Reflective practice is the ability to reflect on one’s actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.
– Donald Schon
Who is this resource for?
Being able to reflect is a valuable skill to have for all International and local community development workers. It helps you to think about your experiences working with communities, why things happened the way they did and how you can improve on these experiences in future. This reflective practice resource will guide you through the basics of what reflective practice is, its benefits, how to integrate it into your community work and the basics of reflective writing.
A Beginners Guide
What is reflective practice?
Imagine that you come home from work at the end of a really bad week where you feel like everything possible has gone wrong. When you walk in the front door you are confronted with a time machine which can take you back to Monday morning so you can live the whole week over again. You use this opportunity to think about everything that went wrong and what you could do (if anything) to correct things as well as trying to repeat the things that you have done right. It may not seem like it but this is reflective practice – the act of thinking about our experiences in order to learn from them for the future. In real life you probably don’t have access to time travel but you can still work towards being a reflective practitioner. We can all undertake activities to think about our experiences working with under-represented communties, learn from them and develop an action plan for what we will do differently next time.
Reflective practice was something which developed in disciplines such as teaching and social work as a way to learn from real life experiences. People in these areas would think about encounters with their students or clients, how these worked and what lessons they could take away. Over time many other areas have adopted the principles of reflective practice, including community development workers. You can use reflection when working with communities, for example when preparing group work activities or workshops.
Although a definition of reflective practice has been included above this is only one part of a larger process. Reflection is a very personal thing and different people will define it in different ways. It is important to remember that there is no one ‘correct’ way of defining what reflection is or how it should be done as a lot of this will depend on your own circumstances.
Think about … Definitions
Take a few minutes to think about what reflective practice means to you. There is no right or wrong answer to this question and your answer will depend on many factors and your own background. Keep this definition in mind as you read through the rest of the resource.
You can practice reflection during your education, within the workplace or as part of your general personal wellbeing. It has many benefits at both a personal and professional level and can help you to focus on planning for future experiences.
So what are the main benefits of reflection?
- When you’re working with under-represented communities you are likely to be very involved in your work and achieving the MEL set out in the project plan. It can be easy to become ‘too focused’ on your specified outcomes in this situation and less about the approaches, principles and strategies or how much ownership / leadership the community has. Reflective practice allows you to look at the bigger picture. Undertaking regular reflection, for example once month, or once a reporting cycle, can help you to think about your practice as a community worker and if you are aligning your actions with your principles.
- It can help with the issue of ‘self-talk’. We all have a little voice inside our heads which reminds us of all the things we could have done differently in certain situations. Reflecting on an experience can help to put this voice to use as we learn from what we have done and move forward.
- It gives you areas to improve on or develop. Whether you are a actively working alongside under-represented communities, or undertaking desk work that impacts under-represented communities, you will find that you are constantly being asked for ways in which you can develop your knowledge and skills. Undertaking reflections can help you to think about areas that you can work on as well as what you are doing well.
- Reflection can help you to be more creative and try new things. It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut and undertake projects or engage with under-represented communities in the same way as previously and it can be helpful to think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. This can help to spark new ideas and ways of thinking.
- Human nature means that we all make assumptions about people and situations. Taking a step back and reflecting can help you to challenge some of these assumptions and see things from a new perspective.
- Reflection is a key part of emotional intelligence – the ability to understand and remain in control of our emotions. This is a useful skills to have both for our own wellbeing and when working with others.
- It helps to maintain a healthy work/life balance by offering a defined process for thinking things through. Hopefully you can learn from them and move on rather than dwelling on what happened.
How to reflect
Now you understand the benefits of being reflective how do you actually go about doing it? There is no one magic formula to follow and you will find that what works for your community development peers might not work for you. Some people find reflecting in a group or out loud for them whilst for others it’s something private. You can be really organised and regularly write your reflections down or you can do it as and when you can. It’s best if you can reflect regularly as this will help you get into the habit and you will be able to build on what you learn.
The easiest way to get started with reflection is to ask yourself some of the following questions about the experience you want to reflect on. As you look at the questions think about how you might record your answers, for example in a reflective practice journal, so that you can remember them in the future.
What did I learn?
What do I need to learn about more?
Why did I feel the way I did?
What was difficult?
What could I do differently?
I wonder what would happen if I tried…?
How can I improve in the future?
If you are new to reflection then you may be wondering where to start! The good news is that you probably already do more reflection in your everyday life than you realise. Think about all the times you have had a chat with your co-workers / community development peers over a cup of coffee, talked with a supervisor about a project or even thought back on the day as you were in the shower. This is all reflection – you are thinking back on your community development experiences, perhaps considering what you could have done differently and how you could approach similar experiences in the future.
