The Reflective Practitioner

The idea of reflecting what you have done and thinking about it later, what you could have done better or what you will do next time seems to come naturally. But there can be more to reflective learning than just have an awareness what is going on around us and to move between action and reflection. Being a reflective practitioner is about deliberate reflective learning which is focused on the future.

Important here is the idea that our assumptions and common sense can be misleading and a barrier to learning. The deliberate part of being a reflective practitioner can make the critical improvements in our lives. The crucial part is to enable myself to do things differently and to evaluate the consequences of my practice/behaviour. Therefore, conscious practice can actually prevent me to run (mentally) in the wrong direction. Additionally, such practice can become a habit and come more natural (although deliberate).

For example, I can learn through:

  • reading books,
  • performing a task,
  • watching TV,
  • conversations with others,
  • observation,
  • going to school,
  • or by swimming (walking, biking…), and let the flow drag my thoughts away.

Which means that sometimes I have to do just about something close to nothing in order to be creative. Kolb‘s (1984) experential learning cycle starts with something like a critical incident:

Learning styles also impact business education in the classroom. Kolb transposes four learning styles, Diverger, Assimilator, Accommodator, and Converger atop the experiential learning model – using the four experiential learning stages to carve out four quadrants, one for each learning style:

  1. Accommodator = Concrete Experience + Active Experiment: strong in hands-on practical doing (e.g. physical therapists)
  2. Converger = Abstract Conceptualization + Active Experiment: strong in practical hands-on application of theories (e.g. engineers)
  3. Diverger = Concrete Experience + Reflective Observation: strong in imaginative ability and discussion (e.g. social workers)
  4. Assimilator = Abstract Conceptualization + Reflective Observation: strong in inductive reasoning and creation of theories (e.g. philosophers)

Reflection is a crucial part of the experiential learning process, and like experiential learning itself, it can be facilitated or independent. Dewey wrote that:

“Successive portions of reflective thought grow out of one another and support one another.”
[Kompf, M. and Bond, R. (2001) Critical Reflection in Adult Education. In: T. Barer-Stein & M. Kompf (Eds.), The Craft of Teaching Adults, Toronto, Irwin, p. 55]

This is creating a basis for further learning, and allowing for further experiences and reflection. This reinforces the fact that experiential learning and reflective learning are iterative processes, and learning builds and develops with further reflection and experience.

Comments (13)

  1. The Editor (Post author)

    As I am about to become a tutor, facilitation of experiential learning and reflection is challenging:

    “A skilled facilitator, asking the right questions and guiding reflective conversation before, during, and after an experience, can help open a gateway to powerful new thinking and learning.”
    [Jacobson, M. and Ruddy, M. (2004) Open to Outcome, Oklahoma City, Wood ‘N’ Barnes, p. 2]

    Jacobson and Ruddy, building on Kolb’s four-stage Experiential Learning Model and Pfeiffer and Jones’s five stage Experiential Learning Cycle, took these theoretical frameworks and created a simple, practical questioning model for facilitators to use in promoting critical reflection in experiential learning. Their “5 Questions” model is as follows:

    • Did you notice…?
    • Why did that happen?
    • Does that happen in life?
    • In what situation does that happen?
    • How can you use that?

    These questions are posed by the facilitator after an experience, and gradually lead the group towards a critical reflection on their experience, and an understanding of how they can apply the learning to their own life. Although the questions are simple, they allow a relatively inexperienced facilitator to apply the theories of Kolb, Pfeiffer, and Jones, and deepen the learning of the group.

    When journalists are getting a story, they ask “the 5Ws and H“: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The first four questions help to sort out what happened and the final two will help with reflection, the second stage in the cycle. The important point in Kolb’s cycle is that the experience/reflection stages are iterative.

    For the generalisation stage (i.e. active conceptualisation) the key question to answer is “so what?”, and in the next stage “now what?”. Rumelt’s criteria might also help here. The last stage is called action stage (active experimentation) because it is not enough just to think about it, be wiser or grumble, but to get on by making a difference.

