Reflective Practice

How can I make a difference in the world?  What is “good change” and how do I contribute to it?

What is reflective practice?

Reflective practices are methods and techniques that help individuals and groups reflect on their experiences and actions in order to engage in a process of continuous learning. Reflective practice enables recognition of the paradigms – assumptions, frameworks and patterns of thought and behaviour – that shape our thinking and action. It also allows for the exploration of broader questions, such as:

  • What are the paradigms that shape not just our own actions, but development as a whole?
  • How does our position relate to the assumptions we make? Are these constructive or destructive to our goals?
  • How are our goals themselves limited by our paradigms?

By trying out methods of reflection and personal inquiry we can nurture greater self-awareness, imagination and creativity, as well as systemic, non-linear modes of thinking and analysis.

What use is reflective practice to a development professional?

Reflective practice can help us understand our own intentions, values and visions and support us to work in a challenging field where our ethics and morals may be tested, where power relations may be decidedly unequal, and where we may be working in emotionally and physically demanding environments.

Many of us keep coming back to fundamental questions: how can I make a difference in the world? What is “good change” and how do I contribute to it? How do we sustain ourselves and keep going, when the going gets rough? How can we position ourselves effectively within a change process, and avoid becoming part of the problem? Practicing reflection can help us answer these questions and others throughout our lives and careers.

More development professionals could benefit from adapting creative and innovative approaches to reflective practice – many of which are already used in fields of qualitative research, education, health care, social work, psychology and management. Opening spaces for reflection offers the possibility of transforming not only individual experience, but also the patterns and relationships within groups, organisations and systems, and ultimately those systems themselves.

How can I use reflective practice in my work?

Reflective practice can be a particularly powerful tool for organisational learning and in monitoring and evaluation. It can also be used for addressing issues of position, conflict, resistance and power relationships, which are often present in development, but seldom dealt with directly. Reflective practice, whether named as such or not, is already an important dimension of

  • participatory and qualitative research
  • gender and power analysis
  • social constructivism and feminist standpoint theory
  • methods of facilitation and community development work
  • monitoring and evaluation
  • organisational learning and change, and capacity development
  • attention to power and relationships in aid.

Methods for reflective practice

Reflective journals

Keeping a reflective journal – sometimes also called a learning journal – is a way to reflect through documenting ideas, feelings, observations and visions. It can be done on paper or on a computer. Keeping a reflective journal can help you to

  • focus your thoughts and develop your ideas
  • develop your voice and gain confidence
  • experiment with ideas and ask questions
  • organise your thinking through exploring and mapping complex issues
  • develop your conceptual and analytical skills
  • reflect upon and make sense of experiences and the processes behind them
  • express your feelings and emotional responses
  • become aware of your actions and strategies
  • develop your writing style and skills, and explore different styles of writing
  • develop a conversation with others.

When keeping a reflective journal, these tips may be useful:

  • write for yourself, and write every day
  • be informal, using language you are comfortable with
  • write by hand if you prefer
  • write in your own language
  • be relaxed and comfortable
  • try sitting in different places and positions
  • use diagrams and drawings
  • record not just events but reflection on process
  • ask questions and  challenge assumptions
  • connect personal and professional experiences to concepts and theories.

More details on these and other tips can be found in Jenny Moon’s 2004 book A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning.

Peer groups and Co-operative Inquiry

A group of peers who meet on a regular basis to learn and reflect together can be a powerful supporting element of individual reflective practice. The group, which decides together how to use and organize its time, may discuss work-related issues, share learning journal excerpts or try out a form of collective reflective practice.

Co-operative Inquiry is a reflective practice method for groups which was initially developed by John Heron to support the reflective practice of participatory researchers. Heron, a pioneer in the development of participatory methods in the social sciences, describes the theory and practice of the method in his 1996 book, Co-operative Inquiry: research into the human condition. It involves a group working through a structured, four-stage cycle of action and reflection, through which group members move towards developing new ways of acting.

Methods from research and other fields

Reflective practice, reflexivity and first person inquiry are used in research to explore issues of power and positionality and to make the role and assumptions of researchers more explicit and integral to their analysis. There are many approaches to this, which include methods from qualitative ethnographic and anthropological research, participatory and action research, and feminist research.

There are also many different reflective practice methods and approaches from management science, experiential and transformational learning, and organisational learning and change. Several of these are reviewed in the 2010 IDS Bulletin Reflecting Collectively on Capacities for Change.

Within development and action research, the field of embodied learning and reflection is growing. Many practices in this field are based on the pioneering work of Brazilian director and activist Augusto Boal, who developed Theatre of the Oppressed in the 1970s. They include methods for bodywork and movement, and approaches such as Forum Theatre and Theatre for Development.