Invited paper given by Gary Rolfe at the 17th International Reflective Practice conference, Swansea University, 10 September 2013


I'd like to begin with a quote: 

Despite the considerable debate and discussion of reflection in nursing and in other professions, reflective practice remains a highly problematic concept. This presents nurse educators with particular challenges. We have the responsibility of helping others to understand a concept which we ourselves may have difficulty in grasping and of which there is no shared understanding in the profession. Also, in our attempts as professionals to define and describe reflection so as to make it understandable and accessible, all too easily we can narrow the focus, routinise the process and technologise the activity. (Clarke et al, 1994)

This was written for a conference on Open Learning in 1994, and 20 years on I would suggest that nothing much has changed and that Clarke's warning about over-simplifying the concept and the practice of reflection has largely been borne out. 

This morning I want to pose the question: What are we doing when we do reflective practice? My brief answer would be: all sorts of different things. My concern would be that we do not always recognise and acknowledge these many and diverse activities which we tend to call by a single name. The purpose of this paper is not to say what I think we should be doing, but to outline some of these different things which are all called reflection so that we can decide for ourselves what the term might refer to. 

A brief history of reflection

I want to start by briefly examining some of the precedents to reflection and reflective practice in nursing, and later in other health care disciplines. Reflection was introduced into nursing round about the time that I was studying for my teaching qualification in the early 1980s, and so the first tradition of reflection that I became aware of was the theories of reflective learning advocated by David Kolb, Carl Rogers, David Boud and Graham Gibbs. This was essentially an educational model of learning through reflecting on prior experience and was directed at teachers and educators. Later, whilst studying for my Masters and PhD in education, I became aware of a separate tradition led by Lawrence Stenhouse, John Elliott, Wilfred Carr and Stephen Kemmis which emerged from the educational action research movement. This too was directed at teachers, but the focus was not on learning but on developing the practice of teaching by reflecting on their own practice and making changes as a result of those reflections. The aim and purpose of this emancipatory action research paradigm was professionalization. It was felt that by generating and testing out their own body of reflective knowledge, teachers would be liberated from outside theorists, researchers and academics and free to develop their own discipline of education in response to their own needs as practitioners. A third tradition of reflection derived from the work of John Dewey and Donald Schön and focussed on what Schön called reflection-in-action. This was based on Dewey's work from the early 1900s, which was concerned with on-the-spot reflection during practice rather than afterwards, where practice could be modified in real time in response to ongoing reflections. Other approaches drew from more theoretical writers such as Jurgen Habermas, Jack Mezirow and the critical social theorists, or from Heidegger, Gadamer and the hermeneutic phenomenologists.

When reflective practice was introduced into nurse education in the late '80s and early '90s, these varied traditions were lumped together and it was generally assumed that they were all concerned with more or less the same thing. The problem was compounded by the fact that very few nurse educators of the time had actually read very many of the seminal works. We introduced our students to Kolb's learning cycle, often without having ourselves read Kolb; to Gibbs' reflective model without having read Gibbs; and to Schön's ideas about the reflective practitioner without, I suspect, having properly read Schön. Or at least if we had read Schön we very much got him wrong.




  Critical reflection in practice (2011)

Rolfe’s framework for reflective practice (2011)
Do not ask who I am... Confession, emancipation and (self) management through reflection (2006)
  A lie that helps us to see the truth: Research, truth and fiction in the helping professions (2002)
  Reflective Practice: Where now? (2002)
  The deconstructing angel: nursing, reflection and evidence-based practice (2005)
  Critical reflection for nursing and the helping professions (2001)


    contact: praxis@garyrolfe.net