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Research and Theories of Reflection February 16, 2007

Posted by alwilliams in Reflection.


Theories of reflection seem sparser than in other fields (excluding personality tests which do not focus specifically on reflection itself, but rather categorise or personality), especially considering that this is dealing with the personal construction of knowledge rather than a subject of knowledge.  Surely this warrants more investigation by theorists, as it may shed light on how knowledge, derived from theories and literature, is processed and applied.  Not only this but it is at least as important to understand how people react and assimilate knowledge of the world, than it is a piece of knowledge itself.  Perhaps it is the apparent large scope of this that is a barrier to vigorous theoretical development?
Understanding the importance of this area is a valuable reflection in itself, as it is such a natural human skill that it is likely that many people are unaware of how it occurs or what benefit it is to us.  Furthermore an attempt at trying to conceptualise the process of reflection as part of ‘experiential learning’, may allow us to structure our reflection and its application both personally and for the work environment, as suggested in my initial thoughts on reflection.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (1942)

Other theories may also help in developing this process. Topological theories like Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Briggs-Myers 1942) does not specifically address reflection or how we can utilise it for personal development.  However it does suggest that we prefer and tend to process an experience (or event) in different ways, characterised by: thinking, feeling, judgement and perception.  The outcome of taking the test is our categorisation as one of 16 ‘types’ of people that approach the world in a similar way. 

Although this may have an application in understanding our potential strengths and deficiencies in dealing with our experiences, it does not provide us with a structure of how to improve our personal circumstances.  However it may go as far as stimulating reflection based on the traits derived from the model and thus point to how we might want to develop in these constructs.  This model is deemed too weak for application however, as it does not stand up to statistical scruitany (Matthews, 2004) and categorising the human race into 16 types is considered overly simplistic to say the least.

Kolb and Fry (1975)

Many of the reflective models evaluated adopt a cyclical approach (Gibbs, 1988; Atkins and Murphy, 1994; Kolb and Fry, 1975).  Such models deal with the act of reflection and learning collectively as a process.  This process has observable outcomes when testing our new concepts and as such could be measured for us to note improvement of our handling of a situation after the learning experience.  This is useful in personal development and is akin to a test-retest methodology in different situations, where we can observe an ‘improvement’ in our behaviour, essentially via trial and error (specifically in a professional context this may relate to our work ability).  These models do not suggest what ‘improvement’ represents however and so could be considered limited in their usefulness in ‘real world’ application in this sense.   

Kolb and Fry’s (1975) model suggests that the bases of our applied reflection are ‘principals’, or generalisations that we form from experience (as no situation is the same we assume the outcome of a similar situation will be the same).  It could in fact be the case that there is not another similar occassion where people can actually ‘test’ the principals formed.  Maybe such a situation does not arise again (e.g. if someone is bullied at school, but not for the rest of their lifetime).  Perhaps the resultant schema is repressed in the case of death, as Freud might suggest, which prevents us from handling such a situation better in the future?  Despite this Kolb and Fry’s (1975) model does provide a useful snapshot of what a reflective process may look like, although it is highly context dependant, as has just been demonstrated.  To further illustrate, if you make a small mistake, like run into someone on the street and they shouted at you, would such a process be utilised?  It is suggested not, as occasions like this occur so often and are relatively inconsequential, so that we do not actively process situations using the process suggested here. If we were to do so our brains surely would not be able to handle the amount of thought generated.

A key criticism of Kolb and Fry’s model is that it does not provide any help in how we might reflect or what they refer to as reflection exactly.  Is reflection a conscious and deliberated process, or a “second thought” which may occur in seconds? As stated above the comprehension and assimilation of knowledge will vary greatly from person to person.  Although all of the stages are undoubtedly important, it is the reflective ‘stage’ that will form our understanding of the world, as well as the behaviour that governs our actions that we apply in our daily lives.  The idea of stages posed here is not representative of how we think and despite the assertion that the experiential learning process can start at any point in the cycle (Kolb and Fry, 1975), realistically people’s thoughts may jump from one stage to another.  We may for example think of how to deal with a situation better and then realise that we tried that before (jumping back to reflection), before trialling a new approach.  Further more our cognition is fluid (As suggested in the forum; “Theories and Reflection”, Jan 25, 2007) and therefore it is an over simplified view that we think in stages like this. 

