One of the practical questions that came up in a recent webinar hosted by Drake Music and Youth Music exploring the Youth Music Quality Framework in SEN/D Settings was "how do you learn to reflect?" This question - although seemingly innocuous - prompted me to dig a little deeper looking into the theories that sit behind reflection and explore the history of its development in professional practice.
Ideas of how reflection relates to personal learning came about in the 1930’s, when a man called John Dewey suggested that reflection in the context of learning is not just the passive recall of an event but an active and deliberate process.
Dewey suggested that reflection was a beneficial skill that could be used to make sense of events that might otherwise be hard to explain. He also thought that by posing questions to explore these events, it would be possible to work out how things could be done differently to achieve a different outcome.
Some years later, these ideas were expanded on by Donald Schön to link reflection with professional practice and development. He felt that it was possible to use reflection to reveal knowledge that would otherwise be hidden. In particular he was referring to things that practitioners do instinctually and intuitively – but that they otherwise may not process consciously.
He identified two different types of reflection:
- Reflection in action - which is essentially ‘thinking on your feet’ (takes place live)
- Reflection on action - which is undertaken retrospectively (takes place after the event)
In particular he thought that the process of ‘reflecting on action’ would help practitioners to process and build upon previous experience. By doing this, practitioners can build their resources with which to draw on in unexpected situations and begin to apply them instinctively, thereby also supporting their ability to ‘reflect in action’.
This work was built upon by David Kolb, who thought about the constituent parts of the reflection process and developed an experiential learning cycle.
Kolb suggested there were four parts to the learning cycle, namely:
- Having a concrete experience – i.e. doing something
- Reflecting on that experience – i.e. thinking about what you did
- Conceptualising – concluding/learning from that experience – i.e. making generalisations about what happened
- Planning – conducting active experimentation that builds on what you have learned – i.e. you bear your conclusions in mind and respond to them
Different individuals may well naturally gravitate to different stages of the cycle, which is not necessarily problematic as long as they don’t only focus on soley one area. Having too stronger preference for any particular element of the cycle could lead to an imbalance, skewing subsequent learning – so it is important to try and nurture each step to ensure comprehensive learning.
One common criticism of the Kolb cycle is that it can appear overly neat - reflective learning is inherently messy and the elements involved do not necessarily follow as sequentially as the diagrams imply. However, without reflecting, practitioners run the risk of jumping to conclusions about what is going on. The act of formally going through each stage of the cycle can reduce this risk – it is a discipline that can not only bring issues to the surface, but also solutions.
This next model of reflection, expands on the original Kolb Cycle in what is termed ‘Kolb Plus’ - and it was brought to my attention by an organisation called Sound Sense, who referenced it in their evaluation of Youth Music’s Musical Inclusion programme of work - The Power of Equality.
As they noted, what is missing in the original Kolb cycle is the idea of progression. People get better at what they do by:
having an experience > reflecting on that experience > concluding from that experience > applying that learning to a new experience.
So this Kolb Plus model highlights that the practitioner is not returning back to where they started, but rather that they continue to develop and learn from experience going onwards and upwards to new experiences.
Importantly this version also emphasises the significance of feelings – both of the practitioner, and those that they are working with.
- The first step is familiar – having a concrete experience.
- When it comes to reflecting on that experience there are some subtle differences. The ‘Kolb Plus’ model asks the learner to not only reflect on concrete information but also to consider feelings of both the practitioner and the group. By asking questions like “what feelings came up for me around the experience” and “What feelings were obvious in others” - it helps to acknowledge the emotional dimension and understand the effect of their feelings on both their own behaviour AND the behaviour of others.
- Next step is to compare and contrast with previous experience – as humans this is something we tend to do automatically. We will often analyse a situation, and think about how this relates to any of the many previous situations we may have encountered. Experiential learners – those who like to learn by doing – tend to do this a bit more systematically, looking for patterns that are familiar to either build on OR challenge their assumptions.
- After that it is important to invoke the learning of others. If we are only learning from our own experiences, we are missing out on a huge amount of potential learning. By building in the learning of others, the experience can be much richer. It is important to note the position of this step in the cycle – it is only after you have carried out your own observations, reflections and analysis that you should engage with the thinking of others.
- Taking all this information together allows you to conclude from your experience in order to build your own theory. For example, “if x happens then y is likely to result.” It is particularly important here that this incorporates all aspects of the cycle so far and that you are not simply “swallowing whole and undigested the theory of others”
- You can then use these theories and incorporate your learning into your future plans, responding to and building on your experiences to date.
This then leads on to your having new experiences and the process begins again as you continue to build your knowledge. It is not a closed circle, but an upward spiral in which the practitioner is constantly learning.
There a number of different ways to follow the cycle – and there are different skills required at different stages. Some prefer to conduct individual reflection, others prefer to do it as a group. How, when and why practitioners reflect can vary depending on circumstance and experience - but one thing remains clear - regular reflection can help nurture, consolidate and enhance learning.