Reflection can happen at any time and for any reason. It doesn’t have to be formal, written or even follow a certain procedure for it to add value to your community development practice.
Positive vs negative experiences
A common question about reflection is whether it is more useful to reflect on positive or negative experiences. There is no correct answer to this question as much of what you choose to reflect on will depend on your personal circumstances and preferences but a balance of the two is probably the best for most people.
Reflecting on positive experiences of working with communities can be very uplifting and motivating. It encourages you to see what you have been doing well in your work and how you can use this to your advantage in the future. It is natural to want to repeat our successes and by analysing the things we did well we can form a plan to make this happen again. However if we only look at the positives we can overlook challenges we experience and this can lead to more issues in the future, and work which doesn’t centre under-represented communities.
Negative experiences we have had working in communities are often easier to learn from as we can pick them apart and think about what we can do differently to make them better next time. There is always something we can improve on and this is an excellent basis for making a future project / programme plans. However focusing too much on what went wrong can be demotivating and cause negativity. For this reason it is important that you maintain a balance in what you look at during your reflections.
Making time for reflection
It’s important to try and build time into your schedule for reflection (especially if it is part of an ongoing project) but exactly how you do this will depend on your circumstances. Some people are able to find time every day whilst others set aside time each week / fortnight. You don’t need to spend a long time reflecting but you should try to make it a regular activity. Think of reflection as a philosophy rather than as a set of tasks that must be completed as this can make it seem like too much work. If you take a short, regular amount of time to reflect at various points you will soon find that you are reflecting much more than you realise. Working with peers or the community you are working alongside can help to keep you motivated to reflect. Whether you are working with a team of community development workers or working with under-represented communities, t’s important to try and create a culture where people are encouraged to reflect and supported to act on the results. Try teaming up with workplace colleagues or sector peers for a regular reflection session. This can be something formal such as my Bright Sparks fortnightly workshops, or an informal weekly chat with workplace peers over coffee – whatever works for you!
Models of Reflection
The cycle shows that we will start with an experience, either something we have been through before or something completely new to us. This experience can be positive or negative and may be related to our work or something else. Once something has been experienced we will start to reflect on what happened. This will allow us to think through the experience, examine our feelings about what happened and decide on the next steps. This leads to the final element of the cycle – taking an action. What we do as a result of an experience will be different depending on the individual. This action will result in another experience and the cycle will continue.
Jasper, M. (2013). Beginning Reflective Practice. Andover: Cengage Learning.
Driscoll’s What Model
- So what?
- Now what?
By asking ourselves these three simple questions we can begin to analyse and learn from our experiences. Firstly we should describe what the situation or experience was to set it in context. This gives us a clear idea of what we are dealing with. We should then reflect on the experience by asking ‘so what?’ – what did we learn as a result of the experience? The final stage asks us to think about the action we will take as a result of this reflection. Will we change a behavior, try something new or carry on as we are? It is important to remember that there may be no changes as the result of reflection and that we feel that we are doing everything as we should. This is equally valid as an outcome and you should not worry if you can’t think of something to change.
Borton, T. (1970) Reach, Touch and Teach. London: Hutchinson.
Driscoll, J. (ed.) (2007) Practicing Clinical Supervision: A Reflective Approach for Healthcare Professionals. Edinburgh: Elsevier.
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle
Kolb’s model (1984) takes things a step further. Based on theories about how people learn, this model centres on the concept of developing understanding through actual experiences and contains four key stages:
- Concrete experience
- Reflective observation
- Abstract conceptualization
- Active experimentation
The model argues that we start with an experience – either a repeat of something that has happened before or something completely new to us. The next stage involves us reflecting on the experience and noting anything about it which we haven’t come across before. We then start to develop new ideas as a result, for example when something unexpected has happened we try to work out why this might be. The final stage involves us applying our new ideas to different situations. This demonstrates learning as a direct result of our experiences and reflections. This model is similar to one used by small children when learning basic concepts such as hot and cold. They may touch something hot, be burned and be more cautious about touching something which could potentially hurt them in the future.
Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.
Gibb’s Reflective Cycle
The final model builds on the other three and adds more stages. It is one of the more complex models of reflection but it may be that you find having multiple stages of the process to guide you reassuring. Gibb’s cycle contains six stages:
- Action plan
As with other models, Gibb’s begins with an outline of the experience being reflected on. It then encourages us to focus on our feelings about the experience, both during it an after. The next step involves evaluating the experience – what was good or bad about it from our point of view? We can then use this evaluation to analyse the situation and try to make sense of it. This analysis will result in a conclusion about what other actions (if any) we could have taken to reach a different outcome. The final stage involves building an action plan of steps which we can take the next time we find ourselves in a similar situation.
Gibbs, G. (1998) Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods. Oxford: Further Education Unit, Oxford Polytechic.
