This article presents the theories and principles that inform the practice of reflective writing in portfolios used in the development of higher education professionals. There are many definitions of reflection and reflective writing available. Put simply, reflection involves individual teachers in thinking about and critically analyzing their learning and teaching experiences. Reflection of this kind is intentional and usually
directed towards enhanced understanding of and continual improvement in learning
and teaching practice. Such reflection is often guided by learning and teaching theory, as well as by the experiences of and feedback from peers and students. When teachers turn their reflection into reflective writing, they commit themselves to paper or screen, drafting and crafting accounts of learning and teaching experiences and subsequent analysis of these. In other words, reflective writing is characterized by a narrative framework that transforms it from mere description into a personally and publicly meaningful account of messy and multifaceted experience.
Schön and the Reflective Practitioner
Donald Alan Schön was a highly influential thinker in the late twentieth century who developed the theory and practice of reflective professional learning. His works and theories were influenced largely by John Dewey who advocated that learning is dependent upon the integration of experience with reflection and of theory with practice. In education, Dewey felt, greater emphasis should be placed on improving problem solving and critical thinking skills rather than simply memorizing the lesson. Dewey considered the concept of reflection to be a special form of problem solving (Hatton & Smith, 1995). Schön's book, "The Reflective Practitioner" (1994), challenged practitioners to reconsider the role of technical knowledge versus 'artistry' in developing professional excellence and introduced the concept of reflective practice as a critical process in refining one's artistry or craft within a specific discipline. Schön felt and argued that skills could not be acquired away from or in isolation of context. These views, which have gained more prominence within the last decade, arose as a reaction to the technical and competency based strategies commonly employed by institutions of higher learning in the 1970s. The belief at the time was that a professional could master the ability to solve problems by acquiring and habitually applying a proven body of knowledge or set of theories and techniques to a given situation. He argued that this position, though perhaps workable in a static society in which social systems remained constant, knowledge relatively stable and dilemmas in life mostly predictable (Hatten, Knapp & Salogna, 2000), discounted other aspects of knowledge acquisition more workable in a fast changing society in which the direction for change could not be predicted (Hatten et al., 2000), and did a disservice to practitioners by helping to create too wide a gap between theory and practice.
Schön (1994), recognized that "thoughtful practice (or reflection)â€¦can become a generator of new knowledge" (as cited in Torbert, 2004) and should therefore be a critical aspect of the training of practitioners, among them teachers. His mission then was to create a new framework of knowledge which values practice above head-knowledge, deals with tacit or unspoken knowledge and skills in a helpful way, and which shows how reflection enables the practitioner to continuously develop and extend the knowledge available to their profession.
Others like Professor David Boud, David A. Kolb (Experiential Learning) and Jack Mezirow (Transformative Learning) supported this idea that effective learning could not occur unless you reflect and that reflecting was an essential element of learning.
Review of literature
Reflective writing is evidence of reflective thinking. In an academic context, reflective thinking usually involves:
1. Looking back at something (often an event, i.e. something that happened, but it could also be an idea or object).
2. Analyzing the event or idea (thinking in depth and from different perspectives, and trying to explain, often with reference to a model or theory from your subject).
3. Thinking carefully about what the event or idea means for you and your ongoing progress as a learner and/or practicing professional.
Reflective writing is thus more personal than other kinds of academic writing. We all think reflectively in everyday life, of course, but perhaps not to the same depth as that expected in good reflective writing at university level.
Reflective writing is an adaptive strategy that can be used to respond to contemporary changes in the culture, conditions and practice of third-level education. Reflective practice and writing facilitate the formation of a set of concepts-a type of 'mental furniture' (Carlile 2005)-that can be moved around and rearranged to suit the appropriate context.
There are numerous definitions of reflective thinking in the literature. Generally however, they refer to the intentional action of the individual in light of his or her experiences, leading to a new conceptual perspective or understanding.
Boud (1985) describes reflection as a generic term for those intellectual and effective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to a new understanding and appreciation. Reflection is a forum of response of the learner to experience. Reid (1993) defines reflection as "a process of reviewing an experience of practice in order to describe, analyze, evaluate and so inform learning about practice." Dewey (1933) says reflection is "an active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends" (as cited in Allin & Tuncock, 2007). Reflective thinking, Dewey said (1933), means turning a subject over in the mind and giving it serious and consecutive consideration. It enables us to act in deliberate and intentional fashion.
We teach to change the world. The hope that undergirds our efforts to help students learn is that doing this will help them act towards each other, and to their environment, with compassion, understanding and fairness. But our attempts to increase the amount of love and justice in the world are never simple, never ambiguous. What we think are democratic, respectful ways of treating people can be experienced by them as oppressive and constraining. One of the hardest things teachers learn is that the sincerity of their intentions does not guarantee the purity of their practice. The cultural, psychological and political complexities of learning, and the ways in which power complicates all human relationships (including those between students and teachers) means that teaching can never be innocent.
