Reflective practice - " we know we should stop and reflect but we don't know how"

Reflective Practice

NOTE: I wrote this Blog on the 20th March  2013 and it was posted on the Research Blog of the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, UK.

Its content is relevant to my practice as I guide and support organisations through their own self-reflective gender reviews /audits/assessments  to improve practice for gender equality work.  

I encourage and support the Gender Focal Points/leadership to use Personal Learning Journals as a tool to reflect on what they are thinking and doing about gender in their own organisation and in their practice.

After writing for a period of time, individuals share 'themes' that emerge from their weekly writing practice.

The outcome is a deep understanding of the complexity of what it means to 'mainstream gender' into policy and practice, internally and externally.


‘We know we should stop and reflect but we don’t know how?’

This first blog on Reflective Practice looks at the power of writing for reflection using the Personal Learning Journal. 

Reflection is an important stage in the Learning Cycle and yet hard to do. It is so much easier to be busy doing and so much harder to put the pause button on and take time out to reflect. Sound familiar?

The cycle of learning requires REFLECTION and ACTION. For learning to take place thinking about what we are doing is important. What is working well? What is not working well? Why?  These are important questions to guide reflection.

In my work as an organisational development practitioner, I see that the point of reflection typically comes at mid-term or end of term project evaluation. These formal points in the project cycle are when organisations and individuals reflect on what they have been doing, not doing and why. Such moments are significant opportunities for individual and organisational learning. The act of thinking back and working out how to improve practice, as a result of findings, is powerful. Imagine how much more learning and change can happen if reflection happens on an on-going basis. In other words reflection is part of a continuous cycle of learning and not a one-off or periodic event.

How to build reflective practice? 

There are many ways to build reflective practice. In my experience, I have found writing as a ‘tool’ for reflection is effective.  Writing is done in a book, known as a ‘Personal Learning Journal’ or a ‘Diary’. The process of reflection begins by remembering events that have happened to you and thinking about why these stand out.  The point of the Personal Learning Journal is indeed a tool for you. What you write about is your decision and the book is for your eyes only. This is important to remember. You are using the tool of writing for your own reflection.

These generic questions are a useful guide for writing: 1) What is working well and why?  2) What is not working well and why? 3) What are the lessons?

These questions are applicable across diverse contexts. You might be a student reading this blog and wanting to reflect on your way of studying? Or you might be a member of a research team struggling with a particular problem? Or you might be a development practitioner wanting to improve practice?  The Personal Learning Journal is a tool to help you in the context of your study, research and practice. It is important to note the context because there are many kinds of journals/ diaries which are written for different purposes and audiences. This is not the one where you write about that great party or the latest drama in your personal life. For those important matters you need a different book!

The idea of the Personal Learning Journal is to write regularly and for a set time, say twenty minutes. In other words it is not meant to be an onerous task but something that you can realistically build into your timetable. After writing a number of entries, for example, once a week for six weeks, you are likely when you look back over your writing to find some ideas coming up over and over again. These repeated ideas can be thought of as ‘themes’.  And it is at this stage in the reflection process that ideas from the Personal Learning Journal can be shared in study or work groups. These are groups of people writing Personal Learning Journals in the same context as you. For example, a team of researchers working on the same project might keep Personal Learning Journals for a period of time and then share themes. Or a work team or department in an organisation might be reflecting on team relations.

Experience indicates that giving time to personal reflection first, deepens reflection in groups. People come to the group having already thought carefully about various themes. There is also a strong likelihood that people in the study/work context will be writing about similar challenges/successes. The combination of personal reflection and group sharing therefore facilitates multiple perspectives for understanding what’s working well, not working well and why.  This is what I mean by deepening reflection.

If being in a group is not applicable to your own situation, the exercise of drawing out themes is still useful. For example, you might find it useful to take one of your themes as a point for discussion in a supervision session. Or you might want to take a theme and use that as the focus of your reflection as you carry on the writing process.

This adaptation of the Personal Learning Journal as a process linked to the Learning Cycle requires time, leadership and support. My experience tells me that it is worth the effort.

Do you think this approach is relevant to your own experience? What are your experiences of building reflective practice? Have you tried to keep a Personal Learning Journal?  I am interested to hear your experiences, thoughts and ideas.

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Comment by Penny Plowman on May 12, 2016 at 13:38

Thanks Preetei for reading my blog. I like the idea of " learning progress" - this captures in a nutshell what reflective practice is all about. The process of looking back over entries is important for learning and change. Great - keep writing ! Penny.

Comment by Rituu B Nanda on May 11, 2016 at 8:37

Hi Penny,

Thanks for sharing. Reflection is key to learning. We learn from experience but we learn more from reflection on the experience. I have tried personal journal but could not maintain it. But in the Constellation (the other organisation I work with) we use a tool from knowledge management called After action review where after every event, work with communities, during partnerships etc. And the questions are quite similar to the ones you have mentioned. Warm greetings!

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