ERIC Identifier: ED346319 Publication Date: 1992-00-00
Author: Imel, Susan Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Reflective Practice in Adult Education. ERIC Digest No. 122.
Increasingly, the term reflective practice is appearing in the vocabulary of
adult education. Based on the notion that skills cannot be acquired in isolation
from context, the reflective practice movement has emerged as a reaction to
technical and competency based strategies common in the 1970s (Rose 1992). This
ERIC DIGEST examines reflective practice in adult education. First, the concept
is defined, including its strengths and weaknesses. Then, the relevance of
reflective practice to adult education is discussed. Suggested strategies for
becoming more reflective in practice conclude the digest.
REFLECTIVE PRACTICE DEFINED AND DESCRIBED
practice is a mode that integrates or links thought and action with reflection.
It involves thinking about and critically analyzing one's actions with the goal
of improving one's professional practice. Engaging in reflective practice
requires individuals to assume the perspective of an external observer in order
to identify the assumptions and feelings underlying their practice and then to
speculate about how these assumptions and feelings affect practice (Kottkamp
1990; Osterman 1990; Peters 1991). According to Peters (ibid., p. 95), "[it] is
a special kind of practice...[that] involves a systematic inquiry into the
Educators have become familiar with the concept of reflective practice
through Donald Schon's (1983, 1988) writings about reflective practitioners.
Schon's work has an historical foundation in a tradition of learning supported
by Dewey, Lewin, and Piaget, each of whom advocated that learning is dependent
upon the integration of experience with reflection and of theory with practice.
Although each argued that experience is the basis for learning, they also
maintained that learning cannot take place without reflection. In reflective
practice, reflection is the essential part of the learning process because it
results in making sense of or extracting meaning from the experience (Osterman
According to Schon (1988), the stage is set for reflection when
"knowing-in-action"--the sort of knowledge that professionals come to depend on
to perform their work spontaneously--produces an unexpected outcome or surprise.
This surprise can lead to one of two kinds of reflection: reflection on action,
which occurs either following or by interrupting the activity, or reflection in
action, which occurs during (without interrupting) the activity by thinking
about how to reshape the activity while it is underway.
Kottkamp (1990) uses the terms "offline" and "online" to distinguish between
reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action. Reflection-on-action takes place
after the activity (i.e., offline), when full attention can be given to analysis
without the necessity for immediate action and when there is opportunity for the
professional to receive assistance from others in analyzing the event.
Reflection-in-action, which occurs during the event, may be more effective in
improving practice. It results in online experiments to adjust and improve
actions even though it requires simultaneous attention to the behavior and the
analysis as if from an external perspective. Schon (1983) states that when
reflecting in action, a professional becomes a researcher in the context of
practice, freed from established theory and techniques and able to construct a
new theory to fit the unique situation.
Before professionals' theories or ideas about practice can be changed, they
must be identified. However, in skillful knowing-in-action much of the "skillful
action reveals a knowing more than we can say,'" a tacit knowledge (Schon 1983,
p. 51). In other words, professionals are not able to describe what they do to
accomplish an activity. However, Osterman (1990) maintains that an important
part of reflective practice is developing the ability to articulate that tacit
knowledge in order to share professional skills and enhance the body of
The values, assumptions, and strategies supporting theories and ideas about
practice need to be examined. If this clarification does not occur,
professionals may find themselves in the position of espousing one theory but
using another in practice, that is, their actions are not consistent with their
intent. In reflective practice, professionals can expose their actions to
critical assessment to discover the values and assumptions underlying their
practice. As professionals become more aware of their theories-in-use, they
become more conscious of the contradictions between what they do and what they
hope to do (Osterman 1990; Schon 1988).
Reflective practice has both advantages and disadvantages. It can positively
affect professional growth and development by leading to greater self-awareness,
to the development of new knowledge about professional practice, and to a
broader understanding of the problems that confront practitioners (Osterman
1990). However, it is a time-consuming process and it may involve personal risk
because the questioning of practice requires that practitioners be open to an
examination of beliefs, values, and feelings about which there may be great
sensitivity (Peters 1991; Rose 1992).
Engaging in reflective practice requires both knowledge of practice and
awareness of professional and personal philosophy. Reflection without an
understanding of the rules or techniques that constitute good practice may lead
to a repetition of mistakes, whereas reflection without philosophical awareness
can lead to a preoccupation with technique (Lasley 1989). Schon (1988) suggests
that professionals learn to reflect in action by first learning to recognize and
apply standard practice rules and techniques, then to reason from general rules
to problematic cases characteristic of the profession, and only then to develop
and test new forms of understanding and action when familiar patterns of doing
THE ROLE OF REFLECTIVE PRACTICE IN ADULT EDUCATION
education, as in most other professions, there are many prescriptions for
effective practice, and professionals are perceived as having specialized
expertise that they apply to problems in well-defined practice situations. In
reality, however, adult education programs take place in settings that are
characterized by a great deal of ambiguity, complexity, variety, and conflicting
values that make unique demands on the adult educator's skills and knowledge. As
a result, adult educators are constantly making choices about the nature of
practice problems and how to solve them (Cervero 1988, 1989).
