Introducing Reflective Practice
Reflective Practice is the active process of ‘witnessing’ our own experiences in order to take a closer look at them. This can be done in the midst of an activity or as an activity in itself. The key to reflective practice is learning how to take a ‘third person’ perspective on our actions and experience, i.e. examine actions and experiences from the outside looking in. By developing the ability to explore our own experience and actions in this way, we open up the possibilities of purposeful learning — derived not from books or experts, but from our everyday work and lives.
Certain kinds of experiences create particularly powerful opportunities for learning through reflection. Difficult challenges often provide a rich source of material for our reflective practice. Some challenges embody a dilemma, which may shine a light on a clash between our values and our approach to getting something done.
Positive experiences can also offer powerful sources of learning. For example, breakthroughs in action or thinking are helpful in revealing what was learned and what our model of success looks like. Breakthroughs can also instruct on an emotional level. By locating when and why we have felt excited or fulfilledby an experience we gain insight into the conditions that allow our creativity to flourish.
Reflective Practice in Action
To become effective reflective practitioners we need create the habit or establish the routine of examining our experiences. The practice for reflection can vary in terms of how often, how much, and why reflection gets done. At one end of the spectrum, a work group could go on an extended retreat after a long period and spend a great deal of time documenting and analyzing the learning that has emerged since it last took the time to stop and examine its work. At the other end of the spectrum, a person could reflect frequently, bringing high levels of awareness to their thoughts and actions in real time. This spectrum hints at the many diverse ways that reflective practice can be structured.
So, reflection can be practiced at different frequencies, i.e. every day, at long intervals of months or years, and everything in between. And reflection can also vary in depth, i.e. from simply noticing present experiences to the deep examination of past events. A first step in establishing a practice of reflection is to clarify the purposes you want it to serve. A second step is to identify opportunities to reflect in your work that are realistic and yet occur at the right intervals and with sufficient depth to be meaningful.
The role of storytelling in reflective practice
A powerful method for examining experience is storytelling (narrative accounts of experience) because they provide cognitively complex and culturally potent systems for conveying the way we think about, feel about, and make connections within our experiences. By examining the way we have constructed a narrative account about a significant event, it suddenly becomes more possible to observe the meaning we have taken from that experience and explore the underlying qualities that made it significant. By engaging in collective dialogue about a story or a question, we build our understanding of it and locate the significance of that story or question in the larger context of our work. Even when there is not a clear problem or question driving reflection, it is through the exploration of stories that we can unpack the richness of our experience and evaluate which issues emerging from our experience we need to pursue.
Naming reflection rather than just letting it happen
In our everyday working lives there are numerous opportunities to learn, yet relatively few structures that support learning from experience, particularly in adulthood. Every adult reflects to some degree, and everyone hypothesizes and draws conclusions from the ‘data’of their experience. Nevertheless, most fields of work do not provide the infrastructure of methods, practices, and processes for building knowledge from practice. For many practitioners, ‘doing’ swallows up ‘learning’. Even staying aware of what we are doing does not itself create learning. Learning is a purposeful activity.
Recognizing the necessary role of reflection in facilitating learning from experience and becoming familiar with the basic elements of reflective practice allows us to begin to act on the principle that knowledge is embedded in our experiences and this knowledge is highly valuable to us.
Original Source: Raelin, J (2002). “I Don’t Have Time to Think!” versus the Art of Reflective Practice. InReflections, vol. 4, 1, 66-79, Society for Organizational Learning, Massachusetts Instituteof Technology, Cambridge, MA.
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