looming pile or marking or a risky teaching strategy, can help develop ones own experiences and improve a teachers skills. The education system is diverse, but in context, the practice of reflection can benefit any teacher’s abilities as it has since the mid-90s as part of effective initial teacher education (Rushton and Suter, 2012).

 Below are four different reflective philosophers with their own take on reflection. Each will be used throughout my own reflections to enhance my understanding and evaluative practice, allowing me to further benefit.

Schon; The Reflective Practitioner.

Figure 1: Reflection type definitions

Schon (1991), as summarised in the image above, differentiated between reflecting during a session or task (RiA) ,and reflecting after the event has taken place (RoA).

Reflection in action is something we all do anyway. I bet you can think of a situation where something you planned didn’t quite go to plan and you had to take in and think about how to deal with it an act accordingly. This is something that, when considered carefully and identified early can help you achieve a number of things.

  1. Thinking about what could change or go wrong will help you plan contingencies

  2. Help you remember how to deal with certain situations which you can apply later on, therefor using experiences as learning tools.

  3. The more you learn to stop and think about a situation, the easier and more naturally it will come to you. This can give you quick wit or make you appear very professional. Both are handy in a number or disciplines!

Reflection on action is something we tend to only do late at night when we cannot sleep, and that one embarrassing memory from 5 years ago pops up, or in the shower hours after an argument where you go ‘oh man I should have said that”.  These experiences tend to be negative, and to be even more cliche, I am going to remind you that you should learn from your mistakes.

  1. Thinking about what went wrong can help you plan better for next time, and put in contingency plans.

  2. Identifying what went well and what didn’t go well will allow you to apply best practice in future.

  3. Writing down about your experiences will help you discuss them with other professionals, and see things that you ma have missed, or interpret them differently.

Reflecting on academic or professionals practice can help make your personal expectations and beliefs more evident to you.The more you understand how you work, think and react can help you carry out your planning and execution of tasks more successfully. By taking a few minutes to jot down how you felt a task went, and identify things you will do or wont do again, you can use every experience as a learning experience (Plymouth University, 2014).

Below, I have outlined what I feel are the most simple, time effective and easy to grasp methods of reflecting professionally, which will allow you get the most back from reflective practice.

Gibbs; The Reflective Cycle

Figure 2: The Gibbs Cycle

The Gibbs cycle was the most commonly used method of reflection I noticed when working with other professionals who needed to prove reflection in action. From art teachers to midwives – reflective practice is encouraged at all levels – and the Gibbs cycle remains my favorite due to its simplicity and its non-complex method.

As the diagram in figure 2 above outlines, the Gibbs cycle simply asks you: What happened? How did you feel? Was it good or bad? Why did you feel this way? do you want to feel like that again? Do what will you do the same or differently next time?

See? Simple. Let’s have a look at an example using my favorite type of people: students. Students are encouraged to reflect on situation. I want to use an example of a student who has to reflect on a lesson.

John sat through an hour lecture on the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and how it applied to his role in the animal industry.

1:What happened?

John did not take much information in. In fact, the lecturer lost him shortly after ‘what do we define an animal as in this law?’. John stayed for the whole lecture and took some notes he copies off of the PowerPoint.

2: What were John’s feeling and emotions?

John feels as though the lecture was a waste of time. He struggled to concentrate and felt a bit ill staring at the screen.

3: Was this good or bad?

John knows this was a negative experience. He will be less likely to attend another lecture and will also be unlikely to re-visit his notes.

4:What sense can John make of this?

John went out drinking last night. He didn’t take a water bottle with him to the lecture. He didn’t study the source material before attending and he feels that he has let himself down but he also knows he finds animal law lectures boring.

5: What, therefore, can John conclude from this experience?

John feels like because he wasn’t looking forward to the lecture, he would enjoy himself instead of reading.  He realises now that this was a mistake and he would have been happier if he was more prepared. He doesn’t know if it is the teaching style and lecturer he doesn’t get on with, or if it was because he was so ill prepared for a lecture that he didn’t have a good experience.

5: What will John do differently next time?

If he had read the source material and made his own notes, then had  decent nights sleep and prepared a good breakfast and a water bottle to take, he probably would have focused better. John thinks he should apply this to his lecture and then if he realises that he cannot focus still, he can discuss his issues with his lecturer.

*This is a true story definitely not based on my own experiences as an undergrad. Names have been changed to prevent embarrassment. ‘John’ actually applied himself in the next lecture and now loves teaching and lecturing about animal welfare law 3 years on.

I’d recommend giving this a go for anyone who wants to start learning to reflect on their work, and even more so for those students who have to provide a reflective account and need a place to start with a solid reference: Gibbs, 1988.

