Reflecting on practice

Amanda Davis

I don't want anything to do with that hippy crap. I didn't understand it [reflective practice] that much. It all seemed a bit removed from what I was used to.

(2nd year undergraduate student)


This chapter intends to answer two key questions:

  • • What is reflective practice, and how, in particular, do students perceive it?
  • • How can students and practitioners develop skills in reflective practice, and embed this into their work with children and families?

Whilst not intended as a 'how to', or a definitive guide to reflection, this chapter exposes some of the challenges and frustrations students are likely to encounter when engaging in reflective practice. The chapter details the anxieties that students who are new to reflection often experience, as well as taking into account the views and attitudes of more established learners, lecturers, and practitioners. An awareness of these challenges is intended to help students navigate the terrain of professional practice and academic study. Student experiences reviewed in the chapter show how critical and active reflection can help to improve practice with children and families, suggesting that reflection is a key ingredient in achieving progress and success both personally and professionally.

The chapter is informed throughout by extracts taken from focus group sessions with students from all three years of Early Years and Childhood Studies undergraduate programmes. Whilst not providing any concrete answers or absolute certainty, it is the intention that the chapter uses these viewpoints to offer a shared platform and a vantage point for those who wish to understand more about, and actively engage in, reflective practice. The focus here is on reflecting upon practice in placement or the workplace, as this is where reflective practice on childhood studies programmes is most usually situated. The points of view expressed by the childhood studies students, and the resulting exploration of how reflective practice is used, is easily transferable to contexts outside of the early years environment and is applicable to all who work with children, young people or their families.

The chapter begins by addressing the challenges of definition, along with a brief history of reflective practice. Consideration is then given to why reflective practice is important for students and for early years practitioners. Further discussion explores how students link reflection to their academic studies, using examples from discussions with students to demonstrate how this works in reality. The challenges of accepting, adopting, and developing reflective practice are discussed, with an emphasis on the frustrations that students have faced. The chapter draws on several well-established theories, especially Schon's assertion (1983) that practitioners reflect both in and on action. This concept is explored in relation to the student's self-reflection journey, and throughout the chapter the idea is postulated that there are a variety of epistemologies (or ways of understanding) within reflective practice.

The conclusion revisits the two key questions outlined above, and attempts to remind the reader that, although reflective practice takes time to understand, appreciate, experience, and personalise, it brings demonstrable benefits to students, practitioners, and ultimately, to children and families. The chapter ends by offering some practical suggestions to help students hone their skills, aiding the application of theory to the workplace, and helping the reader see reflection as a transformational practice rather than a pointless rumination on the day's activity.

Defining reflective practice

It is worth attempting to define what we mean when we talk about reflection. Reflection is a slippery concept and so pinning it down to a distinct and definable state is, in itself, a contestable and arguably unhelpful exercise. Moon (1999) reminds us that reflection has many facets, encompassing reasoning, thinking, reviewing, problem solving, inquiry, judgement, and other aspects of thinking. The quest for a universal definition is daunting given the various guises and forms that reflective practice takes.

Dyer and Taylor (2012: 552) agree that any attempt at establishing a definition may be a futile activity:

it is even debatable whether there should be a single, universal definition for what is essentially a personally driven process, based on the professional learning needs of the individual.

Bolton and Delderfield (2018: 1) point to the crucial importance of reflective practice when they refer to it as being

a state of mind, an ongoing attitude to life and work, the pearl grit in the oyster of practice and education.

Reflective practice is therefore something rather more akin to a philosophy than a series of exercises. It is challenging, unique to the individual and ultimately transformative. It is therefore no surprise to see that students, teachers, and practitioners encounter difficulties in getting to grips with this nebulous concept.

Reflection 1

The following example illustrates the process of a student attempting to find a 'foothold' or reference point that makes sense, before eventually accepting reflective practice as an established way of being. This student's reflection also appears to acknowledge that reflection involves a personal journey:

What confused me most was not knowing if it was something I should be doing or something I should just be aware of. It took me a long time to get my head around the fact that it's so important for working with children. Knowing more about it [reflective practice] helps, but it also makes things trickier... you end up thinking a lot more. It takes a while to see that it actually helps ... it makes you a better professional, more open to suggestions and other ways of working. It probably helped in writing my essays too.

