What is reflective learning?

I was just reading this article, and it finally crystalised why I find so much discussion about reflective learning so baffling. This is not what I do.

In case I’m not alone (and I’ve found I’m never alone on the internet), I’m sharing it.


Firstly, what is reflective learning as opposed to other kinds of learning?

For me, learning has 3 kinds:

1. Informational learning: facts, information, knowledge, skills.

This is when I don’t already know the answer, and I can find out by being told, or by reading about it, or copying someone else.

For example: Where is Timbuktoo? What does Dewey think reflection is? How do I embed a tooltip plug-in to my blog?

2. Critical learning: analysis, synthesis, critique, unpacking.

If I apply the stuff I learned through informational learning and put them together, I start to see how they work or don’t work. My description of that is my argument or my critical analysis. 

For example: Informational questions: what happens in Othello? what does this section of the text say? what does Dympna Callaghan say about the performance of Othello?

Critical analysis: Within the text of Othello, Callaghan’s analysis is not particularly helpful, but when we start to think about Othello not just as words but a performance text, the following issues become clear.

3. Reflective learning: ahah in the mirror!

This is when I already know the answer, but I might not yet have articulated it.

For example: Why do I feel uneasy about this dipiction of reflective learning in Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985)? The answer, I already know, is because this is not my experience. I am already an expert on my experience. But it might take me a whole blog post to articulate it.


Secondly, how does reflective learning work?

According to Schön:

The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. (Schön 1983: 68)

Now this is not how it works for me, for three reasons.

Firstly, as a ‘practioner’ of reflection, I rarely have the feelings of ‘surprise, puzzlement, or confusion’. Usually I feel ‘something is wrong here’, ‘unease’, or just ‘blah’.  Nor is the situation that causes the problem usually ‘uncertain or unique’, but rather it’s usually habitual or predicatable. The problem isn’t that I don’t know what to do here, it’s that what we normally do here is wrong.

Secondly, I don’t consciously reflect on this wrongness at all. Usually, as you may have noticed, I feel ‘something is wrong’ and then BAM, it ‘hits me’. This crystalisation that I’m talking about here isn’t a slow acretion of ordered molecules; no, it’s a sudden flash of annuciation. One minute I’m barely aware there’s a problem, the next I am gripped by the blindingly obvious solution. Only then do I sit down and write it out, and then only to share it, not to help me understand it.

This whole blog post, tripartite conceptualisation and all, came to me in the time it takes to spread salmon pâté on a square cracker. So about 3 seconds. That’s typical.

If I do register that something is wrong, I don’t sit down, ‘reflect on the phenomenon before’ me, or ‘the prior understandings implicit in [my] behaviour.’ I go out and do something else, intentionally pushing the problem to the back of my mind, carefully not thinking about it. Gardening, cooking, housework, reading for fun, washing my hair (I have a lot of hair) are all good ways to do this for me. Having cleared my mind of niggling ‘blah-ness’, and other small things that are getting in the way of thought, I find that the BAM moment comes easily thereafter.

I don’t need to carry out ‘experiments’ because reflective learning is not learning where we discover more, it’s learning where we already know the answer. 


Sadly, there is little space for that in education theory or practice these days. No space for ‘let it happen’, no space for ‘I don’t understand it but it works better than your process’, no space for ‘trust your instincts’, no space for ‘and there was inspiration’.  There’s certainly no space for ‘it was instant, and right’.

We are supposed to take time to reflect, and to reflect intentionally. I don’t and it doesn’t help me. When I write a ‘reflective’ blog post, I mirror the stages set out by Dewey, or Schön, or Boud, Keogh and Walker. This is not because this is how I actually reflect, but because I can write in the genre and I want to get good marks.

I don’t remember starting at the baby steps of Dewey and progressing slowly through stages till I do it reflexively (and I do remember that for most of my habits of thought). I would certainly still use Dewey for other forms of learning–particularly critical analysis (or Kolb 1984, or any of the others). But it’s not reflective learning for me.

And yet, I’m a pretty reflective person, who often has insights that other people say they find helpful.


As always, this blog is about inclusiveness, about the many of ways of getting to any given point. (And then championing the ones that are most effective.)

If any of the models above describe you, if they help you–Yay! But if you’re like me, and it never worked… don’t worry, you are not alone.

And now that I’ve opened the doors, maybe neither my version nor any of the others work for you. Consider this an invitation to share your own ways of working. Take a second to reflect, you already know the answer. 


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


Related Posts

Between the paragraph and the word is the ‘line edit’

There is another intermediate stage of editing, which is typically called ‘line edits’ in creative writing. This is the edit that is all about style and grace, about flow, about clarity and voice. In other words, this the edit that is absolutely not essential and many academic writers don’t bother with it. It’s a ‘nice to have’, a cherry on the cake, which is why I haven’t written about it before.

Read More

Getting back into the swing of this

The book is now in with the series editor and going out to reviewers (2 weeks late, but also 2 weeks before the deadline I had written on my otherwise trusty whiteboard… a story for a later post!!). So in this little writing block I had in my day—too small for getting back into another big project—I thought I’d warm up the blog machine.

Read More

Five finger exercises for academic writing

If you have ever learned the piano, you may have had to do ‘five finger exercises’—little pieces that are less about their musical value, and more about making you use all five fingers on your hands, to improve your technique. They are warm-ups, strengthening and skill-building exercises. They are part of the invisible part of performing music—I have never seen a concert performance of these exercises, but I’m also certain that every concert pianist I have ever paid to listen to, has done hours and hours of them in their time.

Read More

Get the latest blog posts