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Knowing what you are doing when you don’t know what you are doing…

By Amanda Smith

…is, according to Schön (1994), the hallmark of a true professional. Whilst something of a polemic statement, it does seem to advocate the euphoric state that many of us may aspire to during our careers, but how?

Through reflection!

Yes, that process that we are often required to undertake in terms of our professional development. At best, we reflect but with little understanding of the why and how, and at worst, we ignore on the basis that it is a meaningless exercise, unless there is some advantage in doing so. According to de la Croix and Veen (2018), students as ‘reflective zombies’ fall into the latter category.

I came across their paper, available here, whilst researching reflection to inform a SCiLAB-funded project exploring the use of reflective assessment by policing apprentices, and it generated an illuminating discussion on reflection at a recent SCiLAB seminar I facilitated. At the outset, I asked the participants to use emoticons to depict their own thoughts on reflecting, and here are just a few of their representations:

Emojis including a confused face, a winking face, a smiling face and a sad face

You might want to draw your own conclusions, but for me they sum-up a general feeling of bewilderment.

So, this is something of a reflection on reflecting on reflection as to why this may be.

Some years ago, I (somewhat foolishly I might say on reflection) embarked on the Open University (OU)’s MA Online and Distance Education (MAODE). Whilst not a stranger to reflection in my then-day-job prosecuting, reflection as a learner was a whole different ball game. To assist with this erstwhile activity, I created a blog and in the last couple of weeks have had cause to revisit my posts to see whether what I said there about reflection might have changed. Reading through the few highs, and many lows, of my journey through the MAODE got me to thinking how engaged I actually was – well on and off at least – and why that was. Undoubtedly, it was initially the fact that reflection was a compulsory part of the MAODE and doing so generated marks – placing me firmly in the ‘doing so for gain’ category! However, as I read through some later posts, it became apparent that it was my way of trying to make sense of the various activities – especially those that involved a good mind-bending (or numbing, depending on your perspective) educational theory.

It is this cognitive process of ‘turning a subject over in one’s mind’ and ‘examining the experience’ that delineates Dewey’s 1933 explanation of reflective practice. Extended by Schön (1994) to reflection on-action (talking back to yourself – the hermitage life of an AL) and in-action (thinking on your feet), as a means of accommodating professional development; once the latter is mastered, you are a true professional as “you know what you are doing when you don’t know what you are doing” – but of course! It is unsurprising that I regarded this as my favourite phrase – there was many a time in court that I resorted to this tactic to confound the opposition! Of course, a good theory does not come without a decent explanatory model, and for reflection, there is quite a plethora (Kolb, Gibbs, Driscoll etc.), all with the same aim – explaining how experience drives reflection that in turn drives learning – with or without the injection of emotions. Then the question is whether reflection should be assessed – a real catch 22 – doing so impacts authenticity in terms of students reflecting simply to tick boxes, not doing so impacts engagement.

Reflection is an integrated part of the OU law modules, so dutifully ‘normalised’ to aid engagement (Spencer and Brooks, 2019). For the new first year law module – Criminal law and the Courts, integration takes a step further by requiring students to post their reflections on the unit activities to a tutor group forum. I have diligently set up the necessary threads but can count on one hand, indeed a couple of fingers, the reflective responses there are. Linking reflection to assessment, a sure way of ensuring engagement (Levett-Jones, 2007) (it certainly worked for me), does indeed have better success, but only in so far as the learners identify activity and unit numbers, not sentences reflecting on experience. Likewise, it is a challenge determining the provenance of their responses.

Given the previously mentioned SCiLAB seminar elicited similar experiences across faculties, the bottom line appears to be that students simply don’t like and/or understand reflection. I certainly struggled in the early days of the MAODE so can empathise, and the above emoticons suggest these feelings are not the inimitable domain of students. In fact, it wasn’t until I came across the ‘something happened, what happened, so what, now what’ model that the penny really dropped. I would like to think that as new learners it is simply lack of experience. However, I suspect it is as per Alden’s (2013) study that whilst older, life-experienced OU learners are more willing to engage, new learners simply don’t see the point. Alden’s suggestion of the former mentoring the latter to drum up interest in reflection might be something for the SCiLAB-funded Law Mentoring Project, whereby students mentor one another, to explore.

What is apparent is that, not surprisingly, reflection means different things to different people in different circumstances. The teaching talk elicited De la Croix and Veen appear to have hit the proverbial ‘nail-on-the-head’ in identifying the need for a sea-change in the way reflection is approached. A participant’s suggestion of ‘rebranding’, echoed by the SCiLAB-funded project exploring the use of reflective assessment by policing apprentices POP unit, is definitely an idea to reflect on…

This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or the Open University.


Amanda Smith

Amanda Smith

An ex-CPS prosecutor and trainer, Amanda has been an OU Law School Associate Lecturer since 2009. During that time, she has discovered the pleasures and pitfalls of being an OU student by studying for an MA in Online and Distance Education (MAODE), worked as an OU Educational Advisor, written tutorial and skills materials for various Law modules, been an OU Employability Champion promoting the use of the OU FutureYOU personal development planning tool, and an AL representative on the SciLAB working group. She is a Peer Associate Lecturer Support team member and Tutoring Online team member, supporting other OU tutors in using Adobe to provide effective and inspirational tutorials, and an OU Student Hub Live team member providing skills sessions and other online study events for OU students across faculties.

More recently she has turned her attentions to research, working with the OUs Badging employability and user perceptions: evidence from examples of practice (BEAUPEEP) project team investigating the use of digital badges in supporting employability, and as a research assistant for a  SCILAB funded project exploring the use of reflective assessment by policing apprentices. Her extensive experience of reflective practice has led to a further research assistant role with the OUs Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies and the AI in Support of Reflection project (AIR) investigating the uses of machine learning to automatically analyse students’ reflective writings.