  • (Third year undergraduate student)
  • • What do you think the student means by suggesting that reflective practice makes things 'trickier'?
  • • How might reflecting on placement help with essay writing, and conversely, how might essay writing help with reflecting on practice?

Links to theory

The concept of learning through experience has a long history. It is often originally attributed to Dewey who, in 1938, described reflective practice as having five phases (Dewey 1938). The serious consideration to the process of learning through practice had begun, and has been extended, researched, tested, and built into curriculum models ever since. Other early pioneers of reflective thinking included Piaget (1952), Jung (1953), Rogers(1982), and Kolb (1984), all of whom developed theories of learning that have significantly influenced the way teaching and learning is viewed today. It was Schön (1983) however, who developed Dewey's ideas, to create a perspective on reflective practice that has been at the centre of developments in Higher Education Programmes which are linked to working with children and families.

Schön (1983) identified two types of reflective practice: reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action. Reflection-on-action is a retrospective activity, looking back over actions that have happened in order to arrive at new interpretations and reveal fresh insights. Reflection-in-action, on the other hand, refers to the immediate, snap decisions that are constantly being made during practice, where experience and instinct together help the individual to problem solve when there is no time for lengthy retrospective contemplation.

Paige-Smith and Craft (2008) provide a helpful example of how Schön's concept of reflection-on-action might be used in relation to the different roles an individual student might have, for example as a student on placement, a practitioner or as a parent. They show how these different, competing roles might pose different reflective questions for the individual, which can then be triangulated in order to arrive at a new, informed position resulting in changes to practice. Rowe (cited in Brock 2015) also explores the concept of reflection-on-action in relation to students, suggesting that this is a process that is often worked through collectively, as a collaborative effort. Rowe argues that this can be beneficial for students new to working with children and therefore lacking in confidence, as well as those more experienced who want to share ideas for developing practice.

Formal and informal opportunities to discuss significant experiences allow collaborative learning to take place, but this is more than simply talking to peers about what has happened in placement. Callan (cited in Reed and Canning 2010) stresses the importance of developing communities of practice, which make a shared approach to critical thinking about practice a possibility. She suggests that undergraduate programmes in the field of childhood studies are well placed to provide opportunities for connective thought, allowing for a reflective approach to practice, which does not have to be an individual, private, or isolated activity.

Reflection 2

The following quotation shows how two second year students constructed a clearer understanding of theory through sharing thoughts about an incident on placement:

My friend pointed out that what I was talking about [an incident involving two children playing in the sand tray] was an example of guided participation, and we had a good discussion about whether Vygotsky's theory applied to this situation or not. It really helped me see what the theory means, and how it helps make sense of things.

  • (Second year undergraduate student)
  • • How might such collaborative 'reflection-on-practice' help to unpick theory, to question practice and thus to arrive ata better understanding of children's learning and development?
  • • Consider, when sharing an anecdote from practice, how this could be developed by asking questions such as 'What is your opinion of my actions?' 'What would you have done in my place?', or 'What did I miss?'

In addition to 'reflection-on-action' Schon also recognised that much reflection happens far more immediately and less systematically. This will be particularly so when the students are within their workplace setting, caring for young children. They will be observing children, making decisions as a consequence and considering alternative actions, almost instinctively. This is where behaviour is constantly adjusted as the context changes, where practitioners respond to what is happening there and then. It is this 'thinking-on-your-feet' that Schon refers to as 'reflection-in-action', and is the type of reflection students find most difficult to 'catch hold of' and pin down in order to analyse learning and thus develop practice.

Grimmet and Erickson (1988) reviewed the vast amount of published material on reflective practice, and attempted to organise and categorise it. They established three categories: the first focuses on considered thinking about practice, the second on comparing different views of what is good practice, and the third highlights the reconstructing of experience. Grimmett and Erickson situate Schon's work within the third category:

His focus is on how practitioners generate professional knowledge in and appreciate problematic features of action settings.

