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Learning the Art of Reflection

What is reflection?

Simply put, reflection is the process of making sense of one’s experience. Reflection, as it applies to instructional consulting, takes place on two levels:

  • Reflection-in-action
  • Meta-reflection (reflecting upon one’s reflections)

In the case of reflection-in-action, a term coined by educator-theorist Donald Schon in The Reflective Practitioner, reflection occurs as part of everyday experience. To some degree or another, everyone practices reflection-in-action, without special training. Such reflection is each person’s way of dealing with new and unfamiliar experiences by giving them meaning. Reflection-in-action is a process that does not rely upon verbalization but instead occurs improvisationally along with action. We enact reflection-in-action all the time, without thinking about the fact that we do.

Meta-reflection, however, requires more conscious and deliberate efforts to make sense of the sense of experience. In contrast to reflection-in-action, meta-reflection is a process that doesn’t automatically occur as part of most people’s experience but is instead one that is learned and refined with practice as part of an ongoing process of learning.

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Connecting theory to practice

Reflection can be said to act as a hinge between practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge:

“Teachers can be seen as having extensive practical knowledge based on personal experiences, rooted in the problems of everyday teaching, and integrated with theoretical knowledge about learning. Practice does not make perfect. Expert teaching requires thoughtful practice. The development of teaching competence depends on the teacher's personal practical knowledge. It is through reflections that such knowledge is made explicit to the teacher as the practitioner, and hence teaching development is viable.” (Ki, 2004).

Thus, reflection plays a central role in moving instructors out of practical knowledge and engaging their assumptions about how learning takes place (their own as well as their students) as applied to specific situations. For consultants, reflection relates theories and methods of learning and teaching to the complexities of actual practice.

“Practice does not make perfect.” Without reflection, instructors and consultants can practice forever and make no progress. Similarly, theoretical views of learning and teaching cannot be tested for their validity and reliability without reflection as part of that knowledge-making process.

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What is the place of reflection in the instructional consulting process?

Instructional consulting requires that both instructors and consultants engage in reflection no matter what form of instructional consulting they use. However, reflection is especially important in classroom observations, since the experience of being in a classroom is complex and multi-faceted, requiring careful attention to the “making sense” aspects by both parties. Careful attention to reflective processes ensures that feedback will be descriptive rather than judgmental, formative as opposed to summative (although reflection is part of both forms of review).


Reflection is part of a cycle of experiences that make up the learning process. The four stages of this cycle (see Lewin, 1951), as they apply to instructional consulting, include:

  • Concrete experience (preparing for and conducting instructional consulting)
  • Reflective observation (making sense of experiences; considering their implications)
  • Abstract conceptualization (internalizing and theorizing how to apply reflective knowledge)
  • Active experimentation (trying out new learning)

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Characteristics of reflective feedback

The following is a list of characteristics of reflective feedback from McEnerney and Webb’s 12 step model for implementing a Peer Review program (1997). Note the emphasis on nonjudgmental, descriptive feedback, a cornerstone of formative instructional consulting.

  • promotes reflection as part of a dialog between the giver and receiver of feedback. Both parties are involved in observing, thinking, reporting, and responding.
  • focuses on observed behavior rather than on the person. Refers to what an individual does rather than to what we think s/he is.
  • is descriptive rather than judgmental. Avoiding judgmental language reduces the need for an individual to respond defensively.
  • is specific rather than general.
  • promotes reflection about strategies and the students' or observer's responses to a specific strategy.
  • is directed toward behavior which the receiver can change.
  • considers the needs of both the receiver and giver of feedback.
  • is solicited rather than imposed. Feedback is most useful when the receiver actively seeks feedback and is able to discuss it in a supportive environment.
  • is well-timed. In general, feedback is most useful at the earliest opportunity after the given behavior.
  • involves sharing information rather than giving advice, leaving the individual free to change in accordance with personal goals and needs.
  • considers the amount of information the receiver can use rather than the amount the observer would like to give. Overloading an individual with feedback reduces the likelihood that the information will be used effectively.
  • requires a supportive, confidential relationship built on trust, honesty, and genuine concern.

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