This paper will explore many of the themes on reflective practice, some philosophical, some based on learning theories, traditional models and some more futuristic. The paper is written as teaching notes for students studying reflective practice.

“When I began to reflect, my reflection bears upon an unreflective experience, moreover my reflection cannot be unaware of itself as an event, and so it appears to itself in the light of a truly creative act, of a changed structure of consciousness, and yet it has to recognise, as having priority over its operations, the world which is given to the subject because the subject is given to itself…” Merleau-Ponty, 2012, p. pp. xi.

Philosophical Position

Teilhard de Chardin (1955, p165), in his seminal work describing the threshold of reflection said:

“Reflection is, as the word indicates, the power acquired by a consciousness to turn in upon itself, to take procession of itself as of an object endowed with its own particular consistence and value, no longer merely to know, but to know oneself; no longer merely to know, but to know that one knows. By this individualisation of himself in the depths of himself, the living element, which heretofore had been spread out and divided over a diffuse circle of perceptions and activities, we constituted for the first time as a centre in the form of a point at which all the impressions and experiences knit themselves together and fuse into a unity that is conscious of its own organisation.”

This turning in upon itself is a feature of consciousness, and consciousness holds the key to different levels of reflection.

From John Heron (1992) we have the definition of the educated person as one who is selfdirecting, meaning he can self-monitor, self-assess and self-correct. This is a crucial principle which needs to be accepted as definitive to allow for the implications to be actualised. To be self-directing means a person determines their purpose and learning and is internally committed to what they perceive as worthwhile objectives and finds the means to achieve these to appropriate standards. This person is able to evaluate their own performance according to agreed standards which have been set in co-operation with like-minded others. This person is self-correcting, able to modify behaviours, own standards, means and objectives as experience and reflection appear to her considered judgements. The implications of these attributes of the person can only manifest in a deeply reflective person.

Epistemology: the study of knowledge

Reflection is generally accepted as a cognitive skill. It is a particular way of thinking, or making meaning, mostly about events already experienced although this could progress to thinking about thinking. Every centre in the human being has its own intelligence, from instinctive intelligence to locomotor intelligence, emotional intelligence, intuitive intelligence, cognitive intelligence as well as spiritual intelligence. These intelligences can be called centres and human beings have six main centres, with their own operational laws and their own purpose (Ouspensky 1974). Some experiences activate only one or two of the centres of intelligence, while other experiences will activate all centres. Profound excitement, completely new experiences, traumatic and transformative experiences are likely to open all centres to the experience but may still be unable to language the experience for some time (particularly with trauma and mystical experiences). Yet the experiences imprint into consciousness, as memory, hence we talk about unforgettable moments, or significant moments or significant life events and even untaught knowing.

Reflection is always reflection on what we think we already know. There is a need to understand the nature of knowing and knowledge. The human experience of knowing involves access to the “why”; the reason and the primary sense of logos being answerable, giving an account. There is also procedural knowing – knowing how; theoretical knowing – knowing what interpretation you are placing on experience; factual knowing – knowing that (to be the fact, or to be the case).

Intuitive knowing – sensing that, sensing what, gnosis.

Critical reasoning or critical reflection is always epistemic (theoretical). Before going into critical reasoning, we can look more closely at what Heron calls an extended epistemology:

John Heron’s four modes of knowing, somethings called his extended epistemology (1992):

Experiential knowing: the knowledge arising as we encounter the world around us and our responses to it. This is emersion into new experiences involving most centres of intelligence such as the instinctual, locomotor, the emotional and cognitive centers and sometimes the spiritual centre.

Imaginal knowing (sometimes called presentational knowing): the knowledge expressed in the process of giving form to experiential knowing, for example, through language, images, music, painting, etc. This is also imaginal knowing, meaning visionary and other ways of knowing that is unmediated by the cognitive centre.

Propositional knowing: the knowledge which distils our experiential and presentational knowing into theories, statements and propositions. The knowing why, what and knowing that. Propositional knowing is necessary for the faculty of reasoning.

