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Counsellor self-awareness has been frequently emphasised as a critical professional competency for all counsellors (Remley & Herlihy, 2007). To support this key competency, reflective practice is an important means of supporting self-awareness in students and beginning counsellors. This paper will look at some definitions of reflective practice, and how it is far more than just thinking about what has happened.
Reflective practice is an approach used in counselling and other health professions where models of reflection offer a way to evaluate applied learning: it is a method of refining skills and expertise by scrutinizing actions while they are being carried out, and then assessing them through discussion, writing exercises such as journalling, similar assessments or by professional supervision.
Reflective practice has been developed in a variety of fields over the last few decades, most markedly in professions where interpersonal relationships are central and a high degree of intuitive judgement and decision-making is needed. Because of this, counselling and teaching make great use of reflective practice methods, along with community and youth workers, and allied health professionals.
Professional practice was pioneered by Donald Schön in the 1980's. Several models exist, but basically reflective practice and learning involves growth and development as a professional by considering at an event or incident, understanding it and learning from it. Different models may emphasise different areas of reflective learning, or broaden the process to include a range of peers, communities and professional or learning colleagues
Reflective practice is a continuous process and involves the learner considering critical incidents in their life experiences. As defined by Schön, reflective practice involves thoughtfully considering one's own experiences in applying knowledge to practice while being coached by professionals in the discipline. It has been described as an unstructured, self-regulated process approach directing understanding and learning.
Reflective practice as a way of working that involves acting consciously and deliberately on the basis of critical insight and understanding. A reflective practitioner needs to develop an awareness of new ways to look at situations, consider new opportunities and techniques, and finds fresh means to challenge states an circumstances. A reflective practioners is a Iifelong learner, as each experience will shape their practice and approach.
A belief which underpins reflective practice is that counsellors should consolidate or 'frame' our understanding. Framing is an inevitable thing:
There is no way of perceiving and making sense of reality except through a frame, for the very task of making sense of complex, information-rich situations requires an operation of selectivity and organisation, which is what framing means â€¦(Schön, 1994, p29).
To be reflective does not imply disregarding all assumptions and prior opinions. Instead, it is about being aware of what practioners bring with us when we meet with others. Reflective practitioners "must be able to put themselves in the shoes of other actors", but and they must also "have the complementary ability to consider how their own frames may contribute to problematic situations" (Schön, 1994, p187).
Reflective practice is consequently something that takes persistent and constant time, commitment and practice.
To help counsellors, particularly as beginning counsellors, this can be where an good supervisor is so important, inspiring the counsellor to grow as a person and a professional, to think and act outside of the box and avoid falling into self-deception or pitfalls.
An continuing commitment to education and also an essential basic requirement to aid this growth and development.
In reflective practice it is possible to distinguish three different phases. Schön (1983) distinguished between reflection-in-action (at the same time as the practice takes place) and reflection-on-action (afterwards).
'reflection on practice' which involves stepping back from an experience and exploring (a) what happened (b) what can be learned from it and (b) what should be done next time. This approach is used widely with students in various disciplines who are encouraged to keep a journal of learning experiences and their practice implications. Kolb's learning circle (experience _reflection _ making sense _ planning for action) is a common tool used by supervisors to help students learn this process in systematic form.
Secondly, there is 'reflection in practice' which involves being aware and conscious in the here-and-now moment; i.e. during supervision/counselling as it's actually happening. This is, in some respects, an advanced-level application of 'reflection on practice' and essential for those engaged in counselling and supervision approaches that involve working primarily with immediacy (e.g. psychotherapy: recognising transference, projection, parallel process etc.). It is also especially valuable for people working in crisis situations where conditions change rapidly and the ability to think continually on one's feet is critical.
the difference between 'reflection on' and 'reflection in' is, in essence, the difference between "What happened thenâ€¦?" and "What is happening nowâ€¦?".
The practice dimension reminds us that for learning-through-reflection to become genuinely transformational, it needs to be applied. The role of supervisor, therefore, involves not only helping the counsellor to learn through reflection but to support application of that learning to enhance his or her counselling practice. When these dimensions are drawn together in continual process, the counsellor can be described as a reflective practitioner.
According to Schon (1983), reflection-in-action is a rigorous professional process involving acknowledgement of and reflection on uncertainty and complexity in one's practice leading to 'a legitimate form of professional knowing' (p.69).
Reflection-in-action is defined by Schön as the ability of professionals to 'think what they are doing while they are doing it'.
the only way to manage the 'indeterminate zones of (professional) practice' is through the ability to think on your feet, and apply previous experience to new situations. This is essential work of the professional, and requires the capability of reflection-in-action.
