Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Reflective Practice Workshop

On Thursday 17th November I attended two workshops run by CILIP in London. The morning workshop looked at reflective practice. I’ve been thinking about this topic quite a bit recently for various reasons. Primarily because I’m working towards Chartership and as you probably know writing reflectively about your experiences is an important part of that. It also came up in the 23 things for CPD scheme both as a thing in its own right and as one of the overarching themes.

I enjoy writing and I like to think that I’m a reflective person so this is something that I’m interested in anyway. With all that in mind I was looking forward to this workshop. I was curious to find out what advice and tips they would give us.

The Speakers

The two speakers were Rosemary McGuiness and Paula Nottingham. They both work at Middlesex University and their specialism is work based learning. This is an approach to learning which focuses on ‘real world’, workplace experience. Chartership and its sisters are examples of this. It’s also well established in fields like nursing and teaching. For example the teaching practice element of a PGCE or similar qualification is work based learning.

Reflective writing is an important part of this approach. Students are encouraged to reflect in depth on their experiences and write down their thoughts. This is put very much at the heart of the learning process.


The session started with a look at the theoretical underpinning of reflective writing as a tool for personal and professional development. The focus was on what Paula called the classic theories. The Kolb Cycle for example which shows reflective practice as a circular flow through four stages.

1. Concrete Experience (Doing / having an experience)
2. Reflective Observation (Reviewing / reflecting on the experience)
3. Abstract Conceptualisation (Concluding / learning from the experience)
4. Active Experimentation (Planning / trying out what you have learned)
And then back to stage one…

This is a classic model of reflective practice. I’m sure most of you have probably seen something similar at some point. It featured in the CPD 23 blog post on reflective practice to give a recent example. It is popular for a reason. This is a useful way to think about the process of reflection. Even the simple fact that it is a cycle is useful because it emphasises the fact that reflection should lead to action which should then be reflected on in turn.

We looked at Schon’s ideas about the distinction between ‘reflection in action’ and ‘reflection on action’. Essentially the divide between reflecting in the moment, thinking about what you’re doing now and reflecting on things that you have done, thinking about how you could have approached it differently. The first one is very important because we need it to work effectively but the second one is the key to developing and doing our job better in the future.

Honey and Mumford’s original version of the learning styles model also came up. Personally I think learning styles are an overused concept. It is a question of emphasis or preference but it is too often talked about as if your style is the only way you can learn. The useful lesson from the model is that teachers have to vary the way they teach in order to meet the needs of all their students because people learn in different ways. Anyway I’m digressing here. To be fair it’s not Honey and Mumford’s fault that it’s overused. Their original idea was a good one.

Discussing the pros and cons of individual theories isn’t really the point anyway. The aim was to show that reflective writing is a well-established educational tool with strong roots in research into how we think and learn.

Reflective Activities

The talks were interspersed with various reflective activities. We didn’t write any essays but we all participated in mini writing tasks and discussion activities.
The first task was to fill in a learning log table. We had to pick an example of something that we had done at work, a ‘focus or task’. We then had to evaluate what we learnt from the task, how we can be more effective in future and what we discovered about ourselves. The idea was that keeping a learning log like this would help us to improve our performance at work. I liked this activity. It was simple but potentially very effective. I am going to start using the pattern to record events which really stand out as potentially useful learning experiences. I assume that those will mostly be the disasters and the high points.

This learning log is similar to the log that I currently keep in order to help me to reflect on my teaching sessions. My library skills sessions and my VLE training sessions have definitely benefitted from the simple idea of keeping a teaching log. I just jot down a few thoughts about each session, including what went well and what I could have done to make it go better. Extending that log idea to other areas of my professional practice could be very useful.

We also did a quick brain storm of all the people who are part of our communities of practice. Defined by Wenger (some more theory for you) as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”. It’s interesting to see how that web spreads out when you give yourself time to think about it.

Later we were given time to write a slightly longer piece about something that we had done at work. The advice was to include how we felt about it. The idea was that we normally suppress our emotional responses to things that happen at work. We assume that our feelings belong to our personal life outside of the workplace.
I’m not sure this is universally true. Some people do get very emotional about things that happen to them at work. That said I take the point that in order to be effective reflective writing needs to be honest enough to include how we feel about our experiences. Without that aspect it can be slightly hollow.

The session ended with a storytelling session. We were invited to share a story with a neighbour. It had to be a story about something that we had done at work which went very well or very badly. A few brave souls went on to share their stories with the group.

This kind of storytelling is perhaps the oldest form of organised reflective learning. It goes back to our oldest ancestors sharing hunting stories around the fire. Those stories would then make them all more effective on the next hunt.

Librarians’ stories of triumph and embarrassment are less bloody than those early tales but some of the same emotions were there and the principle was the same. Thinking about reflective practice in terms of storytelling is one of the key ideas that I will take away from this workshop.

Listening to each others’ stories helped us to think about what we would have done in the same situation. We also learnt from the explicit lessons that the storyteller drew from their own experiences and shared with the group. The moral of the story as it were.

On the other side of the task thinking about our practice, reflecting on it, and organising our thoughts into a story that someone else could follow and learn from brought greater depth and clarity to our own reflections.

Thank you

Using writing or discussion to clarify and deepen our reflections on our experiences was the essence of all the activities that we tried. The workshop gave us new tools and renewed motivation to seek greater depth and clarity in our reflective practice.

Thank you to our speakers and to the CILIP in London team.

The Reflective Practice Presentation including lots of useful references for further reading is available on Slideshare.

The afternoon workshop was all about copyright. I am writing a short piece about the copyright session for the CILIP in London Newsletter so I will point you towards that once it has been published.*

*My report was published in the November issue of the CILIP in London Newsletter. Members will have been emailed a copy. They also included a link to this blog entry. Thank you for that. Welcome to any CILIP in London newsletter readers.

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