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What is reflective practice?

Moon defines reflective practice as “a set of abilities and skills, to indicate the taking of a critical stance, an orientation to problem solving or state of mind” (1999: 63). This encapsulates the wide range of activities associated with thinking about your learning. Cowan suggests that learners are reflecting in an educational sense “when they analyse or evaluate one or more personal experiences, and attempt to generalise from that thinking” (1999: 18). However, as Biggs points out, “a reflection in a mirror is an exact replica of what is in front of it. Reflection in professional practice, however, gives back not what it is, but what might be, an improvement on the original” (1999: 6).

For the purpose of this guide, reflective practice is perhaps best understood as an approach which promotes autonomous learning that aims to develop students’ understanding and critical thinking skills. Techniques such as self and peer assessment, problem-based learning, personal development planning and group work can all be used to support a reflective approach (see further the section on integrating reflective practice into teaching).

Work by Schön and Kolb has given reflective practice currency in recent years, using and applying a basic principle of reflecting on experience to improve action and professional practice. However, this is not a new or original idea; it has been developed by education such as Dewey and Lewin and can be traced back to the work of Socrates and a form of learning through questioning and feedback. It forces us to question what it is that we know and how we come to know it. More currently, Claxton has suggested that “learning to learn, or the development of learning power, is getting better at knowing when, how and what to do when you don’t know what to do” (1999: 18). This lack of certainty forces the individual to examine the basis on which s/he believes something to be true. Reflection on what they know and don’t know helps students to appreciate that law is a social science open to interpretation. It also helps students to understand that learning is individual, and that only they can make the connections to existing knowledge such that they make sense of law for themselves.

When we speak of ‘reflective practitioners’ we usually refer to adult learners who are engaged in some kind of activity (often professional) which they can use to reflect on their strengths, weaknesses and areas for development. Students in turn need to be encouraged to use situations, for example tutorials, group discussions or placements, as a basis for reflecting on what they have learned. Example 1 outlines how legal clinics may be used to provide an opportunity for reflection.

Using intuition to inform learning

Schön speaks of reflective practitioners who are not just skilful or competent but “thoughtful, wise and contemplative”, whose work involves “intuition, insight and artistry” (1983). Drawing on our intuition we do what feels right. It is an emotional response that complements our knowledge and what we understand about a subject, and which enables us to act in a situation. Using intuition to inform learning is referred to in education as developing ‘meta-cognitive’ skills. That is, a more developed or higher order version of the ‘cognitive’ (knowledge, reasoning) skills that we employ in learning. Examples of cognitive skills are the subject specific and key skills outlined in the law benchmark statement (Quality Assurance Agency, 2000b). By contrast meta-cognitive skills are more likely to be employed in analysis, synthesis, critical judgement and evaluation, autonomy and ability to learn. Meta-cognitive skills are important because they affect the ability to understand and make sense of experience. As such they are essential to the process of reflection and working in situations of uncertainty.

As one undergraduate law student comments:

“Although [the tutor] gave a sort of outline as to ‘how to cross examine’ I’m starting to see how much it is more thinking on your feet technique and can’t really be planned.”

(Law in Practice student journal, University of Warwick, 1999)

Encouraging students to acknowledge their intuitive capacity helps them to appreciate their strengths and weaknesses. As one student explains, “it is strange that sometimes you do things or know what things are without ever really stopping and analysing it. For me, negotiation is one of those things.” (Law in Practice Journal, University of Warwick, 1999). Helping students to tap into their intuition helps to support reflection and future planning. Boud and Walker argue: “it is common for reflection to be treated as if it were an intellectual exercise – a simple matter of thinking rigorously. However, reflection is not solely a cognitive process; emotions are central to all learning.” (1998: 194).

LeBrun and Johnstone make a strong case for the inclusion of meta-cognitive skills into the law curriculum. They argue that the law teacher’s “reluctance to explore and acknowledge other aspects of the human condition may contribute directly to the current impoverishment of legal education.” (1994: 164).

It is useful when appraising the success of a module to look at how students’ meta-cognitive skills are developed. Asking students why they behaved or interpreted a situation in a particular way can provide useful insights not only into how much and what they understand, but also the extent to which they draw on intuition.

Exercise


Think about a module or course for which you are responsible and consider the following questions:

Can you identify in which elements students have to draw upon intuition and ‘gut’ feeling?

If you have problems identifying parts where these elements are facilitated within the course, think about the assessment on the course/module. Does this involve the opportunity for the students to demonstrate reflective or intuitive ability?

Last Modified: 4 June 2010