Reflective practice encourages us to hold up a mirror to our practice, as a way to learn and develop. How can we move beyond the superficial to a more meaningful engagement?
When something happens at work I think about it afterwards; sometimes I talk about it; on occasions I relive the experience, over and over. Most often, though, my reflection remains at the level of a surface retelling, a reverberation. I suspect that I’m not alone when I say that reflection has become a routine, but a routinely superficial, part of my practice.
In Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carol employs a whimsical children’s story to consider the ways that reflection might help us to more deeply contemplate the world around us and our place within it; to consider who we are and where we are going; and to cultivate a continuing curiosity about the very nature of our world.
Alice is frustrated by her attempts to play chess, with only a kitten for company. She asks Kitty to play the part of the red queen, showing her the chess piece as a model; but this plan fails,
principally, Alice said, because the kitten wouldn’t fold it’s arms properly.
Lewis Carol, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
As she holds Kitty up to the mirror, trying to help her to better understand how she can improve, Alice remains frustrated at the limited additional view that this affords.
But as she continues to ponder, and to wonder, she finds that she can pass through the surface of the mirror to the Looking-glass House beyond. She’s able now to see the chess pieces in a new light—understanding more about their moves and motivations—and she starts to comprehend their point of view.
Seeking to explore further afield, Alice follows first one path then another, but each is dishearteningly circular, and all lead her back to the confines of the house. It’s only when she accepts the advice to turn her back on logical problem solving and predefined goals that she achieves an enlightening encounter with the Red Queen herself.
Setting off to travel through the country beyond the garden, Alice has curious conversations with outlandish creatures, whose world view is so strange that she struggles to make any sense of what they say. She encounters puzzles and puns, poems and paradoxes, allusions and allegories, that continually challenge her but help her, finally, to arrive at an understanding that she is a queen in her own right—and always has been.
So, what about us?
Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experiences.
There are many models and frameworks of reflective practice which can help us to penetrate the surface of the mirror; most take the form of a demarcated, circular path to be followed. In medical practice, the best know of these is David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle: we review something that happened in the light of our current understanding, consider how our interpretation of this particular part of the world may need to adapt, and plan how these changes might apply to our future practice.
Other models aim to deepen the analysis by including the emotional impact of what happened; or to widen the view by asking us to tease out aspects of the event according to a pre-defined framework of different perspectives; or to simplify reflection into three questions: “What?”, “So what?”, “Now what?”
What these models share is a logical, stepwise approach that focuses on processing past events. They help us to pass through the surface and start to explore the Looking-glass House on the far side of the mirror, but our view remains two dimensional and constrained. Donald Schön has proposed a more holistic approach to reflection that is creative, continuous, and imaginatively oriented towards the future.
Schön describes two very different approaches to engaging with the world. Technical-rational knowledge says to us: “Tell me where you want to go: you need to study the terrain, learn the place names, practice the stages of the journey.” Professional-artistry says: “Let’s go for a walk: chew the fat, enjoy the craic and see where the conversation leads.”
The circular models of reflection-on-action share a technical-rational viewpoint: reflection as an individual activity, a compartmentalised, educational tool that focuses on isolated, past events, and uses analytical problem-solving: what should I have done differently? Schön proposes a professional-artistry approach to reflection-in-action as an integral part of daily practice.
The reflective practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique.
He doesn’t present a simple tool with defined steps. Instead, he proposes a journey towards a practice that becomes saturated with reflection—a hall of mirrors—continually open to astonishment and bewilderment as prompts for questioning and improvisation on the fly: a joint exploration of the whole sphere of future possibilities. Our focus shifts to a personal, relational and playful interaction with the world around us; from a sporadic: “Now what?” to a continuous: “What if..?”
Even this more holistic understanding of the role of reflection can have important limitations. Roger Kneebone warns us of the dangers of total internal reflection, where we assume that the world is defined by the fishbowl of our own experience. In order to mature and develop we need to find ways to look outside this sphere.
Here is the value of engaging in dialogue with those whose worlds have been shaped in other ways: learning with, from and about practitioners in other fields. Kneebone elucidates some of the challenges of moving outside our own sphere of expertise: the lack of a map, the language, the modes of communication and the world views espoused can all appear insuperable obstacles, but the wisdom to be gained from our attempts to understand— the insights to be achieved from the journey itself—are perhaps unmeasurable, but also immeasurably valuable.
Exploring the humanities can challenge our entrenched ideas…it demands a willingness to look through new spectacles and critically examine long-held assumptions.
The arts and humanities offer particularly powerful ways to engage with complementary world views. Literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, music and many other forms can all open our eyes to new ways of seeing, and understanding, and help us to develop deeper forms of wisdom. In ancient Greece this concept of cultivating deep and transcendent wisdom was called sophia.
As our view of reflection changes from the mirror’s surface, to circles that penetrate that surface, and then expands through the sphere of personal activity to the whole realm of sophia, reflective practice transforms from a discrete activity following a significant event—as a means to the end of knowledge and skill acquisition—into something that permeates the warp and weft of the fabric of our lives: developing our faculties of empathy, morality and spirituality, nurturing personal meaning and helping us to better understand how to be in the world.