Tag Archives: critical reflection

When do I reflect, critically reflect or use reflexivity….. or is it all just navel gazing?

This week I thought I’d focus on the HRD (Human Resource Development) literature that had been recommended to me for the term. I got through a number of the articles, but with each page turned (or these days scrolled), I became increasing confused about the differences between reflection, critical reflection and reflexivity.  With the repetition of use of these terms in the literature, it seemed a reasonable diversion….. to spend a bit of time clarifying each label.

As I searched, I soon found I’m not alone with my quest for a simple definition. I agreed with Swan (2008), as I also found in my reading that the term ‘critical’ often ‘sneaks away’ or ‘slips out of view’ and authors just talk about reflection (even John Dewey did it in the great picture above ). And as Swan suggests, that might reduce reflection to mere navel gazing.

My empirical roots started to show…. as I wanted the literature to just provide me with a black and white answer. And as you’ll see below, what I found were many shades of gray (and no I’m not referring to my roots). I found Swan’s summaries (p. 389) of a variety of the experts on this topic really helpful…..

Reflection: concerned with practical questions about what courses of action can best lead to the achievement of goals or solutions of specific problems.

Critical Reflection: seen as confronting underlying assumptions, in particular about the context, and involves engaging with individual, organizational or social problems with the aim of changing the condition which gave rise to them, as well as providing the basis for personal change… critical reflection is imagined to go deeper….means questioning hidden assumptions and the operations of power.

Reflexivity: understood as a kind of generalized self-awareness that all of us have to engage with due to contemporary changes in social and cultural life. Reflexivity involves the capability of us to constantly reflect upon, examine,  and revise who we are and what we do in the light of new knowledge… Individual reflexivity is both a consequence and an attribute of late modernity and the disappearing importance of customs, traditions and social structures such as gender, class and ethnicity – ‘detraditionalization’.

What impressed me most about Swan’s interpretation was her interest in a more contemporary view of ‘the other’. A broader view of the cultural, social and political influences on today’s society….. I could relate to the work of Giddens and Beck (reported by Swan) that spoke of reflexive as able to distance ourselves from the world. Able to examine and revise who we are in the light of new knowledge. Able to break from tradition and able to overcome fixed attributes such as gender and age. In the world of ‘supercomplexity’ (four posts ago) survival will depend on our adaptability, our ability to be reflexive and our ability to use ‘knotworking’ (three posts ago).

I also found that Bolton (2009) had some good advice to offer. As he reported that reflection “enables practitioners to learn from experience about themselves, their work,  and the way they relate to home and work, significant others and wider society and culture” (p. 3). He went on to advise that reflective practices only lead to change in learning organizations with coaches and facilitators and not where top down organizational visions are imposed. Critically reflective practitioners have increased morale, commitment to clients, openness to multiple perspectives and creative innovative non-dichotomous solutions and clearer boundaries (p.5)…. What separates reflection (again the critical got dropped) from navel gazing, according to Bolton, is that it supports and demands that practitioners think about values. Finally, he suggests that reflexivity is finding strategies to question our own attitudes, thought processes, values, assumptions, prejudices and habitual actions, to strive to understand our complex roles in relation to others. Its to examine how we unwittingly are involved in creating social and professional structures counter to our own values (p. 14).

Again Bolton seemed to be preparing us for what we see in our workplaces today. He wanted us to consider how we might shake up our curriculums, question our actions or the taken for granted. I appreciated his comment of how we ‘spend so much time studying medicine that we never have time to study sick people’ (p. 9). I can’t wait to try the idea of being reflexive by asking learners to step outside themselves and re-write a personal story from the perspective of the patient. Or to give students the opportunity to rewind and break the rules the next time the plot unfolds.

Schon encourages us to become reflective practitioners (again note the critical is absent) and remember that we learn best by doing.  It makes sense (as he suggests) to become ‘critically reflective’ or perhaps even ‘reflexive’ by reviewing and critiquing our instincts (reflecting-on-action) as well as reflecting-in-action. His theory asks us to take a step back and remember that the best instructors are coaches who allow learners to experience chaos and confusion as a step in artful doing.

But what did all this have to do with the HRD literature that I started out reading this week. Well…. as Valentin suggests, there is a new perspective for critical research needed – one where there is an emphasis on reflexivity in the research process (p. 25). Where we finally realize that being objective bystanders is highly over-rated and where we roll up our sleeves and become actively involved in the practices that we are passionate about. Or as Sandelowski & Barroso explain:

Reflexivity is a hallmark of excellent qualitative research and it entails the ability and willingness of researchers to acknowledge and account of the many ways they themselves influences research findings and thus what comes to be excepted as knowledge. Reflexivity implies the ability to reflect inward toward oneself as an inquirer; outward to the culture, historical, linguistic, political and other forces that shape everything about inquiry; and, in between researcher and participant to the social interaction they share. (p.222)

So as a doctoral student, the diversion has led to one of those aha moments….. recognizing how my faculty has been encouraging me to get ‘reflexive’ in my project. Giving me permission to participate in and have my own perspective of the culture I’m studying. Too bad, I hadn’t started with this question a year ago….

As a teacher, I have new ideas for the next time I provide blogging as an assignment option. (As perhaps this time I just asked students to ‘reflect’ rather than ‘critically reflect’). As Sandars offered, I’ll be clear with the guidelines and ask them to be aware of the need to reflect and to capture those feelings. Or perhaps I’ll offer them the option to blog from the voice of the patient or to create a happy ending by changing the rules.

Finally, as a leader and practitioner, I already put a bit of ‘reflexivity’ or at minimum ‘critical reflection’ to work today…. where I asked my team to take a step back and to re-consider a suggestion in terms of the next customer who might be opening the door and requesting our services. What would be the first comment that the customer might utter? It changed the dialogue and it led to a richer discussion.

In summary, I hope it’s been a great deal more than navel gazing that I did this week. How about you and your reflective/reflexive practice?


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