Reflective Processes

Once upon a time there was an academic discipline. Its practitioners were learned men, its advocates the wealthy and wise. It sought to explain the nature of man and of his actions. In this, it was successful: all agreed the profiles were highly accurate, the prognostications pleasing. No one noticed the over-detailed bland generalisations – or if they did, only so far as to feel validated to have their own analysis confirmed by such learned men.
That discipline was astrology. Today, it is called social psychology, American-style.
The methodology is quite simple:
1.      Find a normal social process;
2.      Give it a fancy name;
3.      Describe it to death, in lieu of real evidence (Coffield et al., 2004);
Should an ‘undiscovered’ process prove elusive, you have two options: a) find some piffling absence in a ‘discovered’ process; or b) tweak the existing model (bigger words are good) – and book your spot on Oprah[1].
The result is a proliferation of near-identical theories and instruments, with muddled and over-reaching claims (that learning is the same as knowledge, for example), and little empirical evidence – and that contradictory at best (Coffield et al., 2004, pp 61-69). Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (Kolb & Fry, 1975, in Smith, 2001a) is merely Lewin’s Action Research model (Smith, 2001b) turned into a circle, with bigger words for the stages. Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle (1988, in University of Brighton, no date) covers similar ground, but requires examination of one’s emotions: explicitly in one stage and implicitly throughout. However, this rehashes much of Boud et al.’s (1983) Reflection Model, albeit in a simplified form. Little information is available on Gibbs’ model: the book itself is out of print, and I found no mention of any empirical work. Nonetheless, many online professional development guides are based on Gibbs’ model, often aimed at student nurses, teachers, and social workers. Coupled with the lack of any reference to Gibbs’ work in Coffield et al.’s (2004) review, it is as if Gibbs[2] merely wrote a student guide – as many lecturers do – neither intending to pursue the ideas therein academically nor imagining that it would take on such impetus.
A final point is that, while both Kolb’s and Gibbs’ models are used for reflective practice, reflection per se is only part of each cycle, and is little elaborated. Does reflection arise from the full cycle, or only from these one or two stages? Is it necessary to complete every stage, or can they be combined, or skipped entirely?  Is there a set of procedures embedded in these stages, and if so, what are they – and is the rest of the cycle necessary at all? For answers, or at least clues, it might pay to review afresh Dewey’s original discussion of reflection (1910, ch. 6, pp 68-78); unfortunately, I must now move on.

******  Junior School: Reflection using Kolb’s Reflection Cycle.

Concrete Experience

***** ******** and I led a mathematics session with six mixed-ability Year 5 students. There were two main tasks: number skills, using Factor Bugs; and shape naming. The tasks were introduced by themed Bingo games respectively. At the end, the students were awarded certificates and given nets to take away.

Reflective observation

1.      Students said they understood factors, squares and primes better.
2.      Students demonstrated a good grasp of shape names and their meanings.
3.      The amount of work planned was almost right for the time slot.
4.      The work lent itself well to the wide range of abilities.
5.      The certificates and nets.
1.      We did not plan detailed timings. As a result, we did not fully cover the second task.
2.      We did not stick to the rules for the Bingo games, which overran and impacted on the task time.
3.      The tasks and activities were rather sedentary.

Abstract Conceptualisation

We had the advantage of previous groups’ experience and knew roughly how much work to prepare. However, the slight timing issue suggests that on another visit, we should plan one major theme rather than two, with shorter tasks and perhaps more games and breakout activities.
Rules for games should be planned in advance and adhered to as far as possible. This is important if the number of games and activities were increased.
We did not have competitions this time, as we could not gauge its impact on the dynamic on an unknown group.

Active Experimentation

Our plan for the next session is as follows:
1.      A single theme with related tasks and games, and practical activities get the students moving and doing.
2.      Planned differentiation for tasks.
3.      Game and activity rules agreed in advance and adhered to.
4.      Detailed timings, with some built-in flexibility.
5.      An optional competitive element.
6.      More prizes!

[1] Lest this critique be thought unnecessarily harsh, some authors have used the terms ‘disease’ (Coffield, 2008) and ‘snake oil’ (Atherton, 2009) to describe some of the work reviewed briefly here, and associated research.
[2] English, not American, as it happens. A clear case of American cultural imperialism. 


Atherton, J.S. (2008); Reflection; an idea whose time is past. [on-line] UK: Doceo. [Cited: 24/03/2010]. Available at: < >. 
Atherton, J.S. (2009) Learning and Teaching; Experiential Learning [On-line] UK: Doceo.  [Cited: 25/03/2010]. Available at:  <>.
Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (eds.) (1985). Reflection. Turning experience into learning. [online]. London: Kogan Page. [Cited 24/03/2010]. Partial copy available at Google Books: < >.
Coffield, F. (2008). Just Suppose Teaching and Learning Became the First Priority… [online]. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre. [Cited 25/03/2010]. Available at: < >.
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in
post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. [online].  London: Learning and Skills Research Centre. [Cited 24/03/2010]. Available at: < >.
Dewey, J. (1910). How We Think. [online]. New York: Dover Publications. [cited 25/03/2010]. Partial copy available at Google Books: < >
Smith, M. K. (2001a). David A. Kolb on experiential learning. [online]. London: The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. [Cited 24/03/2010]. Available at: < >.
Smith, M. K. (2001b) Kurt Lewin, groups, experiential learning and action research. [online]. London: The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. [Last updated November 04, 2009] [Cited 24/03/2010]. Available at: <>.
University of Brighton. (no date). Reflection. [online]. University of Brighton Staff Central. [Cited 24/03/2010]. Download at: < >.

Resources in Brief

Factor Bugs:, accessed 07/03/2010.


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