  2. The Editor

    Feelings in Business and Reflective Practice

    Kolb‘s learning cycle is a rational model of learning and might not appreciate that thoughts and behaviour become messed up by feelings, which makes life (and especially teaching) more complicated but also more spicy. The model by Pedlar, Burgoyne and Boydell (2001) asks to consider how and why I became emotionally involved and if there might be better ways of (re-) acting:

    Pedlar et al. model

    The difference between Kolb’s and Pedlar’s model is at the stage of thinking about action. Whereas Kolb is talking about what action to take next, Pedlar et al. are referring to the ideas in our minds in a specific situation. So the aim of reflective learning is different. Here it is about understanding behaviour and the negative effects that might pop up in our behaviour. Are there re-occurring patterns (action-tendencies)?

    I remember that in job interviews, the more unskilled HR representatives (avoiding the word “professional” in the context of HR here) used to ask me: “So, we talked about your skills and strengths. What are your weaknesses?”. Of course it is frowned upon asking such questions nowadays, so they have changed it to something like: “So, tell me, what are the re-occurring topics in your life?” – referring to the patterns. ??

    It is perfectly reasonable to expect that our feelings affect our actions, and it is very visible in every day’s business life, although everyone tries hard to appear rational. Especially in the Western European tradition, feelings are suspect and to be rational is highly estimated. The trouble with this is by hiding our feelings, we also fail to take them into account.

  3. The Editor (Post author)

    Kolb’s Styles

    There is a danger that Kolb’s dimensions are taken as ‘given’ styles and applied to individuals. On an individual level, however, we always deal with real-life persons with different backgrounds, stories, relationships, and preferences.


    • Kolb’s learning styles are not about fixed patterns, but individual preferences. One learning style does not take preference over another.
    • However, there might be more and less advantageous learning styles in different situations.
    • Learning styles may shift slightly over the years. Current life situation of the test person often influences outcome of the assessment.
    • When teaching or advising other people, I have to take into account that my instructions might match my own learning style, but not the one of my counterpart.
    • Additionally, I have to be aware that some learners will do mistakes despite of my artful instructions, because their way of learning is by trial and error.
  4. The Editor

    Good Study Habits

    An article I came across in the New York Times had the title “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits”. Below are a couple of excerpts…

    “[…] there are effective approaches to learning, at least for those who are motivated. In recent years, cognitive scientists have shown that a few simple techniques can reliably improve what matters most: how much a student learns from studying. The findings can help anyone, from a fourth grader doing long division to a retiree taking on a new language. But they directly contradict much of the common wisdom about good study habits, and they have not caught on.”

    “For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing […] Psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.”

    “The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.”

    “What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment…” Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills…”

    The technical term for what is described above is “interleaving” and the study quoted in the article, by Kelli Taylor and Doug Rohrer, of the Department of Psychology, University of South Florida can be downloaded at:
    The Effects of Interleaved Practice.

    You can go here to read the whole article on the New York Times website and the comments from learners it has generated:
    Mind – Research Upends Traditional Thinking on Study Habits –

  5. The Editor (Post author)

    Changing Education Paradigms

    This RSA Animate was adapted from a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert. He notes that our education paradigm is about standardisation. The problem is that our entire society is based around that factory line model.

  6. The Editor

    Good Exam Revision

    The above quoted article continues about exam revision and the usefulness of practice self-tests:

    “Cognitive scientists do not deny that honest-to-goodness cramming can lead to a better grade on a given exam. But hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn — it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out.”

    “[However,] When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found […] one reason cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.”

    “Dr. Roediger [says] “Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it,” he says — and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less. In one of his own experiments, Dr. Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, also of Washington University, had college students study science passages from a reading comprehension test, in short study periods. When students studied the same material twice, in back-to-back sessions, they did very well on a test given immediately afterward, then began to forget the material. But if they studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session, they did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.”

    The implication for my own teaching practice is that I allow students to take a self-made two-page abstract to the exam. This way, I make sure that they think about the content of the curriculum and engage actively in learning by reducing the subject matter to its essence.

  7. The Editor (Post author)

    Booksmart or Streetwise?

    In management often two sides of learning are contrasted – on the one hand the ‘booksmart’ and on the other the ‘streetwise’ manager. The former represents the learning Raelin and Coghlan (2006) described as knowledge resulting from programmed instructions (designated P). The latter can be related to apposite questioning (designated Q), investigation, experience, and experimentation (ibid.). Some scholars suggest that P and Q are mutually different aspects with marginal interrelation. The roots of this discussion can be traced back to epistemology, on the differences between “knowing-that” and “knowing-how” (Chisholm 1957, Gettier 1963). More recently in the context of management, Garvin (1993, p. 84) identifies Knowing how as practical knowledge which comprises standards of practice and settings of equipment. Knowing why captures the underlying cause-and-effect relationships (ibid.). Besides these differences in view, some authors state that “the food is no good” (Feldman, 2005) which then in turn depicts a reason for the marginal importance of P to management practice. Some authors even feel that P is so bad that it is damaging economy (Mintzberg, 2004).

