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 wordpress.com 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. 


  1. Great post, Katherine. I think your conception of reflective learning is also relevant to the critical distance break. When writing essays for undergraduate subjects, I always try to get my first draft out a week or two beforehand, to make room for a few days of subconscious “fermentation” or “percolation” of ideas. Then, the insights and clearly articulated sentences come – sometimes when I wake up. Maybe it’s more of a subconscious process, then. The brain is always forming connections, even if we aren’t actively trying to.

    1. Thanks Jessie! I’ve been thinking about your reply, and I think you are absolutely right. The point of the critical distance break is the same as the not-thinking-about-it reflective do-something-else. And yes, that is how they both work.
      Thanks for helping me make that connection!

  2. When I write (or re-write) great swathes of text, I have to take some time off from it. When I get back suggestions and advice from my supervisor, I have to wriggle under the ‘oh no, more changes’ and ‘but I liked that bit’ and ‘hm maybe he has a point’ then let it sit for ages – sometimes a couple of months – while I get on with the commentary or some other aspect. What, you haven’t done anything on the novel for TWO MONTHS? Yes…but when I do get back to it, it’ll be ready to roll out much sweeter than if I’d hammered away at it. This isn’t to say it doesn’t worry me that I can’t just dive back in straight away, but that’s just the way it works out – a subconscious process, yes. Running, walking and surfing really help my process.

    1. Absolutely! This kind of a ‘critical distance break’ is so valuable. As long as you are making progress and meeting your targets it doesn’t matter how you meet them!

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