Flanagan; Critical Incident Technique

Figure 3: Flanagan and critical thinking

Identifying a critical incident has been given in figure 3 above in a classroom setting. Critical incidents are the moments we go ‘oh that made an impact’ be it negative or positive. In teaching, I see it as the moment a student goes ‘Oh I understand what you mean’ when explaining anew topic or confidently stating ‘Well I totally disagree with you’ when critically thinking about an ethical subject based on facts and research.

So what’s the point of identifying the critical incident, especially outside of a classroom setting? Well first I’ll talk about the examples given above: educational settings. What every teacher has to do to is ensure learning is occurring, and prove that learners understand. All of them. Each individual. In a huge group. With varying support needs. With different behavioural profiles and many types of learning styles.

I digress.

The critical incident in that situation, as mentioned before, when you get that student to understand, or use the resources you’ve provided for them for the intended purpose, or pass that exam. Now Identifying that is a challenge in itself sometimes, but what is important is working out HOW you got to that critical incident.

If you work out how or what you did to get to that point, you know how to do it again, or how to avoid it next time. If your explanation was given with diagrams and it was effective, use diagrams next time! If raising your voice caused the student to shut down completely, then apply a different tactic next time (and for goodness sake don’t shout at your students!).

In a non-educational setting, identifying the critical incident will give you the same results – what do I do next time, or what do I not do?

In the lab; how did I come by these results? How did I mess up these results so badly?

On the farm; what made the animals react so negatively? What encouraged that animal to relax for a change?

The lists are endless, so practice identifying those critical incidences – and remember, the CI is the moment you either fail and your aim, but more importantly when you meet the aim.

Kolb; Experiential Learning

Figure 4: Experiential learning simplified

Experiential learning as a reflective practice, as outlined by Kolb in 1984 is somewhat similar to the Gibbs cycle. It follows a given route, as shown above in figure 4. Unlike the Gibb’s cycle, however, the experiential learning model has 4 very separate stages, made up of 4 different learning styles. Following this pattern,in this order, was suggested by Kolb to be the ideal learning system.

Step 1: Concrete experience – a new situation, or a reinterpretation of an existing experience. This must be identified and described.

Step 2: Reflective Observation – The subject must explain their experience with them at the center. How did I interpret what happened? How did this affect me?

Step 3 – Abstract conceptualization – The reflection will give rise to a new idea or a modification of an existing concept. Why did this happen the way it did? As highlighted above, this area may involve reading around a subject or finding solid reasons as to why the situations occurred.

Step 4 – Active experimentation – applying the new idea to the world around them. By highlighting what the subject will do if it happens again, they can plan and prepare. But as with an experiment, results must be observed and ideally recorded. This can then start the learning cycle again.

I won’t include an example, as it is so similar to Gibb’s reflection, however the real difference lies with the 4th step – active experimentation.This is a more advanced system of learning because it forces the subject to put their findings into action, and the system, in theory, embeds the learning so the subject will apply the knowledge to future occurrences (McLeod, 2013).

Experiential learning has a huge presence in psychology (humans, not animals, sorry!) and can be read around further. My summary however, is idea for someone who wants to advance beyond the Gibb’s cycle of reflection, and really demonstrate their reflective practice has taught them how to improve.


Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schon, D. (1991) The reflective Practitioner. Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Gibbs, G. (1988) Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Further Education Unit. Oxford Polytechnic: Oxford.

McLeod, S. A. (2013). Kolb – Learning Styles. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/learning-kolb.html

Plymouth Univeristy (2010) Reflection: becoming reflective. Plymouth, Learn Higher.

Rushton, I. and Suter, M. (2012) Reflective Practice for teaching in lifelong learning. Open University Press, Berkshire, England.

Bradbury, H., Frost, N., Kilminster, S. and Zukas, M. (2010) Beyond Reflective Practice: New Approaches to Professional Lifelong Learning. Routledge Publishing, New York, USA.

Figure 1: Reflection type definitions http://www.bradford.ac.uk/wimba-files/skill-space/Reflective_Writing_HTML/page_04.htm (2014).

Figure 2: The Gibbs Cycle http://www.bradford.ac.uk/wimba-files/skill-space/Reflective_Writing_HTML/page_04.htm. (2014).

Figure 3: Flanagan and critical thinking http://homepages.abdn.ac.uk/locit/?page_id=13 (2014).

Figure 4: Experiential learning simplified http://www.bradford.ac.uk/wimba-files/skill-space/Reflective_Writing_HTML/page_04.htm.(2014).

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