    The critique argues that P may be overly technical and reduces commitment to life-long learning (Porter et al. 1989; Raelin, 1990). Students are left with the impression that management problems can be wrapped into neat technical working packages (Raelin, 1995). Hence, they may be unable to transform knowledge gained in one context to another (Reilly, 1982), as this form of learning is done individually and in private (Pleasants, 1966; Polanyi, 1966; Reber, 1993).

    On the other side, is commonly accepted that Q forms the basis for knowledge (Raelin and Coghlan, 2006). Learning from experience in the real world is distinguishing successful managers from others (Argyris, 1999). Tacit knowledge (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995) is a product of practical work. Mintzberg (1973) states that managers learn on their feet in the day-to-day enactment of their managerial roles.

  8. The Editor

    Action Learning and Reflective Practice

    The relationship between learning and management continues to receive much attention from researchers and practitioners. Concepts such as life-long learning, action learning, independent, self-directed learning, reflective practice, reflective learning, experiential learning, double-loop learning and organisational learning are among those that are frequently debated. Regardless of the specific focus or content of these debates, their common tenor is that learning and knowledge building are essential to organisations’ success and arguably among the most significant capabilities of competent, efficient and effective managers (Open University, 2009).

    Evidence-based Management (EBMgt or EBM) is an emerging movement to explicitly use the current, best evidence in management decision-making. Its roots are in Evidence-based Medicine, a quality movement to apply the scientific method to medical practice.
    [Source: Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. (2012) “Evidence-based management”, St. Petersburg, FL.].
    However, the term Evidence-based Management has become something of a buzzword.

    When I was engaged in the last part of an MBA with the Open University I had to deliver an Evidenced Based Initiative (EBI), at least to the implementation stage. Unlike, say, research projects or investigations, the EBI was not just a detached exploration of an issue, or a piece of business consultancy leading prinarily to a set of rather abstract recommendations for action on the part of the organisation or management. The EBI aimed to concentrate on the sorts of abilities – theoretical and practical – that an individual manager needs in order to implement such recommendations. Real management issues are usually complex in a way that means that further aspects come to light when a ‘best first shot’ plan for tackling them is put to work. Management is often about adapting plans on the go, while being clear about one’s intentions and actions. Interestingly, the International Project Management Association (IPMA) takes a very similar approach to certify its members.

    Whereas Kolb is talking about what action to take next, Pedlar et al. are referring to the ideas in our minds in a specific situation. Their aim of reflective learning is about understanding own behaviour. Now that I am about to become a tutor, reflective practice has a third dimension: I am not just responsible for my own learning, but for the learning of others. I have to consider learning styles of the students, their ability to process information, their preferred channel of input, and so forth. Bernese psychologist Semmer (e.g. Keller, A. C., and Semmer, N. K. (2013) Changes in situational and dispositional factors as predictors of job satisfaction, Journal of Vocational Behavior, 83) created a model describing behaviour as ‘ability to learn’ derived from basic factors like personality, relationships, the situation at work, and actual cause (such as a remark made by the tutor):

    • Every emotion overrules information, i.e.
    • In order to learn, the learner’s stress level needs to be low. Otherwise the learner is distracted.
    • The learning environment should be protected and characterised by an atmosphere of trust.


  9. The Editor (Post author)

    How to Help Learners to Fulfil their Potential

    At the heart of all success is learning done well. Teaching and coaching is part of the mix that ensures learning goes well, and cannot be separated from an educator’s work. Teaching is about making an effort – it is the educator’s role to ensure the learner spends time doing the right things right. Practice makes permanent, so if you do the wrong things, error becomes the norm. Ever wondered why kids say they are bored at school, or why they stop trying when the work gets harder? Educationalist Carol Dweck explains how the wrong kind of praise actually harms young people.

