What is reflective practice?

The contemporary discussion on reflection has mainly been associated with Schön (1983, 1987) who coined terms such as ‘reflective practice’, ‘reflection-in-action’, ‘reflection-on-action’, ‘reflection-for-action’, ‘knowing-in-action’ and ‘technical rationality’. The most significant among these is his concept of reflection-inaction which is the ‘almost unconscious, instantaneous reflection that happens as a more experienced teacher solves a problem or dilemma’ (Harrison, 2008: 10). Reflection-on-action takes place after the event, e.g. a teaching session and is a more deliberate and conscious process. Reflection-for-action means the deliberation involved in the pre-action deliberative/planning phase of teaching. Knowing-in-action refers to the subtle or intuitive knowledge that practitioners demonstrate as an outcome of long-term practical experience in a professional role. By “technical rationality” Schön means the application of research-based propositional knowledge in a practical teaching or learning situation. An example of this might be the implications of propositional knowledge such as theories of learning or personality development for teaching students with different personality traits or different socio-economic backgrounds.

Reflection has been hailed as useful by most researchers who have written on the subject. Leading writers on the concept from Dewey (1933) onwards to Schön (1983, 1987), Van Manen (1977, 1995), Zeichner (1981, 1987, 1994, 2010), Zeichner and Liston (1996), Valli (1997), and Calderhead (1989, 1993) have discussed the various benefits that reflection as an educational concept can provide to teachers and practitioners. Dewey (1933) for instance associates reflection with the development of useful qualities such as ‘open-mindedness’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘whole-heartedness’ (See also Pollard et al., 2008). Open-mindedness means being open to all possibilities in the process of understanding a situation, responsibility refers to the consideration of the consequences of one’s actions and whole-heartedness connotes looking at a phenomenon from all possible angles in order to have a holistic view. These characteristics are useful as they bring in thoughtfulness, depth, honesty and integrity to the process of learning and teaching.

Dewey regarded reflection as a useful practice also because of its help in bringing in a ‘thinking’ demeanour. This, he suggests, guards against routine and impulsive action. Reflection is hence a way that leads to deliberative action and to the use of scientific, rational and experimental means during the process of education. Although Dewey is regarded as a pioneer in reflection, recent works have explored the usefulness of reflection beyond its grounding in scientific rationalism. Schön (1983, 1987) for example emphasises the usefulness of reflection more due its intuitive and craft value than in terms of scientific rationalism, empiricism and experimentation. Schön argues for the usefulness of intuitive reflection-in-action in comparison to ‘technical rationality’, a concept closer to Dewey’s philosophy of scientific rationalism. Thus there is a clear distinction between ‘Dewey’s scientific reflection’ and ‘Schön’s artistic reflection’ (Fendler, 2003: 19).

According to Luttenberg and Burgen (2008) reflection can play a role in enhancing the professional development and improvement of skills and competence of teachers. Reflection they argue can also help teachers cope with difficult situations and find solutions to problems that have not been dealt with by experts through research.

The process of reflection is a cycle which needs to be repeated.

  • Teach
  • Self-assess the effect your teaching has had on learning
  • Consider new ways of teaching which can improve the quality of learning
  • Try these ideas in practice
  • Repeat the process

Reflective practice is “learning through and from experience towards gaining new insights of self and practice”

(Finlay, 2008)

Reflection is a systematic reviewing process for all teachers which allows you to make links from one experience to the next, making sure your students make maximum progress. Reflection is a basic part of teaching and learning. It aims to make you more aware of your own professional knowledge and action by ‘challenging assumptions of everyday practice and critically evaluating practitioners’ own responses to practice situations’ (Finlay, 2008).

The reflective process encourages you to work with others as you can share best practice and draw on others for support. Ultimately, reflection makes sure all students learn more effectively as learning can be tailored to them.

Listen to these educators discussing what reflective practice means for them. How do their ideas about reflective practice compare with yours?

What does being a reflective practitioner look like?

Video interview of teachers

“Tula has increased the capacity of staff to reflect on their lessons, particularly those involved in his school improvement project. The Reflection Tool has empowered them to carry out reflections effectively, efficiently and meaningfully as a result of their increased skill and confidence developed in partnership with Tula”

Mrs. Clare Hunter

Head of Secondary – The British International School, Riyadh

Teacher Reflection Questionnaire – 90% of teachers said the reflection project was successful for them and their students; majority of teachers said it helped raise progress and attainment more than classes without this structured reflection.

What is the reflective cycle?

Video interview of teachers

What are the benefits of reflective practice?

Farrell (2007: 7) provides a list of benefits that reflection/reflective teaching can bring to teachers. It frees the teacher from routine and impulsive action (see also Dewey, 1933]. It helps teachers become more confident in their actions and decisions, apparently because of their action based on thorough thinking through and research about issues. It provides information for teachers to make informed decisions. As often, reflection involves inquiry-based approaches and action research in the teaching learning situation [See also Kolb, 1984; Harrison, 2008]. It helps teachers to critically reflect on all aspects of their work. Apparently on issues of justice, equity and issues of wider socio-political consequences. It helps teachers to develop strategies for intervention and change. This seems to be more of a technical take on the issue such as those aimed at in Reflective Teaching based on micro-teaching [See Cruickshank,1985, 1987]. It recognises teachers are professionals [See also Schön,1983, 1987]. It is a cathartic experience for all teachers, practising and novice alike [See also Akbari, 2007; Fendler, 2003].

