Reflective practitioners? Reflection on action? Reflection in action? But what are the conditions when real reflection is more likely to happen? What kinds of evidence of reflection may there be? Do any of these lead to sensible metrics to try to ‘measure’ reflection? Are there indeed any realistic, objective assessment criteria which can be applied to evidence of reflection? And how is one supposed to compose some reflective writing anyway? Too many questions! Is composing this little piece for SEDA helping me to reflect? Well, hopefully.Nowadays, everyone seems to be expected to show reflection. In applying for SEDA Fellowships, National Teaching Fellowships, Fellowships of the HEA, promotion opportunities in institutions, new jobs altogether, there are expectations linked to reflection. We expect our students to write reflective accounts of things, or to reflect on what is written by authors of papers or books. In some disciplines, it is thought that reflecting is relatively easy or normal, while other disciplines distance themselves from such perceived ‘touchy-feely’ concepts. Too often, in my view, the word ‘reflection’ is used very loosely, and when we ask people to do it, we aren’t able to explain what we’re looking for.
Have you time to reflect? Are you busy? Are you more busy now than you were last year? Travelling around higher education institutions I see many very busy people. Some are proud of being so busy. Some are apologetic for being too busy. Many show guilt for only being able to keep up with some of the things that are keeping them busy. Some are just too busy to come along to an afternoon which may have helped them to be more productively busy with what’s keeping them busy. Gone from most institutions are the staff rooms where folk used to collect at coffee time and chat together – and have some great opportunities to reflect. Folk now sit with their sandwich and coffee at their desk and get on with what they are busy with. A few weeks ago, at 1345 on a Monday afternoon I happened to hear the start of a Radio 4 programme called ‘Oliver Burkeman is busy’. It was the first of five 15 minute programmes which went on at the same time for the rest of the week. This certainly started me reflecting (and is of course on BBC iplayer if you want to experience the programmes). Now that I’m (mostly) retired, I’m not as busy as I used to be. And I think back to how it was when I was busy when in a full-time job. Everyone seemed busy. It seemed the right thing to be busy. To be ‘not busy’ – or indeed to be idle – was looked down upon (the final instalment of Burkeman’s series was in praise of idleness). In those days, I lived seven minutes walk away from my desk. At lunchtime I would usually walk home and back for a coffee – and quickly found that solutions to whatever problems were bugging me was very likely to surface in my consciousness during the walk in the fresh air. Reflecting since that short radio series, it has dawned on me (at last, perhaps) that the quality and value of reflection can tend to be much better when one is doing nothing in particular – but that our busy lives as academic practitioners rob us of the time and opportunity to do nothing much in particular.
“No time to reflect!” is a common cry. “I’ll try some reflection when I’ve finished all the things on my to-do list”. But do we ever finish all of those things? Making time to reflect seems impossible. Now, however, I believe that we haven’t got time not to reflect. If we don’t manage to make the time to reflect, many of the things we busily work on aren’t done half as well as they might have been done. This includes teaching, and research. Neither can be done well without reflecting. I’d even go so far as to say that reflecting happens a lot better when we’re doing nothing in particular. That could be sitting ruminating with a coffee, or walking around a campus, or admiring a view, or sitting around playing with Twitter, or enjoying some music, or driving, or sitting on a train looking out of the window, or waiting for someone to turn up to a meeting – and even almost anything that we might previously have labelled ‘time wasted’.
Next, how best can we evidence reflection? It is appropriate that reflection is now regarded as good for us, but bad that inappropriate metrics have sprung up to try and measure whether we are reflective or not. ‘If we can measure reflection, it is probably not reflection we’re actually measuring’. Yet metrics are proposed for just about everything – including latterly ‘teaching excellence’. And we usually get the metrics quite wrong, as (in my view) has happened with the Teaching Excellence Framework. How good a job a graduate moves on to is little to do with the excellence of the teaching that graduate experienced, and perhaps even less connected to the immediate feelings of satisfaction towards the end of the learning experience involved. Learning hard and well is, and always has been, quite uncomfortable and challenging – exciting perhaps, but not ‘easy’. In most of the reflection-related metrics that seem to dominate our existence these days, it’s written reflection that is put foremost – reflective logs, reflective accounts, and so on. But written reflection is so often quite stilted, for example as it can get damaged by the formal expectations and conventions of academic writing. If you’re telling a friend face-to-face about something, there’s every chance that you’ll be reflecting much less formally, and with much more prominence to how you feel about things, and less on what happened and what you did and what they did. However, writing down such reflections often happens with the ‘feelings-bits’ getting edited out, and much more emphasis on the facts. Some written reflection is less prone to being limited by absence of feelings – for example, texts and emails are often much less formal. Audio reflections can similarly be more-true regarding real reflection, for example talking into your phone, and letting the software turn it into text for you to see again later, and edit with added hindsight.