Schön also offers his thoughts on how this kind of professional is 'produced'. He describes a number of key concepts:
The 'Reflective Practicum'. - a term for the educational setting, or environment: "A practicum is a setting designed for the task of learning a practice". This is where students learn by doing, with the help of coaching. The practicum is 'reflective' in two senses: "it is intended to help students become proficient in a kind of reflection-in-action; and, when it works well, it involves a dialogue of coach and student that takes the form of reciprocal reflection-in-action." Â
Tacit knowledge: his comes from the work of Michael Polanyi3. He describes for example the remarkable way we are able to pick out a familiar face in a crowd. This does not require thinking about, or a systematic analysis of features. We cannot verbalise how this is done, and so the knowledge is 'unspoken' or 'tacit'.Â
Knowing-in-action - derives from the idea of tacit knowledge. It refers to the kinds of knowledge revealed in the way we carry out tasks and approach problems. "The knowing is in the action. It is revealed by the skilful execution of the performance - we are characteristically unable to make it verbally explicit." This tacit knowledge is derived from research, and also from the practitioner's own reflections and experience.Â
Reflection-in-action: reflection that occurs whilst a problem is being addressed, in what Schon calls the 'action-present'. It is a response to a surprise - where the expected outcome is outside of our knowing-in-action. The reflective process is at least to some degree conscious, but may not be verbalised. Reflection-in-action is about challenging our assumptions (because knowing-in-action forms the basis of assumption). It is about thinking again, in a new way, about a problem we have encountered.Â
Reflection-on-action: reflection after the event. Consciously undertaken, and often documented.Â
Willing suspension of disbelief: describes the process of entering into an experience, without judgment, in order to learn from it. Schön uses the term in relation to the idea of learning by doing. One cannot will oneself to 'believe' until one understands. But understanding often will only arise from experience. So it is necessary first to allow the experience to happen.Â
Operative attention: listening and absorbing information, in a state of readiness to apply and experiment with the new information. An everyday example would be when we listen to directions on how to find an obscure address. This participation is important in the learning process - a learner needs to be already engaged in activity for further information to have meaning. This in turn is partly derived from Wittgenstein's5 contention that the meaning of an operation can only be learned through its performance. Hence mechanical or imperfect performance of an activity prepares the learner for new information (feedback) on that activity, in order to develop understanding.Â
The ladder of reflection: Schön speaks of a vertical dimension of analysis that can happen in the dialogue between learner and teacher. To move up a rung on the ladder involves reflecting on an activity. To move down a rung is to move from reflection to experimentation. This ladder has more than two rungs - it is also possible to reflect on the process of reflection. The importance of this concept is in its potential for helping out with 'stuck' situations in learning. Being able to move to another level may assist coach and learner to achieve together what Schön refers to as 'convergence of meaning'.Â
Professional reflective practice is an intricate and challenging activity. It takes time, commitment and support, ongoing professional development and supervision to mature. It should leads to new action and a confirmation of existing actions.
Reflective practice needs to be more than just thoughtful practice, it needs to be a continual process of turning practice into educational opportunities.
Also very useful in expressing an approach to reflective practice is Kolb's experiential learning theory. Kolb (1984), a leader in the contemporary experiential education movement, defined experiential learning as "the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience" (p. 38). His model of experiential learning was based on the works of developmental theorists John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget. Ideally there is a learning cycle or spiral where the learner passed through a four stage learning cycle: first a cycle of experiencing, then of reflecting, thirdly thinking, and finally acting. Immediate or concrete experiences lead to observations and reflections. These reflections are then assimilated (absorbed and translated) into abstract concepts with implications for action, which the person can actively test and experiment with, which in turn enable the creation of new experiences.
As learners continue to have new concrete experiences, by reflecting and thinking about them, we can plan, test hypotheses, and have a positive impact on new experiences.
Kolb's learning circle (experience, reflection, making sense, then planning for action) is a practical tool to help students learn (Wright, 202) . (a) concrete experience, (b) reflective observation, (c) abstract conceptualization, and (d) active experimentation.
The process of experiential education and learning begins with the concrete experience itself (e.g., participating as a member in a small group) and continues with intentional and guided reflection on or debriefing of that experience. Abstract conceptualization represents both the integration of learning experiences and the generation of new ideas. This might include identifying and understanding the monopolizing behaviour on the part of a group member and brainstorming ways to address it in the next group session. Through active experimentation, these new ideas can be tested and explored.
the process of reflection is one of the necessary stages of learning (Kolb 1984; Bennett-Levy 2006) and therefore
Part of clinical wisdom is reflection on practice. Supervision provides the reflective space in which to consider the difficulties and particulars of counselling, within a supportive relationship. Supervision provides the opportunity to develop skills and
understanding, and provides an avenue for comparing different approaches to managing and conceptualising client problems.
Supervision can provided the reflective space to help the supervisee learn about their own thoughts and feelings, and the effect of self on clients.
As a beginning counsellor, there a variety of excellent refection strategies to assist in personal and professional growth and development, to help improve counselling skills, and to prevent burn out and being overwhelmed by worries and concerns of clients.
Appropriate and effective supervision (as well as group and peer supervision), journalling, feedback from clients and supervisors, measures of client progress, and continued education.
Padesky (1996: 273-4) wrote: 'The art and skill of therapy are best developed in a therapist who consistently analyses and learns from both positive and negative client feedback and outcome.'