In its simplest form, reflective practice is the ability to reflect on one’s actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.
For decades, the healthcare and teaching professions have used reflective practice as a tool for students learning their professional roles and for qualified practitioners as part of their continuing professional development.
But what is the actual benefit from undertaking such reflection and is it something that can be used in any workplace?
In 2014, a team of researchers at Harvard Business School investigated organisational learning and tested the hypothesis that “the deliberate attempt at learning from previously accumulated experience generates higher performance outcomes as compared to the accumulation of additional experience”.
Through a series of field and laboratory experiments, the researchers found a significant increase in the ability to successfully complete a task when individuals were given the chance to couple some initial experience with a deliberate effort to articulate and codify the key lessons learned from such experience.
Interestingly, in one of the experiments, when participants were given a choice, the overwhelming majority decided to gain additional experience rather than taking the time to reflect on what they learned from prior experience. There appears to be an intrinsic belief that the more you repeat a task, the more likely this will lead to superior performance (i.e. ‘practice makes perfect’). However, the experimental results demonstrated the opposite: participants scored higher in the following round when they reflected upon past experience than they did from gaining additional experience.
The researchers concluded their paper with a 1933 quote from American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience”.
Given that reflective practice has the potential to have significant positive impact on an individual’s performance, it would be great if we could just say to the nation’s workforce, “go forth and reflect!” However, for this to happen in practice, three enablers are needed within organisations.
The first is time. Unless staff are given the time for reflective practice as part of their normal work activities, the pressure of other work and the need to produce something tangible at the end of each day will ensure that reflection simply doesn’t happen. This is true for organisations that don’t have a tradition of utilising reflective practice, but it is equally true for organisations and sectors that do have such a tradition. Staff within hospitals and schools are just as likely to say they don’t have time to reflect, notwithstanding the habits they developed during their professional training.
The other two interrelated enablers are tools and structure. Reflection that lacks focus can end up not producing much benefit for the individual or the organisation. This is all the more important now that most individuals work as part of a team and require team-based reflection – in addition to individual reflection – to develop the collective competence of the group. In this context, individuals may need guidance on what to reflect on and the team may need assistance to avoid going off on tangents or becoming bogged down with side issues and personal agendas.
At MEERQAT Pty Ltd, we recognise reflective practice as the foundation of a learning organisation. Our tools provide a framework for structured team-based conversations about day-to-day practices, where staff reflect upon what works and what could be improved and share these reflections with their colleagues.