Think about … Which model?
Think about the models outlined above. Do any of them appeal to you or have you found another model which works for you? Do you find models in general helpful or are they too restrictive?
Pros and Cons of Reflective Practice Models
A word of caution about models of reflective practice (or any other model). Although they can be a great way to start thinking about reflection, remember that all models have their downsides. A summary of the pros and cons can be found below:
- Offer a structure to be followed
- Provide a useful starting point for those unsure where to begin
- Allow you to assess all levels of a situation
- You will know when the process is complete
- Imply that steps must be followed in a defined way
- In the real world you may not start ‘at the beginning’
- Models may not apply in every situation
- Reflective practice is a continuous process
There are many benefits to becoming a reflective community development practitioner but it is unrealistic to think that it is always an easy process. Depending on your circumstances there may be many barriers to reflection whether these be through your community development work or for personal reasons. With a little thought and planning most of these barriers can be overcome. This section will talk about some of the common barriers to reflection you may face and how you can plan to overcome them.
What are the main barriers to reflection?
No time; Organisational culture; Lack of skill; Environment; Motivation; yourself.
Think about … Barriers
Can you think of any other barriers which might stop you from being reflective? What might you do to overcome these barriers and how would you achieve this?
Although it may seem hard there are several different techniques to try to overcome the most common barriers. As always with reflection there is no one way which suits everyone but below is a list of suggestions to try:
- Set aside regular time to reflect, for example the last half hour of each day. Taking a small amount of regular time to work on your reflection can get you into good habits and prove to be really beneficial.
- You can make use of automated tools to help you record your thoughts after experiences or at regular points during the week. Tools such as Idonethis send you a quick email prompt or you can schedule a regular reminder in your diary – whatever works for you. Setting up an automatic reminder will help to ensure that you actually make time to jot down a few reflections.
- Try to minimise distractions when you’re trying to get into the reflective mood. Turn off notifications on your phone and email to avoid the temptation to respond. Try to take yourself away from where you normally work – not only does this avoid distractions but it helps to get your brain out of work mode.
- If you are unable to get support from a supervisor to make time for reflection then you might need to take a different approach. Outline the benefits not just to you personally but also to your wider organisation. Talk to your manager about what they will get out of giving you the time and space to think about your work and how it can make you more effective in your role.
- You might find that you need to experiment to find the right environment for you to reflect or that you need different spaces to think about different things, for example that you need to be away from work in order to reflect on your job. (The Bright Sparks fortnightly workshops is a space set up for reflective practice)
- It’s important to remember why you started to reflect on your community development practice in the first place. Write your goal on a Post-It note and stick it to your computer or next to your bathroom mirror – wherever you are likely to see it more. Focusing on why you began reflecting in the first place can help to keep you motivated when it feels tough to keep going.
Many people worry that they will be unable to write reflectively but chances are that you do it more than you think! It’s a common task in our work, (project planning, MEL, and reporting) The following paragraphs will guide you through some simple techniques for reflective writing as well as how to avoid some of the most common challenges.
What is reflective writing?
Writing reflectively involves critically analysing your community development experience, recording how it has impacted you and what you plan to do with your new knowledge. It can help you to reflect on a deeper level as the act of getting something down on paper often helps people to think an experience through.
The key to reflective writing is to be analytical rather than descriptive. Always ask why rather than just describing what happened during an experience.
Reflective writing is…
- Written in the first person
- Free flowing
- A tool to challenge assumptions
- A time investment
Reflective writing isn’t…
- Written in the third person
- What you think you should write
- A tool to ignore assumptions
- A waste of time
Think about … When you reflect
Think about all of the activities you do on a work basis. Do any of these contain elements of reflective writing? Make a list of all the times you have written something reflective about working with communities over the last month – it will be longer than you think!
A common mistake community development workers may make when writing reflectively is to focus too much on describing their experience. Think about some of the phrases below and try to use them when writing reflectively to help you avoid this problem:
- The most important thing was…
- At the time I felt…
- This was likely due to…
- After thinking about it…
- I learned that…
- I need to know more about…
- Later I realised…
- This was because…
- This was like…
- I wonder what would happen if…
- I’m still unsure about…
- My next steps are…
Always try and write in the first person when writing reflectively. This will help you to focus on your thoughts/feelings/experiences about working with communities rather than just a description of the experience.
One of the main barriers to reflective writing is fear of the blank page. Whether you are looking at a sheet of paper or a computer screen there is nothing worse than staring at an empty page and wondering where to start.
Free writing is an exercise which can help with this. When practicing free writing you don’t need to think about sentence structure, grammar or spelling – you just write for a period of ten minutes without stopping. Taking away the pressure to produce something perfect the first time can really help to make your writing flow and you will be surprised at how much you can produce in a short time.