10 April 2012

On "reflective practice" as a threshold concept

This is in danger of becoming a little arcane! Is "reflection" (in the Schon/Kolb/Boud/Moon and co. sense) a threshold concept? And what difference does it make to anything if it is?

The story so far--starting a couple of years ago, I've been doing occasional presentations, in many cases in association with Peter Hadfield, on re-evaluating the notion of "reflective practice" and its usefulness a quarter-century after it was promoted in a rather different professional culture. The other day I was invited to do a session in the Open Lecture series on learning and teaching at the University of Greenwich, and Peter was able to come too. So it was that we went through the lecture on the train, on my laptop, and he posed the question whether reflective practice is a threshold concept.

Yes of course! ...Well, no. ...But it ought to be! It matters because this idea tests some of the supposed criteria for threshold concepts (although it has to be granted that those for TCs are tighter than those for RP--excuse the initials but they should be obvious by now). And certainly, the origins of TCs were found in the "Ways of Thinking and Practising" (WTP) which Entwistle identified. In many disciplines, RP is regarded as central to their WTP, and it is certainly intended/assumed to transform practitioners' approaches to their practice. It is considered not as an additional item of knowledge, but as a transformational perspective or frame of reference.

In practice it doesn't work like that. And it so happened that the other day I did a teaching observation of a student actually teaching a module on "reflective practice" on the final year of an undergrad programme in... social work/ nursing/youth work/ community development/ informal education (It was one or more of those--I'm being coy for ethical reasons, but it doesn't affect the argument: and this has nothing to do with the performance of the student--we had interesting issues to discuss which concerned context and background and style, but her core performance was fine*).

RP is regarded as a theme (perspective) running through the entire programme, but the existence of a discrete module accords it the status of (merely) additional knowledge. I can see how it happens, of course. As I cited in the lecture:
Whilst many authors [...] have expressed doubts regarding the wisdom of formally assessing reflection, the currently favoured 'alignment' model of curriculum development ([...] makes it extremely difficult to make the development of reflective skills a core element of the curriculum design without it being overtly assessed. Despite my own reservations regarding the ethics
of assessing student reflections [...] even I would struggle to envision a curriculum where reflection was central to the learning strategy but absent in the design of assessment.
(Hargreaves 2010:91)

Two aspects in particular struck me:

Making it into a discrete module had transformed it; it was no longer the same activity. As Reflection (I'll capitalise it in its RP sense so I can use the more general term uncapitalised) was originally recommended by Boud and Schon et al, it was a characteristic of the accomplished practitioner, and effectively something which he or she could not help doing. In that form it is a reactive process, not a proactive one. It is something which takes place because one is that kind of practitioner, not in order to become one.

For the Greenwich lecture, I looked up the phrase "reflective practice" on Ngram: I noted that when I published my first book, on Professional Supervision in Group Care in 1986 (written of course in 84-85), the term "reflect / reflection" appeared only once in the index, and then in a specialised context. The ngram graph seems to show that the idea came out of nowhere in the 'eighties.
So if we are to believe one proponent of RP, practice prior to its identification could only be, "at best
uninformed, and at worst ineffective, prejudiced and constraining" (Hillier 2002: p.xi) which is self-evident nonsense. It's clearly a case of  Jourdain's syndrome--the Moliere character who discovered he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it. Identification and labelling is the first step in the process of systematisation, and that is what the Schon and co. started to do. Indeed, Schon was clear about his intentions. Nevertheless, that inevitably started a process of change.

As I explored very briefly in discussing Bruner's cone of experience, in order to talk about an "enactive" experience, one has to step back and enter the "iconic" or even the "symbolic" zone--and such a step is an act of abstraction. So the act of reflection is in itself an abstraction and to talk about reflection is even more of an abstraction. And after talking about it for 25 years, and codifying it and evaluating it and representing it within Learning Outcomes and Module Descriptors--it has become something different.

In particular it has become (at least on this course), a label for an approach to action-planning and target-setting, where despite the rhetoric of self-directed learning, the action and targets need to fit within the pre-determined framework of the curriculum. It's putting it too strongly to suggest any element of "indoctrination", but as Hargreaves points out above, when you start to assess Reflection, you have to go down that route.

Perhaps that is not too bad an idea, really. There's nothing wrong with becoming proficient in planning and meeting targets. In current working systems and cultures, indeed, those skills may be more use than Reflection, but I did not get the impression that this position has been arrived at consciously and deliberately (let alone Reflectively).

The students had learned it. Only problem, I (and my student) were no longer very sure what "it" was. And I did not know whether the students believed in it, or were just going through the motions, because they (at the end of three years, after all) knew very well how to play the game. It's nothing new: I've just found this, which I wrote in 1998:
An external examiner on the social work course commented at the assessment board that although he was satisfied by the way in which anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice was being taught on the programme, he saw little evidence from the work he had read, that students were actually using any of these principles, despite the fact that they were explicitly marked on the extent to which they were incorporated in all assignments. Discussion with some of the students after the final assessment revealed that for at least some of them:

a)  The teaching represented a form of political correctness to which they knew they were supposed to pay lip-service in order to pass the course, but they did not actually believe that it was any use as a principle of practice.

b)  More than that, several regarded it as inimical to their effective practice, because of the self-consciousness it engendered.

Reflection is no different.

But now it doesn't sound much like a concept, "akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress." (Meyer and Land, 2006:3)

And yet it started off that way. It's just that in its journey from being a necessary feature of a professional's manner of reacting to her practice, to this compliant choreographed process of planning to address external targets, it seems to have had a run-in with the Dementors and lost all its energy. It continues to exist as ritual knowledge, which has a “routine and rather meaningless character” (Perkins, 1999, p. 8**). I know it, but I no longer know why I know it, or what it is really for.

Instead of opening doors, it is closing them.

I am coming to realise, rather belatedly, that the threshold quality of a threshold concept, and the transformative potency of reflection, do not lie in their content as such. It lies in the manner in which learners are prepared to let them permeate and act on other areas of knowledge. And clearly caging these ideas up in discrete modular boxes and then treating them as mere additional gobbets of knowledge to be assimilated is guaranteed to emasculate them; we need to take the risks inherent in letting students engage with accommodating to them.

* "Fine" does not do her justice, but we do not grade observations, and so I'm not going to use a term in Ofsted's vocabulary. Sorry if that is meaningless to anyone, but you're not missing anything!

** Many thanks to David Stone for finding this accessible source!


Hargreaves J (2010) "Voices from the past: professional discourse and reflective practice" in Bradbury H, Frost N, Kilminster S and Zukas M (eds) (2010) Beyond Reflective Practice; new approaches to professional lifelong learning Abingdon; Routledge

Moliere (Poquelin, J-B) (1670) Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (play)

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