Nuts and Bolts: Reflective Practice

I won’t get into the old argument about whether an L&D person (designer, developer, trainer, or producer) needs a specialized degree. I will say that one of the most interesting and useful grad courses I ever took had nothing to do with L&D in general or the technical aspects of my work in particular.

It was a course for new doctoral students called Reflective Practice, and it was one of the most wonderful learning experiences of my adulthood. Per Donald Sch?n, reflective practice is the “capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning”—a defining characteristic of professional practice. The course meant to expand my capacity as well as help me shift my work identity from “worker” to “practitioner”—a distinction that has made all the difference in how I enact my work now.


Well, essentially, reflecting on your own experiences helps you learn. And when done well it may be the best professional development you’ll get. Out of the moment we can step away to reconstruct the events, the politics, and our emotions. We may not always recall a perfect picture—memory being what it is—but reflection can help us see mistakes or perhaps connect dots we’d missed before. Making reflection a deliberate part of our work can help break the common cycle of busily going from project to project while unwittingly making the same mistakes. Articulating, even to ourselves, why we made this choice or how we made that decision can make us better able, next time, to articulate ideas to management or other stakeholders.

It can also help to intellectualize our practice, by becoming clearer about our own philosophies of teaching and learning, our views of learners and our work, and then helping us to reconcile ideal with reality and theory with practice. Ultimately, consciously working to become a reflective practitioner can help us work more efficiently and effectively, enacting more skilfully while finding more satisfaction in the work that we do.

Side note: I sometimes create Pinterest boards in anticipation of #lrnchat, as they offer a quick way to get participants up to speed quickly with a topic. None I’ve done drew more attention than this one on metaphors for teaching and learning. I received a dozen messages about it, mostly on the theme of, “I didn’t realize that the way I saw our workers was playing out in the way I designed my courses.”

How? Tips for reflecting

  • We’re all busy. We go on to the next thing—often making the same mistakes repeatedly. Or we’re putting out fires rather than preventing them in the first place. Try to recognize the time spent on reflective practice as an investment that will save time and energy on future work.
  • Depending on the nature of your work you might try to set aside a time, like over morning coffee or the last 10 minutes of the workday, to reflect on recent events. Or at the end of a project, after a meeting, upon closing a sale or getting signoff on an idea, or after ending a relationship with a client or vendor. A recent #lrnchat conversation on reflection made one thing clear: Those who engaged in reflective practice tended to have a format and schedule for it. They regard it as an intentional, regular thing, so important that respondents carve out time and plan for it.
  • Remember to go beyond just this-decision, that-idea. What do those decisions and ideas say about your practice? How does your philosophy of teaching and learning (the learner is just an actor in a system; all knowledge can be codified; learners can’t be trusted; learners are inherently self-directed) affect that practice overall? Do you need to make changes?
  • Navigate around the monsters that keep reflection from happening, including self-imposed ones like procrastination, self-doubt, and hesitation to face facts, and cultural ones like demand for quantification (“ROI!”) and what Clark Quinn calls working in the “Miranda organization,” where everything you say can be used against you.
  • If nothing else, just take a breath and do a quick postmortem before you shift gears to the next thing: “I did a good job articulating my vision for the final product, but I grossly underestimated the time for development and beta testing.” “I feel like the product itself is good, and it met the stated specs. But I’m still not convinced a course is the best answer for this. I really need to brush up on my negotiation skills so I can help that go better.”
  • Nudge. When I was editing From Analysis to Evaluation, Randy Woodward, Training & Development Director at Ho-Chunk Nation, shared a “smile sheet” evaluation form for trainers to turn in along with the ones completed by learners. It asks for the trainers’ perception of the day. The right audience? People prepared to be there? Anything unusual about this class? The form is meant to alert management to issues and trends while helping the trainer to just take a bit of time and consider this experience before moving on to the next.
  • Just say it in your head to yourself. Write it by hand on an index card or a legal pad. Keep a journal. Blog it. Draw it. Use Siri to post it to Evernote. Use a text tool to annotate photos. Post a voice clip to your phone. Ask for feedback. Hire a coach.
  • Need more help? Here’s an exercise (in the Sidebar) to help you get started.

If reflective practice is new for you, begin by ending a task, particularly a big one, by asking yourself some basic questions. Consider things like:

What do I know about now that I didn’t know when I started?
Why did this particular (event, barrier, success, accident) happen? How can it be explained?
What can I do differently next time? How could I have made this go faster, better, more smoothly?
What political issues emerged?
A problem I ran into was ___________________
I fixed it, overcame it, or circumvented it by ______________________
How did the outcome measure up to my expectations?
How well did the actual reflect my estimates on time, challenges, difficulty, or people?
I could not fix, overcome, or circumvent it because ___________________
Did this highlight any deficiencies in my preparation, training, or skill level? What do I need to do to correct that?
What assumptions did I make? How valid were these? How did they affect what I did?
What do I know about __________ now that I didn’t know when I started?
Why did ___________ happen? How I explain it?
What did I learn from this?

Finally: Is this something worth sharing via a blog post or coffee conversation or quick video or with a mentor or coach? Who else might benefit from knowing about your experience and reflections on it? And would there be value to you, in way of getting feedback that might help sharpen your vision beyond the subjectivity your own blinders create?

Or if Nothing Else:

If all that’s too much consider just putting an index card in a visible spot and as you finish something take a minute to reflect:

  1. What was the best thing I did, and why?
  2.  If I did this again tomorrow, what would I do differently?
  3. What did I learn from this?

We spend a lot of time in this business talking about how to do things: build it, program it, deliver it, launch it, or sell it. We don’t spend much thinking about what to do after we’ve actually done it. Consider investing more time in working toward improving in the future, reconciling your walk with your talk, and building your role as a practitioner in a professional pursuit.

Some material adapted from Bozarth, J. Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-To’s of Working Out Loud. Wiley. 2014.

Want more?

This was a very quick overview. Google around for more information on reflective practice. If you’re really interested in the academic side of this, take a look at the syllabus from the Reflective Practitioner course I mentioned.

Gawande, A. Complications : A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. Picador. 2003. This is an excellent first-person example of a reflective practitioner in action.

Schön, D. The Reflective Practitioner, How Professionals Think In Action. Basic Books. 1983.

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