Useful evidence of reflection isn’t just descriptive text, it’s much more analytical. I’ve always liked question-subheadings in my writing, with successive paragraphs being my attempts to answer the questions. But which are the best questions to elicit reflective responses? Not just ‘what?’. Better are ‘why?’, ‘where?’, ‘when?’, ‘who?’ and ‘how?’. ‘What next? can be a more useful question. And ‘what then?’. Even better, perhaps, ‘so what?’. ‘Will the skies fall in if I hadn’t done so-and-so?’ But perhaps for deeper reflection, the key word is ‘else’? ‘What else happened?’ goes deeper than just ‘what happened?. ‘Why else might it have happened?’ can lead to a deeper response than ‘why did it happen?’. ‘What else could I have done?’ goes much deeper than ‘what did I do?. I believe that the word else leads to a real breakthrough in causing and capturing reflections. It also helps us to escape from the formal constraints of ‘normal’ writing, and it enables feelings to enter into everything. It is simply being human to feel things, and some of the best writing conveys feelings (not just information), or causes feelings, or helps us to confront feelings or analyse feelings.
‘Else’ is of course just a start to deepening reflection. For example, after ‘why else…?’ could be ‘why else else….?’ and ‘why else, else, else….?’ and so on. It’s often after quite a few iterations of ‘else’ that one get to really new ground, to things that just didn’t occur to one on the first instance of ‘else’. Moreover, the answers to our ‘else’ questions are usually much more reflective than just the answers to the usual questions with just ‘why’, ‘what’ and so on. But back to those metrics – the relatively formal restraints on reflective accounts tend to miss entirely these deeper journeys into reflection. Surely it should be that the assessment criteria for measuring success of reflection might include the depth of the journey into the ‘else’ dimension?
What of other metrics? In a job interview, while questions and responses might be based on things that candidates have provided in writing, the judgement is much more multifaceted, and certainly (knowingly or unconsciously) always is coloured by feelings. These can be based on things such as facial expression, air of confidence, tone of voice, and many other variables. That said, an answer to a question that goes on to the ‘else’ dimension can be much more persuasive than a straight answer to the question. “There are three things I’d like to say in answering this question” could sometimes be a useful, tentative start, and with the first being the straightforward answer, time being made available to go into the ‘else’ dimension for two more things, and then a bit of analysis of which of the three might turn out to be the most important, and why (and why else). We still need the face-to-face dimension when decisions are to be made. We can now sometimes achieve at least some of this using Skype of course rather than have everyone in the same room, but then we miss a lot of the reflective opportunity of seeing other people’s faces in their reactions to what is being said or heard.
One of the things I love about the Jicsmail email lists of SEDA, NTF, PFHEA and so on is the amount of discussion and interaction a hot thread can promote. This is partly because lots of feelings are shared, in the voices of the respective authors of messages, responses, diatribes, and shared wisdom. True, there’s the odd snappy reminder to reply just to the originator or questioner rather than the whole list, and complaints about cluttering up folks’ in-boxes. Of course, we are too busy to read everything in a discussion (or in a magazine, or newspaper, or learned journal), but we remain free to choose what to read properly and what to skim and what to ignore. The age where folk are so busy has fostered the Executive Summary for those who haven’t the time, will or inclination to peruse a piece of writing or a report or a consultation. Now in academia, if we were just to test our students on the contents of ‘executive summaries’ we’d soon notice the differences in understanding between those who’d only studied the summary and those who’d digested the full work. “But we’ve always had ‘Abstracts’ for journal articles” one might complain. In my view, however, the main purpose of a good abstract is to create a desire to read right into the piece which follows, by saying enough about it to make it seem really worthwhile for us to do so. That’s why, in my view, it’s best for the author to write the Abstract last, when one knows exactly what’s to come. Looked at another way, a good Abstract can often be the author’s reflection on the piece, rather than just a short description of the piece.
We live at a time with unprecedented opportunities to share text (and images) quickly, easily and very inexpensively. There’s so much to read, and far too much to do justice to everything which comes our way – let alone to the greater part of the iceberg of material which we don’t see (or in countries without ice, the parallel is the whole hippopotamus rather than just its nose). All the more reason not to be passive recipients of all the information around – we can’t possibly absorb it all. But we can reflect on what we see, what we do, and what others have done. This takes more time, and needs perhaps for us to be less busy trying to capture everything, but to focus more sharply on the nose of the hippopotamus. To do this well, we really need to be better-able to capture our reflections as we go, rather than just go on and read the next installment quickly. Read – or write – in haste if we must, but reflect at leisure?
Phil Race @RacePhil
About the author