Practical knowing: the knowledge that brings the other three forms of knowing to full fruition by doing things skilfully and competently. Knowing how.

“Practical knowledge, knowing how, is the consummation, the fulfilment; of the knowledge quest… it affirms what is intrinsically worthwhile, human flourishing, by manifesting it in action.” (op. cit. pp 174.)

Psychological Constructs

Constructs- We live by the metaphors we use that unnoticed shape how we see the world and how we make sense of the world. George Kelly’s construct theory was built on this premise. These metaphors are prevalent in communication and we do not just use them in language; we actually perceive and act in accordance with the metaphors. A primary tenet of this theory is that metaphors are matter of thought and not merely of language: hence, the term conceptual metaphor. (Lakoff and Johnson (1980))

The simple definition of a conceptual metaphor is that a conceptual metaphor is understanding one domain of experience (that is typically abstract) in terms of another (that is typically concrete). This fits with the usual understanding of a metaphor as a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else. An experience that is difficult to articulate is often worded in an ‘as if’ or ‘it’s like’ something else. While this may seem helpful in terms of using associative memory to give language to a different and sometimes an unlanguaged or ineffable experience it changes the understanding of the experience. The main critical problem with metaphors is that once applied they are often not questions. We move away from a phenomenological inquiry into the experience and let the representative form because fact. Unconscious bias and stereotyping are two negative examples of `mind sets or frames of references’ that are derived from conceptual metaphors.

Urban theorist and ethicist Jane Jacobs made this distinction in less gender-driven if not wholly desexualizing terms by differentiating between a ‘Guardian Ethic’ and a ‘Trader Ethic’. She states that guarding and trading are two concrete activities that human beings must learn to apply metaphorically to all choices in life. In a society where guarding children is the primary female duty and trading in a market economy is the primary male duty, Jacobs posits that children assign the ‘guardian’ and ‘trader’ roles to their mothers and fathers, respectively.

Both of these theories suggest that there may be a great deal of social conditioning and pressure to form specific cognitive biases in the metaphors we use. Anthropologists observe that all societies tend to have roles assigned by age and gender, which supports this view. The inclusion of metaphors in this paper is to highlight the need to critically reflect on the metaphors we use in our everyday language. The most pervasive way metaphors get accepted is the laziness of generalisation such as: The group are resistant. Or “Today people have never had their freedom taken from them’.

Critical Thinking

Knowledge – what is it and how do we know that we know? The human experience of knowing involves access to the “why”; the reason and the primary sense of logos being answerable, that is, giving an account.

Procedural knowledge – knowing how.

Theoretical knowledge – knowing what interpretation you are placing on experience

Factual knowledge – knowing that (to be the fact, or to be the case)

Intuitive knowledge – sensing that, sensing what, gnosis

Critical reasoning is always epistemic (theoretical).

To help define what we mean by critical reflection, consider the following stages

Experience: current awareness of experience: somatic, cognitive, emotional, behavioural and spiritual.

Description: describing events or experience; `what happened’ or what is happening in relatively objective, non-interpretative and non-evaluative terms – Descriptive reflection or narration. This is where metaphors can creep in out of awareness and become unconscious bias.

Reflection: interpreting through models and theories, your own or others, identifying meaning, evaluating experience and what has been learnt – interpretive reflection

Critical reflection: evaluating the models and theories, and their values and assumptions, and questioning your own assumptions, beliefs and the metaphors you use, with the help of evidence from practice: meta-reflection, being critically reflective about your interpretations.

Another way of describing the same stages comes from Argyris, M. and Schön, D. concepts of single, double and treble loop learning (1974). These concepts help us to realize and appreciate the kinds of learning that we can glean during a project.

Single-Loop Learning (Following the Rules)

The conventional example used to explain this concept is the thermostat. It operates in one mode. When it detects that the room is too cold, it turns on the furnace. When it detects that the room is too hot, it turns off the furnace. In other words, the system includes one automatic and limited type of reaction – little or no learning occurs and little or no insight is needed. Experts assert that most organizations operate according to single-loop learning – members establish rigid strategies, policies and procedures and then spend their time detecting and correcting deviations from the “rules.”