Teaching innocently means thinking that we're always understanding exactly what it is that we're doing and what effect we're having. Teaching innocently means assuming that the meanings and significance we place in our actions are the ones that students take from them. At best, teaching this way is naive. At worst, it induces pessimism, guilt and lethargy. Since we rarely have full awareness of what we're doing, and since we frequently misread how others perceive our actions, an uncritical stance towards our practice sets us up for a lifetime of frustration. Nothing seems to work out as it should. Our inability to control what looks like chaos becomes, to our eyes, evidence of our incompetence.
Reflection may begin mundanely, and focus on only one aspect of experience, such as a descriptive account of a classroom incident. At its highest level, however, reflection will consider experience from many perspectives-the emotional, the rational, the theoretical, the experiential, the moral. For this reason, reflection may be disturbing, but can lead to a heightened consciousness of the situation that can include a sense of personal responsibility and a commitment to action.
Many people find reflective writing difficult. To overcome anxiety and other blocks to reflection and reflective writing, it may be necessary to present reflection as straightforward process, even initially through a type of formula or model. Here we present a model that we hope will be useful to teachers and practitioners of reflection. It draws on theories of meta-cognition and reflection, combined with experience.
Constructivism is the theory of how people learn where learning happens as the student constructs or builds knowledge or skills. The formalization of this theory is generally attributed to Jean Piaget who suggested that people learn or construct new knowledge from their experiences through a process of assimilation, (that is, fitting new experiences into what they already know), and accommodation (that is, reworking one's understanding of the way the world works to fit new experiences). According to Piaget, "accommodation can be understood as the mechanism by which failure leads to learning: when we act on the expectation that the world operates in one way and it violates our expectations, we often fail, but by accommodating this new experience and reframing our model of the way the world works, we learn from the experience of failure." ("Wikipedia" 2007)
From the definition of reflective thinking and constructivism it can be seen that assimilation and accommodation - reframing and learning - occur during the process of reflective practice. In the same way the theory of constructivism suggests that learners construct new knowledge from their experience; Schön argues that the process of reflective thinking generates new knowledge.
Livingston (1997) says that "Metacognition refers to higher order thinking which involves active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning". In other words, metacognition is not just about the process of knowing, but involves thinking about the process of knowing, reflecting on one's cognitive experiences or "thinking about thinking". The distinction between cognitive knowledge and metacognitive knowledge lies in how information is used. An individual uses cognitive strategies to help them achieve a particular goal. For example, a teacher will use cognitive strategies - thinking about and applying knowledge bases - to develop, plan and execute a lesson. On the other hand, metacognitive strategies are used to ensure that the goal has been reached. For example, the same teacher would employ metacognitive strategies as a means of determining or ensuring that the lesson did indeed achieve its intended purpose and if not, why not.
Roberts and Erdos (1993) indicate that metacognitive experiences usually precede or follow a cognitive activity. They often occur when cognitions failâ€¦such an impasse is believed to activate metacognitive processes as the learner attempts to rectify the situation. (as cited in Livingston, 1997)
Reflective thinking therefore, is a tool for ongoing and dynamic professional development, is based on constructivism and is metacognitive in nature.
Theory and Practice
Integrating Theory and Practice
By showing that new knowledge, new thinking and professional development can only be generated within the double-loop framework; the reflective teaching model presents a framework within which the teacher practitioner can engage in reflective thinking. The model can be used by teacher training institutions in designing the conceptual framework for teacher education. It can be used by teacher educators as a means of professional development, in order to model the practice of reflective teaching and also to train the teacher student to be a reflective practitioner. The reflective teaching model then can be employed by the beginning teacher as a means of ongoing education and professional development.
Meta-cognitive theory applies to the person, and reflective theory applies to experience. The next step in teaching reflective skills is combining theory and experience. This has the effect of deepening understanding of the theory by the provision of experiential exemplars. Experience deepens understanding of the theory while the theory enriches experience. In turn, reflection engenders sensitivity to, and a restructuring of, experience.