(1988: 13)

What is interesting to recognise here is that, whilst Early Years and Childhood Studies degree undergraduates are generally taught to engage in reflective practice related to all three of Grimmett and Erickson's categories, the type of reflection that is likely to take place within the workplace is from the third category, and is very much in line with Schon's concept of reflection-in-action.

An alternative perspective on the nature of reflective practice is presented by Lucas and Leng Tan (2007). They focus their attention not on the results of reflective practice, but the approach to learning adopted by those that are doing the reflecting. They suggest that the level of reflective practice that a student engages upon is dependent upon his or her epistemology. In other words, they are interested in the precedent rather than the consequence of the reflective thinking. This means that it could be the individual student himself or herself that is the variable factor, rather than the existing culture within the setting, the responsiveness of the employer or the type of setting the student works in. Lucas and Leng Tan refer to Baxter Magolda's work (1992) to help define the different epistemologies or 'ways of knowing'. She outlines four different types; absolute knowing (things are either right or wrong), transitional knowing (one can be sure of some things but less so of others), independent knowing (everyone is an individual and as such has a personal set of beliefs and interpretations of knowledge), and finally contextual knowledge (one's understanding is determined by the context it is in).

Within each of these epistemologies, Baxter Magolda (1992) claims there are three elements or realms: cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. The cognitive realm is related to how meaning is made of knowledge, and whilst the interpersonal realm focuses on how one views oneself in relation to others, the intrapersonal realm refers to how one perceives one's own sense of identity.

Lucas and Leng Tan's (2007) research supports the findings of Baxter Magolda (1992), in that they found the absolute and transitional epistemologies more predominant in their student sample, neither of which are particularly conducive to reflective practice. The research also suggested that workplace learning does have a beneficial effect on the development of a reflective capacity, and that this then contributes to an improvement in academic performance. What is interesting to note is that this increased reflective capacity appeared to arise out of the interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects rather than the cognitive realm of the epistemology. This suggests that the way in which students approach learning varies depending on context, and in particular, the way they learn in the workplace is grounded in how they see themselves and how they perceive others see them. Reflective practice, then, is something uniquely personal, with no easy-to-apply template, which is one of the key reasons why attempting it as an academic exercise (either in relation to studying it or teaching it) creates so many challenges. If we apply Baxter Magolda's (1992) theory to the following quotation taken from a second year student, we could assume the student wants to adopt a 'cognitive' approach within an 'absolute' epistemology, and this is why she is finding reflective writing so confusing:

I didn't really get what I was meant to do. I wrote a lot of stuff down in a journal, but there didn't seem to be any rules about what went in. I get the whole thing about trying to do things better ... that's what I do anyway, so to make it all academic just made me feel confused. It made common sense seem confusing, and something different.

(Second year undergraduate student)

Perhaps there should be an acceptance that reflective practice can be messy and frustrating. To rely on a fixed definition does not help, so there is some sense in asking ourselves what reflection means to us rather than demanding an answer to 'what is reflective practice'? The following sections will help to demonstrate why this is so.

Why is reflective practice important when working with children and families?

Reflective practice forms an integral part of Early Years and Childhood Studies programmes, particularly within higher education. The Common Core of Skills and Knowledge (CWDC 2010), the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (Department for Education, 2017), and the current Standards for Early Years Professional Status (2012) all accentuate the importance for practitioners of applying knowledge and experience to develop and promote good practice. Reflective practice forms an essential and integral part of this process. Whilst limited reference is made specifically to reflection this may be because reflection is so embedded, instrumental, and widely established within early years practice, that it seems unnecessary to allocate it an exclusive platform. It should also be acknowledged that in updated versions of both the EYFS and the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) for Social Workers in England (BASW 2018), there is a stronger emphasis on continuous development, with the EYFS stating that 'supervision should foster a culture of mutual support, teamwork and continuous improvement (2018: 21), whilst one of the key updates to the PCF is an emphasis on evidence informed practice and evaluation.

