Two events in my professional life have recently converged to force me to think more about my own development, specifically thinking about reflective practice and how I can do this better. The first event that has forced this thought process, like all good students, is assessment. I am currently working with a group of OU students on a project around using digital diaries for reflection. When we had to select our project I decided to do a bit of research and found quite a lot of research about school teachers and nurses using reflective practice - there are far less available for those teaching in higher education. The second activity that made me reflect on my reflection was my probation assessment. This turned out to be a very stressful experience, largely due to incompetence of the university's HR department but that is par for the course. The interesting point that arose from this was that I had to produce a record of the various tasks I have been engaged with and map them to the performance framework for grade. This in itself was time consuming but not too difficult because I keep a very organised calendar and have a great memory but what fell out of my compiling this information was recognition that all too rarely do I stop to reflect on the experiences I have had sufficiently to truly gain from them. I had a wealth of experience on paper but had not sat and given thought to where I go next and why.
Several definitions of reflection have been put forward over the years including by John Dewey’s (1933) who defined it as ‘‘active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends’’ (p. 9). Valli (1997) made this definition more lay-friendly, referring to reflection as where we ‘‘can look back on events, make judgements about them, and alter [our] teaching behaviors in light of craft, research, and ethical knowledge’’ (p. 70). Jay and Johnson (2002) furthered these ideas with the creation of a typology of reflection from descriptive reflection (e.g. What is happening and who is it working for or not working for?), comparative reflection (e.g. What are the alternative ways of viewing this?) and finally critical reflection (e.g. Given alternative views and my own views, what are the implications of this?).
Whatever type of reflection we consider, the value seems obvious. Indeed I include reflective pieces in two of three modules I teach indicating I do really value the experience of reflection, so why then do I find it so hard to do. A clue for me comes from Davis' paper in 2003 where she discusses the challenges in post-92 universities. She notes that one of the biggest challenges for the post-92 universities is that they are starting to operate like pre-92 universities in terms of giving more weighting to research, amongst other things. She goes on to explain that the changes in the post-92 universities include "lack of resources, lack of recognition, overwork and lack of appreciation of the additional burdens put on academics, and invariably the institutions themselves, by widening participation and lifelong learning initiatives." (p.243). All of these things she says demotivates staff and drains the time they have to engage in true reflection. Davis wrote about the post-92 universities in 2003 and, from my perspective, 15 years later at a pre-92 university, I think the pressures are the same. I have sat in many meetings at King's where I am based hearing about the need to offer world-class education as well as be world-leaders in research. I have also been involved in numerous activities around widening participation and student support. I don't think it is simply the case that the post-92 universities are becoming pre-92 universities, I think the two cohorts of universities, who used to be more distinct and have distinct areas of priority, are now merging in their overall aims and academics from all universities face the pressures of change. With that pressure can come apathy and lack of time - two very dangerous things when found in conjunction for any career.
So how do we solve this? I wish I had the answer to this; I definitely think there is something in the digital world that will support more efficient and permanent reflections for those who want that but how we make the mental head space for reflection in a timely manner is another matter. We ask our students to fill out surveys all the time about what they liked, did not like and would change but we don't explicitly ask staff so much. Should we do this perhaps? I suspect not - I think the formulaic approach would give formulaic answers - it would become (another) box-ticking exercise in academia. There are, of course, many other options, e.g. creating shared reflections with communities of practitioners. To an extent this is already available for those who want it through over-arching organisations like the HEA. For me, I need to be responsible for creating the space mentally to think about what I do and why - in enough time to change things if needed. This last point raises an interesting issue; substantial changes to module structures of assessment require approval many months in advance and sometimes before a final assessment is graded or student feedback is available, which means I can probably only base my changes on descriptive or limited comparative reflection. So my recommendations for supporting reflective practice would be: