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Is reflection always on the present or the past?

Since the work of Argyris and Schon (Schön, 1987) it has become accepted practice to talk about reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action.  Reflection-in-action being in time reflection, awareness of the event at the time.  Reflection-on-action, while not necessarily defined as such is generally discussed as reflection after the action.

In the research I did for a paper some years ago (Andrew et al., 2002) when describing reflection in their practice most people referred to reflection-on-action as retrospective, with only one person talking about reflection as part of planning.

Yesterday, in my retirement activities, I did some preservation – making some onion marmalade, and in the process, I did part of the recipe in the wrong order (I wait to see how disastrous that was).  I realised that although I had read the recipe several times I had not developed a model of what I was doing hence the mistake.

Reflecting later I was reminded how this was like the process of preparing students for assessments, and how often you can go over common mistakes and find they still make them.  I used to play a game called Words-in-sentences in training staff as it highlighted this – you can do various things to get them to read the instructions and ask them whether they understand them – oh yes! – and then they do it and it becomes obvious that they didn’t.

What I didn’t do I realise, and what they didn’t do, was to build a model of what was going to happen.

Reflecting as part of planning can just be a casual thought about what you are going to do in the future, as was the case with the person I interviewed.  There are however models of more structured preparation such as in the Inner Game approach to sports coaching (Gallwey, no date), where you imagine what you will look like, and feel like when you are performing an action.

This can be extended using the NLP perceptual positions model, a full anticipatory reflection would include:

  • First person
    • What I see
    • What I hear
    • What I feel
  • Second person
    • What I look like
    • What I sound like
    • Impression I make on others
  • Third person
    • What I and my tools look like
    • How I have things organised
    • How I move in space

If I have done that – my reflection-in-action is much more effective – and of course saying that it becomes obvious that for reflection-in-action to work I much have some model or theory anyway (Houchens and Keedy, 2009) – but usually not well formed.  If I have done more work on my internal model when I go to that stage of the recipe I would have known what I was doing wasn’t right.

Therefore, I propose that a model of effective practice has to include reflection-pre-action alongside the other reflection in order to be effective.


Available as a working paper on Researchgate  DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.19785.39527


Andrew, D. et al. (2002) A critical review of the use of the concept of reflection in Higher Education .

Gallwey, T. (no date) HOME - The Inner Game. Available at: (Accessed: 7 October 2018).

Houchens, G. W. and Keedy, J. L. (2009) ‘Theories of practice: understanding the practice of educational leadership’, Journal of Thought Fall-Winter 2009, 49. Available at: (Accessed: 7 October 2018).

Schön, D. A. (1987) Educating the reflective practitioner : toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. Jossey-Bass. Available at: (Accessed: 7 October 2018).




Article in Higher Education Quarterly reviewing changes in governance of universities across Europe.

Capano, G. and Pritoni, A. (2018) ‘Varieties of hybrid systemic governance in European Higher Education’, Higher Education Quarterly, (June), pp. 1–19. doi: 10.1111/hequ.12180.


This is a useful summary of models of governance emerging in Europe.  Rather than assuming the move towards a common system of governance the steering at a distance/ supervisory/supermarket model the authors argue that in response to diverse government interventions there are hybrid models which are developing – they categorise as:

  • The performance-oriented mode – England and Italy
  • Re-regulated mode – Austria, Ireland, France, Greece, Portugal, Italy, The Netherlands
  • Systematic Goal-orientated mode – Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, The Netherlands


This seems a promising way of analysing current trends.

Reflection – practice and tools.


Reflection is regarded as a crucial aspect of learning but is seldom defined or operationalised.  In doing research for a previous paper I interviewed a number of people, all of whom said that reflection was important for their learning.  Two things struck me, however.  The first was that they all described it in very different ways – to the extent that I wondered is the concept was meaningful at all.  The second was that they all made strong statements about the physical context – in the bath, on the bus etc.

