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What is Reflective Practice?

“The reflective path towards professionalism is slippery like soap." Struck by Schaepkens’ (2021) statement I thought it would be helpful to articulate some of my own ideas about Reflective Practice and what it is. I hope this will be useful to leaders seeking to be more reflective and coming to this for the first time. I'll provide an insight into what's involved and some design principles for constructing your own repertoire of reflective practices. I hope it will also draw out a distinction between practices such as contemplation and mindfulness on the one hand and reflection and Reflective Practice on the other. Reflection is a Complex Process. There are a wide variety of definitions, perspectives and approaches in use. On one hand it’s possible to see reflection simply as a more or less open-ended series of uniquely personal practices loosely described as ‘reflective’ - with the risk of this concept becoming so woolly as to be meaningless. Or it’s possible to attempt a more precise and universally agreed definition - which nevertheless inevitably fails to capture the messy complexity of “practice”. Defining Reflection In 1933 John Dewey defined reflection as ‘‘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’’. Moon (1999) describes reflection as “a form of mental processing with a purpose and/or anticipated outcome that is applied to relatively complex or unstructured ideas for which there is not an obvious solution.’’ Boud (1985) described reflection as “a generic term for those intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to a new understanding and appreciation.” Mann, Gordon and MacLeod (2007) say it is “purposeful critical analysis of knowledge and experience, in order to achieve deeper meaning and understanding” while Marshall, (2019) says “Reflection is a careful examination and bringing together of ideas to create new insight through ongoing cycles of expression and re/evaluation.” Finally Lengelle et al (2016) see “Reflection as an active and intentional process of becoming conscious of and understanding experiences in order to learn from them for the future.” From Reflection to Reflective Practice I’ve been facilitating workshops on Reflective Practice for Leaders for several years as well as running Reflection Circles to support participants to develop their own unique repertoire of reflective practices. Based on insights from research and the everyday experiences on many leaders I’ve developed a point of view about reflection and what it is – and what it isn’t. For me, reflection, or more precisely Reflective Practice is:

  • A deliberate, structured and purposive process aimed at taking action and promoting development, learning and change; in other words it is not (simply) daydreaming, pondering, mindfulness, introspection, mental meandering, contemplation, brooding, or rumination. We reflect in order to see the world differently and take action.

  • It is inherently personal, messy, complex, open, experimental (i.e. encompassing a wide and evolving range of practices) and conducted in the real world. A nuanced view on reflective practice therefore rejects “a one-sized solution for facilitating ‘real’ (…) reflection” (Platt 2014). The practice of reflection requires us to construct a mosaic of activities that work for us as individuals in our busy lives – things we do in the “cracks and crevices” of everyday life - and it will evolve over time (Badaracco 2020).

  • A cyclical process that happens over time and which benefits from the process of revisiting, reinterpreting and re-imagining events, experiences and problems.

  • Reflective Practice isn’t just about the past – reflecting on action to learn and improve in future. Reflection can also take place in the action, during experience (i.e. now/in the moment) and also in anticipation of challenging situations in future - reflection for action. So Reflective Practice includes reflection for action (before), in action (during), and on action (after).

  • Reflection seems to occur most naturally in relation to complex issues and surprises. Schon’s premise that reflection was stimulated in response to complex problems was supported by the studies of Mamede and Schmidt (2004, 2005). These studies also supported the role of novelty and surprise in generating reflection. However intentional Reflective Practice would also direct our attention to situations which we might normally regard as routine or habitual. It would enable us to critically reflect on what we take for granted.

  • Reflection can provoke feelings of discomfort and defensiveness because it involves challenging and re-framing one’s own assumptions and values. The presence of these feelings may be what signify that we are engaging in what we might call “genuine reflection” as opposed to “pseudo reflection” or mere contemplation. This requires not just describing our experiences and feelings but elaborating and deepening by taking multiple perspectives and identifying and questioning our values and assumptions. This requires a level of comfort with doubt and uncertainty and a willingness to step back, gain distance and “make the familiar strange”.

  • Reflective Practice should include reflection upon feelings and emotions. It is not simply dispassionate analysis of events or problems. The emotional content of experiences has to be processes before learning can take place otherwise we tend towards rationalising – trying to explain away what has happened – especially in the case of painful, unpleasant experiences.

  • Most often reflection is characterised as a solo pursuit without an audience. However reflection can be a social process. Indeed it may be necessary to reflect with others to be able to find challenge, new perspectives and accountability for action. Being able to know when and how to reflect for yourself, with a partner or in a group setting is an important aspect of intentional design of our approach to Reflective Practice.

A Reflective Mindset is Key Finally it’s clear that Reflective Practice is grounded in an attitude of mind, a perspective on how we relate to the world, as well as a set of activities or practices. It involves an awareness of the evidenced benefits of reflection and a commitment to “being reflective”, constantly adapting how, when and where we step back to take account of our individual circumstances. There are many paths to reflection and we need to find the path that best suits each of us. Read Clive’s blog series on Reflective Practice for Leaders here


Clive Martlew has over 30 years experience as a leadership coach. He was previously Head of Learning and Leadership Development with the Scottish Government and at the UK Department for International Development (DFID). He is fascinated by the slippery question of how leaders learn.


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