Conceptualising such a complex and fluid process however is undoubtedly difficult and requires simplifying like this in order to be of practicle use.  Practitioners simply need to be aware of this when applying it and take the model on face value, even though this may not yeild a deep insight on its own.  We are reminded here that there are certain considerations that need to be made when analysing a specific experience of interest.  Indeed, in what I consider structured reflection, we need an experience to observe and reflect on, which (may) lead to new understanding and ultimately testing this in new situations.  It is argued that this kind of structure is similar to what many people experience any way e.g;

“what happened” (observation and experience),

“why did this happen” (reflection),

“what would I do differently?” (conceptualisation)

Despite this model’s flaws, this does not detract from the fact that it is a useful starting point.  Essentially it is a simple but effective observation that can direct our learning process, but needs to be supplimented with an understanding of reflection itself and of the limitations it brings with it.

Jarvis (1994)

This model takes into consideration that different situations induce (and may require) different approaches and furthers Kolb and Fry’s (1975) model as a result.  As a more ‘web’ based diagram with more possible outcomes (e.g. memorisation of the situation, or practiced experimentation), scenarios that did not fit into Kolb and Fry’s (1975) model work here.  For example in immediate situations (e.g. our example where someone shouts at you in the street) the reaction here is likely to be ‘presumed’ so we say “sorry”, but no further reflection or action is taken.   Not only does this account for a more natural responses (like routine behaviours and thought processes e.g. crossing a road), it also illustrates more structured ‘reflective learning’ and ‘reflective practice’, which is noted as similar to Schon’s reflection whilst we are in the action/ experience itself.  As a result Jarvis appreciates that reflection can take different formats and occurs as a result of a varying quality of incidents in our daily lives.  For the purpose of our structured personal development it is therefore suggested that the stages of ‘experiential learning’ should be followed to be successful in doing so.  However the stages for this process are very similar to those suggested by Kolb and Fry (1975).  The process illustrated here is more comprehensive to include ‘evaluation’ of our experience and also points out that experience needs commiting to memory before it can be assimilated into our existing schema.  It could be argued that this is unnecessary detail and that certain components could be combined.  For example it might be suggested that when people memorise their evaluation of an experience is also the point when their existing beliefs are either reinforced or changed and thus these stages can be combined.  However it is argued here that this is somewhat useful as after someone has changed their belief, this could be reversed following a similar incident.  An additional arrow would therefore flow from stage 9, for example, then to stages 5, 8, 6 and then finally 4.  If memorisation was integrated with the resultant beliefs (stages 9 and 4) this process would not be possible.  In essence it is believed that this captures the complexities and situational variations witness in the real world. The fundamental criticism remains with this model however and that is the problem of a stage based model in what is often a situation where there are numerous processes occuring at the same time, or considerations that are made in no particular order.  Also, this model is again not particularly helpful in addressing what we need to do at being effective at reflecting, to ensure that we are evaluating or experimenting with the correct resulting concepts.  Never the less this is deemed the most successful model of reflection that has been evaluated and has successfully built on the previous model.

 John (2000)

John (2000) is useful in helping our understanding of how to actually reflect and as such may provide a useful addition to the structure of reflection suggest above.  Again it is important to note here that context is king.  As reflection is an internal (as well as potentially externally directed e.g. to a mentor) it is impacted upon by our emotions.  This may mean that we are unable to clearly structure our reflection, especially if the emotion is highly charged.  This is interesting considering this was produced for nurses to reflect and may be why ‘space’ and ‘focus’ is required specifically in the model.  Never the less this is likely to be useful in all situations, especially a removal of the immediate situation at work, as it dedicated time and effort to the reflective process.

Despite this John (2000) suggests that we need to both “Look in” and “Look out”. We need to try and make sense of what happens around us in order to make use of the experience.  This suggests to me that this is additional and seperate from our own feelings and perceptions of the situation.  Unfortunately due to the our processing of events, obtaining a subjective view of the situation, without being influenced by our thoughts and feelings is difficult.  This is perhaps why a mentor or independent person is required to provide a degree of objectivity and indeed people are observed to find talking about their problems easier.  Yet this person would have to also experienced the situation in question in order to provide the subjectivity discussed here.  As such it is suggested that “looking out” is more difficult than it initially seems and again, highy personal. 

This issue of subjectivity run throughout John’s (2000) theory, where of course people’s view on empirics also may differ greatly.  Does this mean that we are furthering our subjective view of the world and can this actually lead to an insightful reflection if it is subject to our own minds as gatekeepers to the process?  Subjectivity is undoubtedly necessary for our internal understanding and despite the risk of an insular conclusion from reflection John’s (2000) model provides a useful and basic structure to begin the reflective process, which is summarised here:

1.  Find a space and think about how you are feeling and what you are thinking about

2.  what happened in the situation and how were the people involved feeling?

3.  Why did I feel the way I did?

4.  Did I act for the best and what was the best way?

5.  What knowledge or experience could have informed my decision and actions here?

6.  What could I do better and how would this make me feel?



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