The rationale and imperative behind encouraging future practitioners to engage in reflective practice is persuasive. Dyer and Taylor (2012: 552) echo the sentiments that underlie the aforementioned documents, and describe the need for practitioners to use reflection as a means of improving outcomes for children:

they [Early Years practitioners] need to be able to identify the key elements of good practice in their own and others' work, to be able to share these with their colleagues and to encourage the development of a setting-wide culture of linking theory to practice to promote continuous improvement. Above all, for Early Years practice to be driven forward, and for the Early Years practitioners to develop their professional credibility, they need to be able to reflect on the wider implications of their practices in meeting not only children's individual needs, but a broader social and educational agenda.

Paige-Smith and Craft (2008) make the valid point that there is an increasing expectation that early years practitioners will have undertaken higher education qualifications, which will have involved a level of reflective practice. They go on to argue that this activity of relating theoretical knowledge, literature, and policy to practice is something that used to be expected only of teachers, but is now increasingly in the domain of all early years practitioners.

Overcoming the challenges of reflective practice

Many undergraduate students, particularly in their first year, initially appear to harbour suspicion, as well as anxiety towards the concepts of reflection and reflective practice. Students are understandably wary of such a concept, which requires of them not only to demonstrate a familiarity with its theoretical underpinnings, but also to actively engage in practice, ultimately leading to improved outcomes for themselves and the children they work with.

Other interviews with students revealed that their initial fears and reluctance to engage with reflective practice began to dissipate over time:

In the first year, other subjects seemed more important than reflecting upon yourself ... that just seemed like a luxury. Now we know what to expect from the course, we can find time to reflect more. We have more space to think about how to get better. Last year we were too busy just trying to pass ... everything was a blur.

(Second year undergraduate student)

Some students expressed a fear or reluctance towards engaging in reflective practice because of previous negative experiences:

We didn't get any guidance on what reflection was other than, 'it's about thinking about what went well and what went badly, and how would you change it?' That was it... ten minutes. We were all pretty confused. I'm not convinced.

(Second year undergraduate student)

The challenge for those who teach on Childhood Studies and Early Years and other similar programmes is to help students make these connections between theory and practice, and aid the exploration of how reflection can help in a tangible and pragmatic way, despite limited autonomy when on placement.

For a colleague on the teaching team, reflection meant something that was personal, unique, and tricky to define. This also had implications for teaching:

I'm not sure you can teach reflective practice. All I know is it can be supported and encouraged.... For me, reflection is something quite personal ... it's about taking ownership of my own learning.

(Senior lecturer, Early Childhood Studies)

It may be reassuring to discover that for this particular individual, in her experience as a student and as a lecturer, reflective practice was a concept that took time to make sense and apply to her academic, professional, and personal life:

When I initially started reading about some of the models of reflection, they meant nothing to me ... it was like wading through treacle, it took a while to make the connections ... to find something that made sense. It made me realise that when we talk about reflection with students there isn't just one model that works, it has to have relevance and meaning for students.

The importance of allowing students to become familiar with, and consequently develop confidence in the concept and practice of reflection is evident here. How such concepts are introduced and practiced is perhaps central to the way in which students initially respond.

The challenge intimated in the quotation above has been echoed by other students who expressed frustration at the extent to which they have the power to invoke change, following reflection on practice. If they do not feel able to influence practice as a result of their reflection, they are unlikely to feel motivated to develop reflection as a habit. Some students talked about their feelings of powerlessness in relation to bringing about change, as a result of their observations and reflections (a theme that connects to the ideas discussed around professionalism in Chapter 2):

It's a bit annoying really. I ask why something is done in a particular way, like collecting lunch boxes, and I ask if I could try a different way. I feel like I'm criticising when I'm just trying to learn and try things out. I don't think he likes it when I suggest new ideas, so usually I just keep quiet.

(Second year undergraduate student)

This feeling some students have that supervisors, colleagues or managers may resent their suggestions as a result of reflection is echoed in the following comment:

The room leader ... rejects my ideas because she doesn't like it when I know things she doesn't. One member of staff really resists any of my new ideas, and doesn't like the fact that I know about current stuff.

