Learning by reflective practice – 4 simple tools

I was surprised to discover that in my organisation we don’t have much of a tradition of reflective practice (see Wikipedia). (If you’ve been doing it for years, and have resources or stories to share, I’d love to know – please do comment)

In complete contrast, my wife is a GP and my friend M is a nurse – and as health professionals the disciplines of reflective practice are built-in to everything: they have to embrace life-long learning to keep up to date. If there is a critical incident, they use reflective practice to learn from it. Their annual appraisal asks “What have you learnt?” and “How have you applied it?” – and specifically credits hours of CPD for evidence of reflection and application of learning. More significantly they both have a personal discipline of reflective practice – not because they are forced to by a process, but because it really helps them to learn and move forward.

It’s not just healthcare – in environmental management, reflective practice is often called adaptive management – a recognition that ecosystems are complex and what you do might not have quite the effect you intended. We have to learn from what is happening not just from the textbooks.

The simplest way of explaining reflective practice is to consider a situation or topic and ask yourself Rolfe’s three questions

  • “What?” A description of what happened and who was involved
  • “So what?” An interpretation of why, what it means, what’s important or useful, why it is similar or different
  • “What next?” A plan to repeat or change what happens in future

An important aspect of reflective practice is that you actually have to write it down. Researcher Dysthe says that thinking-writing is the kind of writing we do when we’re thinking through problems or topics, and he emphasises how writing can actually help us think.

So I want to mention four simple practical tools that will help you to do your reflective practice, and then show a few diagrams that give a bit more detail on those questions to ask yourself – which will be the same whichever tool you choose to use.

Four simple ways

I’d suggest choosing one of the following ways of getting your reflective practice out in words, all of which I have used over the years.

  1. Notebook and pen
  2. Word document
  3. OneNote
  4. Blog

  5. Notebook and pen

I’ve gone through phases of having a special notebook (yes paper) for private reflection. I still think paper and pen is the best way for reflecting on situations with emotional content, relationships, direction in life, when things go badly wrong and those kinds of big topics. I still remember the most awful gut-wrenching experience a decade ago of realising I had left my notebook on the seat in the plane in my hurry to get to a business meeting. I used to use the same notebooks for jotting down interesting stuff I was learning, but I think that diluted the value of the paper notebook. My wife now has two paper notebooks to keep those things separate, but I’ve largely gone electronic for the interesting-but-not-emotionally-loaded stuff. Partly because I never managed to retrieve that notebook from the plane all those years ago. I take better care of my Moleskine notebooks these days.

  1. Word document

I used to have a folder of Word documents, each on a different topic that interested me (for example I had one on Motivation, which you’ve seen me blog about). Within each document I used the Outlining feature to allow me to collapse and expand sections. As I found bits in books, New Scientist magazines or webpages or webinars I would type or paste them into the Word documents. The big thing for me was that the next time I came across something on the same subject, I saw my previous notes and it was like a refresher that connected up the new perspectives with the old perspectives.

  1. OneNote

I have now largely abandoned Word documents as a note-taking mechanism in favour of OneNote notebooks. The big advantages of Onenote for me are:

  • A flexible structure of notebooks, tabs, pages which I can easily shuffle around, interlink etc
  • Dead easy to copy and paste from anything on screen (webinars, knowledge calls etc)
  • Extremely good search built in
  • Synchronises with my mobile phone (and my home OneNote synchronises with iPad too)
  • I can include photos from my phone

I haven’t tried using shared notebooks for reflective practice, not sure how that would work. Maybe someday if we have a group who is learning together.

  1. Blog

Blogging is perhaps not your most obvious first step into reflective practice, because it can be scary to reflect in public. But I really think it is the best for any subject that wouldn’t embarrass other people. Why?

  • Researcher Johns says that the act of sharing with a colleague enables the experience to become learnt knowledge at a faster rate than reflection alone
  • When you blog, you’re always aware that you have an audience. And so you write out your thoughts just a little more clearly than you might have in a journal nobody but yourself was going to see.
  • You get feedback from other people. I shared my Excel tip – someone commented with an even easier way of doing the same thing. I learnt more by sharing my learning.
  • You become more confident in your thinking and develop a clearer voice of your own

So I would encourage you to blog: write about your experiences at work and share them.

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle

Now for a tiny bit of theory. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (in the diagram) tries to explain the process by which we learn by experience. It involves reflective observation, conceptualisation and experimentation, which correspond exactly to the steps of reflective practice.

A more structured set of questions

I opened with the very simple What-SoWhat-NowWhat structure of questions. There’s a more detailed version in the diagram below which is a full structured debriefing. I’ve only actually done it in full once, but it was worth doing that once just to get used to the systematic way of thinking things through.

Your reflective practice

In the comments I would love to hear from other people who do reflective practice and how you go about it.


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