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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).



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.