You might exhibit this kind of learning when you notice that your client has not produced a certain deliverable on time during a project, so you get angry at your client and demand that your client produces the deliverable – without exploring why your client did not produce the deliverable in the first place.

Double-Loop Learning (Changing the Rules)

In double-loop learning, members of the organization are able to reflect on whether the “rules” themselves should be changed, not only on whether deviations have occurred and how to correct them. This kind of learning involves more “thinking outside the box,” creativity and critical thinking. This learning often helps participants understand why a particular solution works better than others to solve a problem or achieve a goal. Experts assert that double-loop learning is critical to the success of an organization, especially during times of rapid change.

To continue the above example of your client not producing a deliverable, double-loop learning occurs when you engage your client in discussion about their reasons for the absence of the deliverable, and whether your expectations were realistic or not. Results of the discussion might be, for example, that project timelines are changed or that communications between consultant and client are improved.

Triple-Loop Learning (Learning About Learning)

Triple-loop learning involves “learning how to learn” by reflecting on how we learn in the first place.

In this situation, participants would reflect on how they think about the “rules,” not only on whether the rules should be changed. This form of learning helps us to understand a great deal more about ourselves and others regarding beliefs, perceptions and attachments to our ways of thinking. Triple-loop learning might be explained as double-loop learning about double-loop learning.

To continue the above example, triple-loop learning occurs when, after having engaged in discussion with your client, both of you discuss the dynamics of your conversation, including how it was conducted relationally, what learning was produced from the conversation and how that learning was produced, one-sided or shared learning.

There is an excellent chapter called Reflection and Presence: The Dialectic of Awakening by John Welwood in a brilliant book edited by Hart, T. Nelson, P. L. and Puhakka, K. (2000) Transpersonal Knowing: Exploring The Horizon of Consciousness. State University of New York Press. NY. This chapter describes in some detail the pre-reflective, reflective and postreflective states. It moves through compulsive thinking and identification and behaviour in the pre-reflective state, to reflection as a stepping back from identification and on to post reflective witnessing – bare mindful attention. Presence is experienced only in the postreflective state.


Max Van Manen is my favourite author on phenomenology. His writings heavily informs this next section His website is:

The epistemological position in phenomenology can be described as: “ That part of itself which being makes manifest either to our senses or to our introspective consciousness … and the method that seeks to bring out the meaning or reason of phenomena by describing them as accurately and completely as possible”. Demoulin, J-P. (1970)

Hermeneutical Phenomenology addresses the interpretive nature of experience and awareness. The focus is on what it means to be human living in the world. Phenomenology becomes hermeneutical when its method is taken to be interpretive, rather than purely descriptive. This orientation is evident in the work of Heidegger who argues that all description is always already interpretation. Every form of human awareness is interpretive to the nature of truth, language, thinking, dwelling, and being. Paul Ricoeur argues that meanings are not given directly to us, and that we must therefore make a hermeneutic detour through the symbolic apparatus of the culture.

Reflexivity: In phenomenology it is suggested that thinking about ourselves purely in terms of external referents strips us of our humanity, turns us into objects, removes us from lived experience and thus removes any sense of responsibility. For Ricoeur, self-reflection is self-interpretation, not categorization. Categorisation is from external referents.

Self-Reflexivity addresses the questions:

What is my way of being and acting in the world?

What is my way of making sense of my lived experience?

How do I act responsibly and ethically?

These questions are asked from phenomenological and a social constructionist perspective.
(Cunliffe, A. L. 2009)

Practice as pathic knowledge:

Phenomenological understanding is not primarily gnostic, cognitive, intellectual, technical – but rather it is pathic, that means situated, relational, embodied, enactive. The term “pathic” derives from pathos, meaning “suffering, and also passion and disease or the quality that arouses pity or sorrow.” (Van Manen ) In a larger life context, the pathic refers to the general mood, sensibility, and felt sense of being in the world.

We discover what we know in our embodied being.

We discover “what we know” in “what we can do”.

We discover what we know from our world.