(Third year undergraduate student)

These quotations resonate with Kolb and Kolb's work on the importance of respect for the learner (2005). The data suggests that these students are feeling that what they are studying is not respected by their colleagues. In an environment where there is resentment or suspicion, it is unlikely it will also be an environment of cooperation, collaborative deep thinking and reflection on practice. Inclusive practice, in its widest application, can seem an elusive ideal in such environments. Reassuringly, some students suggested this sense of 'otherness' and isolation lessened with experience:

It takes a while to become part of a team ... I'm talking years. You need to recognise trust as part of all this. It took me a couple of years to get to where I am now. You have to make the effort to be part of the team.

(Graduate student)

Kolb and Kolb (2005) also talk about the importance of respect for learners, in relation to creating a culture of learning and reflective practice. It is important to look beyond the immediate learning environment of the student, and acknowledge the 'total experiential life space of the learner' (2005: 207).

In other words, within university, students are surrounded by fellow reflective learners and as such feel a sense of connectedness and inclusion, they feel respected within their immediate and direct learning environment. In the workplace or placement, they may feel 'alienated, alone, unrecognized and undervalued' (Kolb and Kolb 2005: 207). Kolb and Kolb refer to this as the 'cheer/jeer experiential continuum', and the feelings they describe certainly reflect the students' concerns outlined above.

Promoting professional development and linking theory to practice: some case studies from professional practice

It is clear that the main purpose of reflection is to improve practice. Students are regularly encouraged to reflect, and are routinely asked to formalise this reflection through written, assessed pieces of work. It is worth considering whether students do, on the whole, transfer skills developed in their undergraduate reflective writing to the world of work.

When talking to students about the impact their own reflections have within the setting, it appears there is a correlation between the role the student has in the setting, and the size of the ripples the reflective practice generates. One first year student talked about how she saw reflective practice helping her to understand practical, everyday routines. She saw this as a private activity, which did not impact on others apart from her concern not to 'bother' her supervisor over what she considered to be trivial matters:

I try to watch what's going on, and think about it later. I write as much down as I can. I don't like to ask why things are done that way ... she might think I'm stupid. I try working it out afterwards by thinking things through.

(First year undergraduate student)

This suggests a lack of confidence and an insecurity about her role within the setting. Perhaps this is not surprising; given her relative inexperience. However, this contrasts starkly to the comments from a graduate student who holds a paid management role within a nursery. She has clearly been able to see the benefits of reflective practice, and is in a position to be able to influence others to embark on a similar path in relation to further study:

I'm getting everyone to do a course, at whatever level they are at ... it means we can meet and share ideas. We talk about how we can change things as a result.

(Graduate student)

A second graduate who runs her own After School club saw that she was in a position of power to change the culture of the setting directly, through recruitment and selection procedures. She expressed her views strongly with regard to her desire to establish a team of creative, reflective thinkers:

I don't want people who just do things because they're told to, without wanting to know why, or being prepared to suggest another way ... I'm now looking for people who are able to reflect on practice and don't see it as just a job. I'm trying to change the culture through changing the staff.

(Graduate student)

From examining a vast number of students' comments spanning all three undergraduate levels, it would seem that students with limited work experience can often be tentative in their analysis of reflection. There is a tendency to describe and accept what happens in the setting, with little analysis or critical judgement. Unfortunately, sometimes the only criticality evident is the often unhelpful self- criticism found in those who lack confidence in their ability.

However, as students progress through their studies, become more skilled in reflective practice and more experienced as practitioners, their ability to engage critically with reflection in order to challenge and extend practice increases.