Reflective Writing Strategies
It is often easiest to begin reflective writing with a critical incident, unresolved issue or problem that demands a response. Although it may not be dispelled by reflection, perplexity will be consciously accepted. According to Baxter Magolda (1992), consciousness of perplexity can represent a high level of epistemological awareness and is often an indicator of reflective writing of a high standard. Nevertheless, beginners sometimes worry that they will suffer from 'reflector's block'-that is, they will not know what to write about. As well as the 'micro' framework for reflection illustrated in Figure 5 above, it is helpful to have a 'macro' framework for each piece of reflective writing. Such frameworks might include:
â€¢ expectations: reflections in advance of an event
â€¢ impressions: instant thoughts in the moment
â€¢ critical incident: reflections that respond to a particularly revealing external event
â€¢ learning moment: reflections on a moment of enlightenment, understanding or insight
â€¢ problems: reflections that assist in the process of naming difficulties
â€¢ regular entries: consistent, methodical journal writing
â€¢ double reflection: reconsideration of a previous reflection
â€¢ second-order reflection: reflective overview of a sequence of earlier reflections
â€¢ meta-reflection: reflections on the process of reflection
â€¢ final evaluation: reflections when part of a program is completed
â€¢ group reflection: reflections by a group on a shared experience or case study.
The Reflective Teaching Model
In 1997, Regina Hatten adapted Argyris and Schön's 'Single and double-loop learning'; Montgomery's 'Meta model of learning' and 'Reflective learning process model' to illustrate the Reflective Teaching Model.
The process begins in the framework of the 'single loop learning' (1). Within this loop, the teaching practitioner plans a lesson, carries out or experiences the lesson, makes observations about the lesson and reflects (2) on the lesson. Although reflection takes place here, it is not transformative and keeps the practitioner within the same predictable loop. In other words, assimilation takes place but not accommodation and the thinking remains on a cognitive level. From this reflection evaluation - patterned on previous experience and proven solutions - takes place and the practitioner continues along the same path borne of habit. However, when an habitual action guided by tacit knowledge, previous experiences or proven solutions do not produce the usual expected results, the teaching practitioner faces a problem (5) or a dilemma in experience. Something now has happened - perhaps an unusually disruptive or passive response to a tried and true teaching technique - that triggers the use of metacognitive strategies. The teaching practitioner is now operating within the framework of double loop learning. The practitioner begins the process of gathering data, describing and documenting information (naming) in order to properly re-construct the problem (framing). This process of thinking through what happened and why may happen in the moment - Reflection-in-action (10) and allow the teacher to adjust his or her methods 'on the spot' or may happen after the event (Reflection-on-action) both leading to a paradigm shift (8) or a new way of thinking and being which then determines the next move or new plan (9) and the cycle repeats.
Benefits and limitations of the reflective teaching model
Reflective teaching positively affects professional growth and development because it leads to greater self-awareness, leads to new knowledge about professional practice and leads to a broader understanding of the problems that confront practitioners. According to Brookfield (1995), other benefits of reflection to the arena of teaching include increased probability that teachers will take informed actions that can be explained and justified to others, enabling teachers to provide a rational behind their practice. This can be crucial in establishing credibility with students, helping teachers to avoid taking blame for students not learning, emotionally grounding teachers, enlivening the classroom by making it challenging, interesting and stimulating for students, increasing democratic trust as a result of the examples and modeling conveyed by the teacher. (as cited in King & Hibbison, 2000)
In addition, reflective teaching allows teachers to identify routine and impulsive behavior; allows teachers to act in a deliberate and intentional manner; leads to a deeper understanding of one's own teaching style and ultimately greater effectiveness as a teacher; provides beneficial challenges to tradition; recognizes teaching as artistry and it allows teachers to reconstruct their own educational perspective.
Reflective teaching has its limitation or challenges however. The method can become very time consuming particularly with all the other commitments pressing on a teachers' time. The process involves personal risk as one examines personal beliefs, values and feelings. Reflection can lead to feelings of inadequacy either from a teacher feeling like they don't know what to do or else feeling unable to do what they should do because of constraints placed on them by the system. Speaking out about changes that should be made may also lead to fear of being marginalized by one's peers. Teachers may also face political and professional risk if the climate is not conducive to openness and transparency. A teacher actively engaged in reflective teaching may be seen as an affront to those who have settled for control and predictability. This is especially so if there is, as Brookfield points out, a 'culture of silence' in the institution.
The role of teaching as a form of expanded scholarship has been elucidated by Boyer (1990). One implication is the need for critical and independent thinkers in higher education who will engage in the formulation and critique of new knowledge.
Reflection and reflective writing offers a means by which such thinkers can be developed. Reflective writing is not a natural process, however; a reflective mindset needs to be nurtured. Students require guidance and formulas and structured practice. The process may begin mundanely and focus on only one aspect of learning or experience. At its highest level, however, it will consider experience from multiple perspectives. Writing involves both physical and mental activity, becoming a medium through which experience is represented and meaning acquired for the writer and others. It acts as a form of thinking rather than simply its record. This is why the reflective journal is an essential element of the reflective process and why writing can lead to important personal and professional resolutions. Reflection can be disturbing, but it can lead to a greater awareness of personal responsibility and professionalism in higher education.