What is reflective practice?
Key to the concept of reflective practice is the idea that our actions be informed by a knowledge base that we engage with actively, as opposed to forms of practice that are based on knee-jerk reactions to situations, or unthinking habits and routines. A reflective practitioner is one who acts on the basis of understanding and careful consideration of the situation he or she is dealing with. Such understanding is, in turn, based on knowledge and values. The knowledge is based on a mixture of formal study and professional development and the practical lessons we learn from previous experience, while the values serve as a safeguard to ensure that we are acting appropriately and ethically.
What is critically reflective practice?
Critically reflective practice takes us a stage further, in that it entails adopting a critical perspective on our knowledge and values. This means not taking situations at face value but looking below the surface to see what underlying issues are of significance and what processes might be operating. A key part of this is recognising the crucial role of power in shaping interpersonal interactions and professional practice more broadly. Without an awareness of – and sensitivity to – the significance of power, we run the risk of unwittingly reinforcing existing inequalities and potentially oppressive processes.
Being a critically reflective practitioner involves both critical depth and critical breadth. Critical depth involves looking at the underlying assumptions or biases that can affect our thinking and actions-in other words, it entails using our critical analysis skills. Critical breadth is about being able to look holistically at situations, going beyond looking simply at individuals so that we are able to take account of broader social and political factors – gender, race, class and so on – and consider the important role they often play in shaping the situations we are dealing with.
What challenges do we face?
The challenges of becoming (or remaining) critically reflective practitioners are many and varied, but the two I come across most frequently in my training and consultancy work with a variety of organisations are as follows:
I am too busy to be reflective. My workload does not leave me space to think about what I am doing
I work in an organisation where reflection is frowned upon. Anyone who takes time to stop and think about their work is perceived as not having enough work to do.
How do we rise to these challenges?
In terms of the ‘I’m too busy’ defence, I would want to respond by suggesting that this is a misunderstanding of what reflective practice is about. It is not about sitting idly around contemplating our navel. Rather, it is a process of ensuring that we are fully focused on our task and making the best use of our time and other resources- and so it is a worthwhile investment of time rather than being a waste of time. As I have suggested elsewhere, the busier we are, the more reflective we need to be.
The challenge of a non-reflective culture can be more difficult to deal with. One very important thing to recognise is that, while a non-reflective culture can make reflective practice more difficult, it does not make it impossible. Indeed, if we are able to operate as critically reflective practitioners despite a non-reflective culture around us, we may have a positive impact on that culture by highlighting to others the benefits of a more reflective approach and showing that it is possible to have such an approach even though it is not being nurtured by or within that organisation.
In other words, the efforts required may be considerable but they are very likely to be worth it.