Cervero (1988) maintains that the essence of effective practice in adult
education is the ability to reflect-in-action. Adult educators must be able to
change ill-defined practice situations into those in which they are more certain
about the most appropriate course of action to pursue. They must engage in
reflective practice and use their "repertoire of past experiences ...to make
sense of the current situation" (p. 157), conducting spontaneous experiments in
order to decide on appropriate courses of action.
Reflective practice in adult education can also be a tool for revealing
discrepancies between espoused theories (what we say we do) and theories-in-use
(what we actually do). For example, the andragogical model and its four
underlying assumptions has been widely adopted by adult educators with one
result being the assumption that teaching adults should differ from teaching
children and adolescents. However, a summary (Imel 1989) of research
investigating these differences revealed that although teachers perceive adults
as being different, these perceptions do not automatically translate into
differences in approaches to teaching.
STRATEGIES FOR REFLECTIVE PRACTICE
Engaging in reflective
practice takes time and effort but the rewards can be great. The following list
summarizes reflective practice processes (Roth 1989):
what, why, and how one does things and asking what,
why, and how others do things
an open mind
the framework, theoretical basis, and/or underlying
from various perspectives
for others' ideas and viewpoints
prescriptive models only when adapted to the situation
identifying, and resolving problems
Fortunately, there are a number of resources available for those interested
in developing habits of reflective practice. For example, Peters (1991, pp.
91-95) describes a process called DATA that consists of four steps: describe,
analyze, theorize, and act. First, the problem, task, or incident representing
some critical aspect of practice that the practitioner desires to change is
described. For example, a teacher may wish to become less directive and more
collaborative in her instructional processes. In the DATA model, she would
identify the context in which instruction takes place, how she feels about the
directive approach, and reasons for changing it.
Next, through analysis, she would identify factors that contribute to her
current directive approach. An important part of this stage is to identify the
assumptions that support this approach and bring to light underlying beliefs,
rules, and motives governing teaching and learning. Here, the teacher can
uncover the theory behind her directive approach.
The third step of the DATA process involves theorizing about alternative ways
of approaching teaching by taking the theory derived from the previous step and
developing it into a new one. In this step, the teacher is developing an
espoused theory to govern her new, collaborative approach.
Finally, she will act and try out her new theory. The goal of this step will
be to minimize any discrepancies between the espoused theory and the theory in
use, but this will only occur through further thought and reflection.
Additional sources that contain strategies to help adult educators become
more reflective in practice are Brookfield's (1988) work on critical thinking
and Mezirow's (1990) on fostering critical reflectivity. Although more general,
Kottkamp (1990) also contains strategies for "sparking, facilitating, and
sustaining reflection at various levels and preparatory stages of professional
practice" (p. 182). These resources can help adult educators approach their
practice in a reflective manner and deal more effectively with a field
characterized by uncertainty, complexity, and variety.
Brookfield, S. D. DEVELOPING CRITICAL THINKERS.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988.
Cervero, R. M. "Becoming More Effective in Everyday Practice." In FULFILLING
THE PROMISE OF ADULT AND CONTINUING EDUCATION. NEW DIRECTIONS FOR CONTINUING
EDUCATION, no. 44, edited by B. A. Quigley. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Winter
Cervero, R. M. EFFECTIVE CONTINUING EDUCATION FOR PROFESSIONALS. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988.
Imel, S. TEACHING ADULTS: IS IT DIFFERENT? ERIC DIGEST NO. 82. Columbus: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, 1989. (ED 305 495).
Kottkamp, R. B. "Means for Facilitating Reflection." EDUCATION AND URBAN
SOCIETY 22, no. 2 (February 1990): 182-203.
Lasley, T. "Editorial." JOURNAL OF TEACHER EDUCATION 40, no. 2 (March-April
Mezirow, J., ed. FOSTERING CRITICAL REFLECTION IN ADULTHOOD. San Francisco:
Osterman, K. F. "Reflective Practice: A New Agenda for Education." EDUCATION
AND URBAN SOCIETY 22, no. 2 (February 1990): 133-152.
Peters, J. "Strategies for Reflective Practice." In PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT FOR EDUCATORS OF ADULTS. NEW DIRECTIONS FOR ADULT AND CONTINUING EDUCATION, no. 51, edited by R. Brockett. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Fall 1991.
Rose, A. "Framing Our Experience: Research Notes on Reflective Practice."
ADULT LEARNING 3, no. 4 (January 1992): 5.
Roth, R. A. "Preparing the Reflective Practitioner: Transforming the
Apprentice through the Dialectic." JOURNAL OF TEACHER EDUCATION 40, no. 2
(March-April 1989): 31-35.
Schon, D. THE REFLECTIVE PRACTITIONER. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Schon, D. EDUCATING THE REFLECTIVE PRACTITIONER. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,
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