When talking to second and third year students it became clear that they felt more confident to speak up in situations when previously they would have felt inhibited. In fact, some felt that they could (and should) encourage others in the workplace to adopt a more critical reflective stance to practice. This is a tremendous distance travelled compared with the comments from the first year students, who seemed to feel that their place was to observe and keep quiet. By comparison, the third year students clearly felt they were able to model a more challenging, constructively critical stance to policy, procedure, and practice within the setting, and by doing so, were encouraging colleagues to foster similar ways of thinking. Brookfield (2013) and Bolton and Delderfield (2018), extol the benefits of modelling reflective practice by the lecturer to the student, stressing the importance of demonstrating critical reflective and reflexive practice within one's own practice before attempting to guide others. However, the students here show that they are able to take on this role themselves, once they have developed confidence and belief in the power of reflective practice. For example, one participant commented that:

Through doing the course I'm more confident to express my ideas. I'm really surprised that they seem to listen to me. My room leader came to ask my advice the other day—she'd never have done that before. I think it's 'cos I'm more sure of myself and I say more in meetings now.

(Third year undergraduate student)

Another echoed this by saying:

I've gained more confidence through doing the course, and this tends to lead to reflecting on practice. Now when colleagues moan about something, I say 'why don't you suggest something to help?' I encourage everyone to take part in decisions, which I never would have done before. I would have just joined in with moaning. I used to feel helpless when something happened that I didn't agree with, now I know I can say something, and I do!

(Third year undergraduate student)

These last two quotations are very interesting, in that they suggest a growing empowerment through the increased confidence gained through undergraduate study. This sense of agency is suggested by Appleby (cited in Reed and Canning 2010), when she argues that reflective practice is 'owned' by the person doing the reflecting, rather than by theorists or policy-makers. She therefore argues that effective reflective practice is liberating, in that it provides a voice for the individual concerned and empowers people in their quest to live their best professional lives.

Reflection 3

Think about the following questions, and consider how, by asking questions such as these regularly, it might help to develop confidence and a stronger sense of agency:

  • • Why did I do that in the way I did? What assumptions did I make, and what might these assumptions have caused me to miss?
  • • What might be the perceptions of others to my actions? For example the child/ children, colleagues, and/or parents.
  • • What do I need to know/find out more about in order to approach this situation more effectively in the future?


In revisiting the initial questions posed within this chapter, it is clear that reflective practice is more than simply recounting an incident, nor is it the somewhat deflating activity of ruminating on and highlighting one's inadequacies and deficiencies.

In its crudest sense, reflection can be viewed as a tool. Like any other tool designed to make a positive difference, much depends upon the skill of the educator in imparting the knowledge, but responsibility is also shared by the student in carefully and thoughtfully making appropriate use of the tool, and on the resultant impact on practice. Evidence suggests that reflective practice is a skill that takes time to develop, and is not something that is easily taught. Overly prescriptive exercises where students are expected to apply particular models of reflective practice can result in a rather formulaic and descriptive approach. However, it would appear that this stage in the learning process is almost inevitable, and that students need to work through this at their own pace, slowly working out for themselves the nature and value of reflecting thoughtfully and intuitively on the practice of others as well as their own engagement with children. Students' perception of reflective practice is often initially rather sceptical, but most develop a growing sense of its importance as they persistently try to engage with it. Reflection is ultimately about taking individual responsibility in order to become better practitioners, more knowledgeable, and more aware of personal strengths and limitations.

In relation to how skills in reflective practice can be embedded into everyday work with children and families, it would seem that perseverance and experience are critical. Experience on its own, however, is not enough. One might have ten years of experience of repeatedly doing the same thing, but without reflection informing improvements this experience is worthless. Routinely asking questions such as the ones in Reflection 3 will help students to apply the concepts of reflective practice in a reflexive, more personal way than any mechanical and overly descriptive application of theoretical models would do.

From a pedagogical context, if students are not considering deeply their approach to learning, and if their educators are not employing strategies to encourage reflective capabilities, students will have difficulties in modelling reflective practice effectively to others. Perhaps before looking for the consequences of reflective practice, it is important to consider the precursors, in that successful preparation needs to take place and this may take different forms depending on the individual. Certainly, working together to share experiences can help develop a stronger sense of reflection from a range of perspectives, and this collaborative enterprise can bring confidence and empowerment.

Educators need to provide time and patience, with plenty of opportunities for collaborative sustained shared thinking about personal practices and experiences in order for reflection to become an embedded, natural, and ultimately transformational process.


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