  10. The Editor

    Action Learning (revisited)

    However, there are also more holistic approaches to management, in which theory’s role is seen as throwing light on the assumptions underlying practice (Raelin, 1994). By describing action, theory provides managers with a common language and means of analysis (Thorpe, 1988). “Action Learning” is an alternative model seeking to integrate theory into practice by application and exposure to real-life situations. It is based on the idea that managers learn most from teachers and others while they are engaged in problems of their workplace (Revans, 1971). Such assignments have recognized stakeholders who take genuine interest in the project, sustain business pressure to outcomes within an agreed amount of time, therefore contributing to quality and stretch (Margerison, 1988).

    Mintzberg (1996) demands to shut down traditional North American MBA programmes as he sees them destroying good management practice. Probably this is the sort of consequence the statement would be recommending. However, it is hard to see why some technical subjects taught in classrooms, such as financial accounting and control, should not improve management practice. It is true, though, that with many case analyses and experiential approaches (Kolb, 1984), managers gain knowledge about management, but lack knowledge on how to take action (Raelin, 1994). They can find themselves in paralyzing situations. Only knowledge derived from Q – making mistakes and learning from experience – can help them to overcome the dilemma of not knowing what steps could be taken next. This would make a case for more mentorship in management, where experienced managers consult the learners or provide some form of apprenticeship. Unfortunately, forms of mentorship lie totally in the hands of the organisations and their managers willing to invest time and effort in their colleagues and protégés. No business school can meet such demands.

  11. The Editor (Post author)

    Design Knowledge

    Van Aken (2004) argues that architects, doctors, engineers, managers and other professionals draw on two different kinds of knowledge when they work in messy situations: (1) scientific knowledge, and (2) design knowledge. Of course, the masters of the universe are not reluctant to be compared to the halfgods in white coats. As I am working in a city hospital, the metaphor matches the situation: Doctors select relevant scientific or theoretical knowledge from their academic study, but they combine this with somewhat looser ‘grounded design rules’, along the lines of: ‘In Situation x, apply Approach p, while in contrasted Situation y, apply Approach q.’ These rules come from personal experience and and the experience of colleagues. Applying this combination of scientific and design knowledge, however, is not a scientific method in the narrower sense. It demands a certain degree of trial and error, best managed through an iterative approach to the improvement cycle. Once a way forward has been identified, it needs to be monitored closely to see whether some other approach is more suitable.

    Donald Sch?n (1983) argues that managerial and organisational problems may not fit any recognisable categories and it may be difficult to recognise in which part of the organisation the problem lies. My working environment is characterised by such attributes like ‘interdisciplinary’, ‘messy’, ‘fast-paced’, ‘demanding’, ‘political’. Probably the perfect environment for an EBI, as there are many opportunities for improvement, pitfalls, and room for management learning. However, the organisational climate in hospitals and clinics is traditionally top-down oriented, beginning with the head of department to the chief physician down to doctors. The climate in such institutions is not one that would accept failure (Henry, 2010) or support playful risk taking (Ekvall, 1997) – it cannot be in the art of healing (as opposed to medical research). Top-down orientation may sometimes freeze progress and foster organisational provincialism. Publicly funded institutions in my country, like hospitals operated on cost control, do not find it easy to deal with strategic issues (Kaplan and Norton, 2001).

  12. The Editor

    Implementation Styles

    Mintzberg et al. (1998, p. 182) criticize that often the implementation style of change matches the organisation’s operating practices: How can an organisation change if it applies concepts embedded deep in the heart of the institutions? – the same needed to be overcome in order to implement real change. In terms of a hospital environment, such concepts lie in the distributed character of power where knowledge and power to create strategy is widely diffused (ibid., p. 229). It describes a culture where every initiative and every change needs to be negotiated. This in turn leads to an ‘unfreezing’ (Lewin, 1959) phase that is extended with many iterations.

    Lorsch (1986, p. 98) noted that organisations stick with the beliefs that have worked in the past, but Johnson (1987, p. 270 – 274) argues that an analytical-rationalistic approach cannot be effective unless another change process to break down old beliefs is already in process.

  13. The Editor (Post author)

    On the Value of Written Words

    Management theory has its value and its natural limitations. This probably boils down to Plato’s (1925) general critique of writing:

    “And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.”

    My own conclusion is that theory indeed improves managerial skills because leadership requires “a delicate balance between people skills and technical expertise, and success in this type of role does not come easily. Reflective Practice provides leaders with an opportunity to critically review what has been successful in the past and where improvement can be made” (Avolio et al., 2010). This in turn needs P and Q, and takes time.

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