For Teachers,  Philosophy & Science of Learning

Reflection and Practice

What is reflection?

Adult educators like to use the term “reflection”.

In class you are likely to be invited to “reflect on your own experiences” or, when tasked with an assignment, you are just as likely to be invited to reflect as discuss, debate, argue or critique.

I admit that I also like the term and find myself encouraging others and often myself, to reflect on a particular issue or problem.

What does it mean to reflect? And how does reflection differ from “thinking about”, “recalling” or just simply “lulling over” a situation?

Useful insight comes from the work of Donald Schön (best known for his book The Reflective Practitioner) who discusses the distinction between “reflection-in-action” and reflection-on-action”.

My picture from New Year’s Day 2010

Reflection in Action
This is reflection on-the-run so to speak.  It is a form of self-awareness that is brought into play as we engage expert activities.  For example, a teacher may use reflection-in-action during a class to try out, monitor, evaluate and moderate various instructional strategies.  As Schön puts it:

“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 The Reflective Practitioner  68)

Notice here how Schön is using terms related to feelings ‘surprise, puzzlement…confusion’.  As soon as we notice our feelings we become removed from them. When we ask “why am I surprised?” consider who is asking the question, perhaps some kind of observer – the self-narrator.  Joyce describes this for one of the characters in his short story A Painful Case from the Dubliners collection:

He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. 

But reflection moves beyond the objective stance suggested in the story.  It is also active and, as Schön suggests, experimental and transactional. This form of reflection is also alluded to by Dewey when he talks about experience

“We live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same in the future”

Dewey, 1938 Education and Experience 

So then, reflection-in-action is about self-awareness and an active, inquisitorial stance.  It is transitory and connected with the moment.


In contrast, reflection-on-action takes place after the event.  In the case of a teacher it may involve a process of going back over a class, to be aware and concious as to the meaning of what took place.  Although this may sound fairly straight forward it is actually quite a difficult task.  I would go so far as to suggest that reflection of this kind goes against our nature.  It is a process that requires a structured approach and involves skills that must be learned.

Just as Aristotle might have proclaimed we are the things that we do there is a counter point, concerned with how we build our identity, that suggests we are the stories we tell (see McAdams).  The process of story building is intimately connected with the way we remember events.  Some of the consequences of this distinction between the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self’ are outlined in the video presentation by psychologist and nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman posted below. 

The remembering self is a storyteller (actually the term ‘story builder’ is probably more apt).  We do not remember events as a linear reproduction of the sensations involved – there is simply not enough capacity – we do not accurately relive events through memory.  In particular, our perception of time is greatly distorted and the significance of some aspects of what took place are amplified while others are diminished.  As Kahneman outlines we are poor judges of past events even, perhaps especially, when they involve ourselves.

This is why we find it difficult to engage in reflection-on-action. And this is why it is a really useful practice.  Through a well structured process we move from the self-generated story to an altogether more useful, evidence based, analysis. 

Reflection involves questioning and challenging our implicit assumptions, gathering and maintaining evidence  in the form of a diary or portfolio, connecting theory with practice and making predictions.


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