We discover what we know in our relationships.

Practice as tact

Tact is a particular sensitivity and sensitiveness to situations, and how to behave in them, but for which we cannot find any knowledge from general principles. Qualities of tact:

Perceptiveness is a quality of tact.
Interpretive sensibility is a quality of tact.
Pathic intuitiveness is a quality of tact.
Situational confidence is a quality of tact.
Thoughtful action is a quality of tact.
The reflective practitioner – reflection-in- and –on-action.
Reflection-in-action or ‘thinking on our feet’. It involves looking to our experiences, connecting with our feelings and moods and attending to our theories in use. It entails building new understandings to inform our actions in the situation that is unfolding.
Reflection-on-experience –after the encounter. (van Manen 1997)

Praxis: Practical reasoning (wisdom)

As stated earlier critical reasoning or critical reflection is always epistemic (theoretical). But is reflective practice the same as critical reasoning, that is, is it epistemic? And praxis? Praxis means the practical disciplines which are those sciences which deal with ethical and political life; their telos (purpose) is practical wisdom and knowledge. (Carr & Kemmis 1986: 32).

Where an event begins with a plan or design, the practical cannot have such a concrete starting point. Instead, we begin with a question or situation. We then start to think about this situation in the light of our understanding of what is good or what makes for human flourishing. Thus, for Aristotle xvi , praxis is guided by a moral disposition to act truly and rightly; a concern to further human wellbeing and the good life. This is what the Greeks called phronesis and requires an understanding of other people.

In praxis there can be no prior knowledge of the right means by which we realize the end in a particular situation. For the end itself is only specified in deliberating about the means appropriate to a particular situation xvii. As we think about what we want to achieve, we alter the way we might achieve that. As we think about the way we might go about something, we change what we might aim at. There is a continual interplay between ends and means. In just the same way there is a continual interplay between thought and action. This process involves interpretation, understanding and application in ‘one unified process’ xviii It is something we engage in as human beings and it is directed at other human beings.

Practical wisdom (phronesis) involves moving between the particular and the general.

The mark of a prudent man [is] that he is able to deliberate rightly about what is good and what is advantageous for himself; not in particular respects, e.g. what is good for health or physical strength, but what is conducive to the good life generally. (Aristotle 1976: 209) (Mark K Smith 1999)

When learning becomes transformative: For Boyd, transformation is a “fundamental change in one’s personality involving [together] the resolution of a personal dilemma and the expansion of consciousness resulting in greater personality integration” (Boyd 1989, p. 459. The process of discernment is central to transformative education (Boyd and Myers 1988). Discernment calls upon such extra-rational sources such as symbols, images, and archetypes (from the imaginal realm) to assist in creating a personal vision or meaning of what it means to be human (Cranton, 1994).

The process of discernment is composed of the three activities: receptivity, recognition, and grieving. First, an individual must be receptive or open to receiving “alternative expressions of meaning,” (Boyd and Myers (1988, p. 277) and then recognize that the message is authentic.

Grieving was considered by Boyd and Myers (op. cit.) to be the most critical phase of the discernment process, and takes place when an individual realizes that old patterns or ways of perceiving are no longer relevant, and lets go of them, moves to adopt or establish new ways, and finally, integrates appropriate old patterns with new patterns.

Transformative education draws on the “realm of interior experience, one constituent being the rational expressed through insights, judgments, and decision; the other being the extrarational expressed through symbols, images, and feelings” (ibid., p. 275). The process of discernment allows the exploration of both, moving back and forth between the rational and the extra-rational. Unlike Mezirow (2000), who sees the ego as playing a central role in the process of perspective transformation, Boyd and Myers use a framework that moves beyond the ego and the emphasis on reason and logic to a definition of transformative learning that is more psychosocial in nature and finally moves from personality to Essence. (Writer’s note: The Action Logic model begins to address this way of thinking (Cook-Greuter 2002)). Serious transformative learning is vertical learning, moving from having the personality as the centre of gravity to the essence or Higher Self being the centre of gravity, or main powerhouse governing all learning and behaviour.

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