What is ‘reflective learning’?

Reflective learning is the deliberate process of carrying out cycles of inquiry. The term cycle refers to the way a learner switches between action and reflection. Note that the key word in this definition is deliberate.

An important part of reflective learning is a growing awareness of what is going on around you. As we don’t control everything, it is also important to learn to be aware of the impact our actions have on others.

Reflective learning is also focused on the future, so for learning to happen, you need to use your thinking to shape future action.

There are three points to consider:

  • Generating and evaluating new ideas. A crucial part of learning is doing things differently and evaluating the success of these new practices.
  • Reflecting on events and situations. We need to take time to consider what has happened and what can be learned in order to determine future actions.
  • Reflecting upon relations. As the actions of others will limit or help what we do, it is crucial to pay attention to how their actions develop.

In order to determine what to reflect on, it is necessary to ‘frame’ events or thoughts to give them a clear focus. This is simply the act of putting a boundary around them. Three possibilities for framing include:

  • Critical incidents where assumptions or existing ways of working are challenged.
  • A period of time that can be observed for recurring themes or issues that aren’t always noticeable in the moment.
  • An ongoing issue or focus of inquiry. A personal journal can be a useful tool for this.

It is important to remember that reflective learning has to be deliberate. We are deliberately seeking to change something. There is no correct method, only the right method for you.

Also remember that assumptions can be a dangerous block to learning!

Critical thinking – fundamental skills

According to Alec Fisher (2010), some of the fundamental critical thinking skills are:

  • Identifying the elements in a reasoned case, especially reasons and conclusions
  • Identifying and evaluating assumptions
  • Clarifying and interpreting expressions and ideas
  • Judging the acceptability (especially the credibility) of claims
  • Evaluating arguments of different kinds
  • Analysing, evaluating, and producing explanations
  • Analysing, evaluating, and making decisions
  • Drawing inferences
  • Producing arguments

Fisher goes on to point out that while this is a good place to start, there are other thinking skills a critical thinker might wish to develop.

What is critical thinking?

I first mentioned Alec Fisher’s fantastic introduction to critical thinking back in April 2011, in the second ever post on this blog. At the time I was just beginning my Open University journey, and was undertaking some extra-curricular reading by working my way through Fisher’s book.

Everyone with a curious mind should read this book. Instead of just accepting things the way they are, it teaches you to question everything, and never accept something at face value. In fact, critical thinking is so important I’d go as far as to say everyone with a curious mind should read this book several times throughout their life.

Reflective thinking

John Dewey (1909) cited in Fisher (2010) called it ‘reflective thinking’, and Fisher (2010) expands upon this idea, describing it as:

  • An active process
  • Thinking things through for yourself
  • Raising questions yourself
  • Finding relevant information yourself

What matters are the reasons we have for believing something and the implications of our beliefs. Critical thinking attaches huge importance to reasoning, to giving reasons and to evaluating reasoning as well as possible. Skilful reasoning is a key element of critical thinking.

An attitude or disposition

Edward Glaser (1941) cited in Fisher (2010) builds upon this, speaking about critical thinking being:

  • An attitude or disposition to be thoughtful about prpblems
  • Application of methods of logical enquiry and reasoning

Fisher points out how having certain thinking skills is important, but more important is being disposed to use them!

Thinking about thinking

According to Fisher, Richard Paul cited in Fisher (2010) draws attention to the fact that the only realistic way to develop one’s critical thinking ability is through ‘thinking about one’s thinking’ – often called ‘metacognition’ – and consciously aiming to improve it by reference to some model of good thinking in that domain.

A skilled activity

Michael Scriven cited in Fisher (2010) defines critical thinking as an academic competency akin to reading and writing. He points out that thinking does not count as critical merely because it is intended to be. Critical thinking is a skilled activity that has to meet certain standards of clarity, relevance, reasonableness, etc.

Analysing stakeholders

While reading a piece of required reading to accompany Book 1 of B120, I came across an interesting model called the Stakeholder Power and Interest Matrix. I can’t reproduce the diagram here (but a Google Search reveals several versions), but I felt it was pretty useful in categorising stakeholders, of which (according to the model) there are four types.

Category A stakeholders are those that are low power and have a low level of interest, and therefore require minimal effort.

Category B stakeholders are those with a high level of interest and low power, and therefore have to be kept informed in order to avoid them repositioning themselves on the matrix by escalating any lack of involvement with Category B or Category A stakeholders.

Category C stakeholders are those with high power but a relatively low level of interest. These stakeholders need to be kept satisfied in order to avoid them escalating any dissatisfaction with Category D stakeholders.

Category D stakeholders are the ‘key players’ who have to be kept informed and satisfied. They have a high level of power and a high level of interest. If they are not given serious consideration, they have the power to block plans and implement their own agenda.

Schein’s theory of organisational culture

Schein’s definition of organisational culture

Schein (2004) argues that there are three major levels to consider when analysing culture:

  • Artefacts
  • Espoused beliefs and values
  • Basic underlying assumptions

The levels of organisational culture and relationship between them

Artefacts are the surface level of an organisational culture, tangible, easily seen and felt manifestations such products, physical environment, language, technology, clothing, myths and stories, published values, rituals and ceremonies, etc.

Espoused beliefs and values are the next level of organisational culture, including strategies, goals, shared perceptions, shared assumptions, norms, beliefs and values instilled by founders and leaders.

Basic underlying assumptions are the base level of organisational culture, and are the deeply-embedded, unconscious, taken for granted assumptions that are shared with others. Any challenge of these assumptions will result in anxiety and defensiveness.

How we should interpret the most visible symbols of a culture

The most visible symbols should not be the only aspects used to interpret culture, due to the ease with which they can be misinterpreted. Focusing only on visible symbols will result in a failure to grasp the underlying basic assumptions that are fundamental to understanding the culture. Similarly, it is important to recognise that even espoused beliefs and values may only reflect the aspirations of a culture, and not the actuality.

(Source: Schein, 2004, cited in B325, Organisational Collaboration).