The latter is interesting in terms of theories of learning which include concepts like habitus, “the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences” (Routledge, no date) as an example of habitus in practice.  It is also reminiscent of Merleau-Ponty's Body schema – the physical aspect of mental activities, the consequence of which is that it is impossible to fully reflect if you are prevented from adopting the bodily schema – not being in the bath for example.  These aspect point to the complexity of the process of reflection and the difficulty of teaching and improving it.

This is the problem with the advocacy of reflection in education, in particular in the e-portfolio movement, advocates who argue that the provision of e-portfolios, and tools like journals in virtual learning environments will get students to reflect.   In my experience such tools seldom work and when they do they are seen as chores by students who drop them immediately after they have completed the assessment for which they were required.

Reflection and the recording of reflection are of course two totally different things!  Although some would argue that the former, without the latter is transient and therefore not valuable, likely to be a passing moment.  While I do not take that view, in my practice I attempt to record most of my reflections.

Why do I find this important?

  • To consolidate the reflection – recording it generally enriches it
  • To store it for latter use, either for my learning or reporting to others
  • Planning further action is helped

At which point the idea that reflection is a single activity is again challenged and leads to my main learning about reflection and tools to aid reflection.

I reflect in different ways in different times for different purposes.  Therefore, I use different tools.

  • Paper – when it is quick and unstructured, so a mindmap is easier to be free of structure
  • Evernote – for random reflections when I don’t have an aim apart from getting it down on paper – or if it is a random idea for a project
  • Onenote – if it is part of an existing project – or something which is clearly going to be a project, onenote is more structured and imposes discipline – useful when you want/need it.
  • Photo’s – I am late to this but am learning the value of taking photo’s as a way of recording the subject of reflections to come back to later – there are various ways of storing them.
  • Blogs and twitter – when I know that I want to share immediately (all the above may be shared later of course).

The idea that I would be restricted to one format is ridiculous.

To enhance your reflection by recording it therefore means having a variety of tools which fit your habitus and bodily schema around reflection and what you want to do with it.  It takes trial and error to find that – but worth it.


Routledge (no date) Habitus | Social Theory Rewired. Available at: (Accessed: 28 September 2018).


Precarious employment 1. Unpicking the teaching plan.

Having retired I am starting work as an hourly paid visiting lecturer, a reversed career projectory as it is how most academics start their career, in some sort of precarious employment.  This is an interesting experience and I will be reflecting on it over the next couple of months.  I am already discovering the extent of the precarity with dropped offers of work etc and noticing the extra time it takes to plan and achieve things when you are not based in the institution combined with all the things that you don’t know and are frustratingly difficult to find.

My main task is of course getting my head around the teaching. I knew the person who ran the module before and some years ago was the external examiner, so have some knowledge of it, but predictably was over optimistic in thinking how much I could pick it up.

I have seen the phenomena so many times, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise – it’s the old ‘here’s the syllabus and PowerPoint for the first session’ scenario.  So, I don’t do enough preparation in advance thinking I can just pick it up.

In learning terms this is single loop learning, basically trial and error.  I imagine running through the programme, if anything doesn’t work, make an adjustment and settle for that.

But then I look at it and am struck by:

  • The things I wouldn’t normally do
  • Things I am not quite confident about
  • An unease about just filling ins someone else’s’ plan, teaching is personal expression

The dilemma that can take some of the precious preparation time is how long do I keep going making minor adjustments before I go for a more radical rethink.

The stereotype of traditional HE is that is the way it was done – academics who were focussed on research and didn’t have the time and interest in doing things differently would just do what had always been done, and that they had experienced as students and there is an element of truth in that.  It is also true that they were not encouraged to look beyond that or given the resources to do that.

Double loop learning happens when the context is introduced, and options opened.  The first way that can happen is by the introduction of choice – it could be done differently.  There is a concept of signature pedagogies (Gurung, Chick and Hayne, 2009) which describes the way in which academic communities have distinctive ways of teaching, and like any community they are defined by argument as much as consensus, so there are typical debates about how to teach the subject.  In English do students have to read a lot od books, or close read a smaller number, in computer science how much emphasis is on the coding process and when do students get introduced to application.  When I look at my syllabus I can identify where the person who designed it stood in those debates and I can choose a different path.

More fundamental choice is opened up when I go beyond that and look at their aims, what are they trying to achieve in what they are doing?  Goals opens up assumptions about learning theory, either explicit or implicit because if someone has a goal they have a model of the process.

Theories about learning fall into one of three categories or paradigms which can be identified by the key aspects of the gaols implied in a syllabus.  Is the focus on what the students should be able to do, practical tasks and processes, what they should understand or what they should experience?



Gurung, R. A. R., Chick, N. L. and Hayne, A. (eds) (2009) Exploring Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind. Stylus Publishing.



Exhibition at the Photographers gallery.
Wonderful black and white photography of people in the North East in the 1970s and 80's. On first view the people come across so strongly it is easy to forget the photographer, then you appreciate how the framing of the photograph, and the focus etc brings the person out.
Historically, it is so easy to forget that level of visible poverty, not so clear cut these days.
An amazing photographer - should be better known.

My union – the UCU is supposed to be having its congress this week but it has been abandoned, after a couple of days of mostly chaos, although some good work has been done on casualisation and other issues, including the difficult issue of the use of lecture capture which was possibly misused in the recent strike making it a source of conflict between staff and student in universities.
The issue is whether the General Secretary can be criticised and asked to resign in a motion at congress. This raises issues about her employment and rights, and she is supported by other staff who see this as a threat and is covered by the standing orders which do prevent this from happening.

This is reasonable, but places the union is a difficult situation when, as now, there is a lot of unhappiness in the membership of the General Secretary’s conduct during an industrial dispute. This is always likely given the messy nature of industrial disputes and the almost certainty of different views on the termination of action – on the basis that you never get all you want (and if you did then there would be a valid criticism that you were not asking for enough). Both sides it seems to me should be able to recognise that. But the rule above seems to me to be unworkable – and needs to be replaced by a more positive procedure about what can be done.
I don’t think anyone should be sacked or forced to resign as a result of a motion in a conference – even if they could address the conference. However, the conference must be allowed to voice views which might indicate a level of dissatisfaction that should lead to that.

The background has remarkable historical resonance for me. There are two factions in UCU – the broad left and UCU left. There were two main blocks when I was involved in student politics (Sussex 1972-5), generally similar blocks. We did have the Maoists, bless them, but they were never significant. The left block was split between two groups – the precursor to the SWP and the International Marxist group, often to be found in the bar disputing the nature of the soviet state in obscure terms. Thought – maybe the SWP need a stronger rival in the far left to keep it in line?

I had fun (being an un-organised yippie – M15 have me down as an anarchist because their Fed of Conservative Students informant wasn’t that clear about political differences!) representing the Union Council (made up of sports and other basically conservative groups) on the Union executive with either the broad or the far left. It is possible to work with the different groups for the best of the union, but it needs people who have a wider perspective. The broad left are generally better at managing things, the far left at getting people involved.
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone taking that role in the UCU at the moment, and nobody seems to have thought about what was going to happen. Both sides should have seen this coming and had contingency plans.
For me I can’t help thinking this is a problem of virtue, this is what politics is about, if you want to play the game you need to know how you are going to play and play well. I am sorry for all the first-time delegates at the conference who got thrown into all this and must be feeling frustrated and angry. But there must be enough people around who should have the experience and sense to have helped to manage this better.

I am leaving my post at Queen Mary University of London and retiring, moving on to a new phase in my life.

Working in educational development at Queen Mary has become more difficult since a move to a building off the main campus and a restructuring, both of which have reduced our contacts with academic members of staff and decision makers in the university and created other problems. I recognise that this reflects trends across the sector, but that does not make it any easier.  The failure to make a timely decision about the future of the main project I have been working on with two colleagues on short-term contracts has been difficult for me.

I have been in phased retirement for the last year and was hoping to continue that for a while – but that has not worked out so I am now fully retiring from August – but looking forward to doing other things.

While working in Educational Development at Queen Mary has been turbulent since I joined in 2007 I am proud to have been part of many positive changes and am particularly proud of the work on the Teaching Recognition Project and the positive impact that the team has made and the good will established across the university.