Reflective practice helps create confident teachers

Reflective practice develops your ability to understand how your students learn and the best ways to teach them. By reflecting on your teaching, you identify any barriers to learning that your students have. You then create lessons which reteach any content which your students have not been able to access to allow them to overcome any obstacles and develop. Being reflective will also make sure you have a wider range of skills as you find new ways to teach. This will develop your confidence in the classroom as you find the best ways to deliver your knowledge of a subject.

By reflecting, you will develop abilities to solve problems. Through questioning and changing the way you deliver your lessons, you will find new solutions and become more flexible with your teaching. It allows you to take time to assess and appreciate your own teaching.

Reflective practice also helps create confident students. As a result of reflecting, students are challenged as you use new methods in the classroom. From reflection, you should encourage your students to take new challenges in learning, developing a secure and confident knowledge base.

Reflective practice makes sure you are responsible for yourself and your students

Reflecting on your teaching will help you to understand how your students best learn and will allow you to be accountable for their progress. By assessing the strengths and weaknesses in your own teaching, you will develop an awareness of the factors that control and prevent learning. The reflection process will also help you to understand yourself and the way you teach. By asking yourself questions and self-assessing, you will understand what your strengths are and any areas where development might be needed. Reflecting allows you to understand how you have helped others to achieve and what this looks like in a practical learning environment.

By asking your students for their thoughts and feelings on the learning, they play an active part in the learning cycle. This allows them to take ownership of their learning and also work with you and give feedback, which creates self-aware and responsible students. Once the student starts to play an active part in the learning cycle, they become more aware of different learning styles and tasks. They become more aware of how they learn and they develop key skills and strategies to become lifelong learners.

Reflective practice encourages innovation

Reflective practice allows you to adapt lessons to suit your classes. You can create and experiment with new ideas and approaches to your teaching to gain maximum success. By varying learning and experimenting with new approaches, students have a richer learning experience. They will think more creatively, imaginatively and resourcefully, and be ready to adapt to new ways and methods of thinking.

Reflective practice encourages engagement

Being reflective helps you challenge your own practice as you will justify decisions and rationalise choices you have made. It encourages you to develop an understanding of different perspectives and viewpoints. These viewpoints might be those of students, focusing on their strengths, preferences and developments, or those of other colleagues, sharing best practice and different strategies. When you become more aware of your students’ preferences and strengths, learning becomes more tailored to their needs and so they are more curious and are equipped to explore more deeply.

Reflective practice benefits all

By reflecting, you create an environment which centres on the learner. This environment will support students and teachers all around you to become innovative, confident, engaged and responsible. Once you start the reflective process, your quality of teaching and learning will improve. You will take account of students’ various learning styles and individual needs, and plan new lessons based on these. Reflection helps focus on the learning process, so learning outcomes and results will improve as you reflect on how your learners are learning.

By getting involved in the reflective process, you will create an environment of partnership-working as you question and adapt both your own practice and that of your students and other colleagues. The learning process then becomes an active one as you are more aware of what you want your students to achieve, delivering results which can be shared throughout the institution. By working with other colleagues and students, relationships become positive and demonstrate mutual respect. Students feel part of the learning cycle and are more self-aware. Colleagues can ‘team up’, drawing on expertise and support.

This will develop the whole institution’s best practice. All of these things together result in a productive working environment.

Listen to these educators giving their views on the benefits of reflective practice. Which of the benefits are most relevant to you and your colleagues?

Video interview of teachers

What is the research behind reflective practice?

Educational researchers have long promoted the importance of reflecting on practice to support student learning and staff development. There are many different models of reflective practice. However, they all share the same basic aim: to get the best results from the learning, for both the teacher and students. Each model of reflection aims to unpick learning to make links between the ‘doing’ and the ‘thinking’.

Kolb's learning cycle

David Kolb, educational researcher, developed a four-stage reflective model. Kolb’s Learning Cycle (1984) highlights reflective practice as a tool to gain conclusions and ideas from an experience. The aim is to take the learning into new experiences, completing the cycle. Kolb's cycle follows four stages.


First, practitioners have a concrete experience. This means experiencing something new for the first time in the classroom. The experience should be an active one, used to test out new ideas and teaching methods. This is followed by…

Observation of the concrete experience, then reflecting on the experience. Here practitioners should consider the strengths of the experience and areas of development. Practitioners need to form an understanding of what helped students’ learning and what hindered it. This should lead to…

The formation of abstract concepts. The practitioner needs to make sense of what has happened. They should do this through making links between what they have done, what they already know and what they need to learn. The practitioner should draw on ideas from research and textbooks to help support development and understanding. They could also draw on support from other colleagues and their previous knowledge. Practitioners should modify their ideas or devise new approaches, based on what they have learnt from their observations and wider research. The final stage of this cycle is when…

The practitioner considers how they are going to put what they have learnt into practice. The practitioner’s abstract concepts are made concrete as they use these to test ideas in future situations, resulting in new experiences. The ideas from the observations and conceptualisations are made into active experimentation as they are implemented into future teaching. The cycle is then repeated on this new method.

Kolb’s model aims to draw on the importance of using both our own everyday experiences and educational research to help us improve. It is not simply enough for you to reflect. This reflection must drive a change which is rooted in educational research.

Gibbs' reflective cycle

The theoretical approach of reflection as a cyclical model was further developed by Gibbs (1998). This model is based on a six-stage approach, leading from a description of the experience through to conclusions and considerations for future events. While most of the core principles are similar to Kolb’s, Gibbs' model is broken down further to encourage the teacher to reflect on their own thoughts and feelings.


Gibbs' model is an effective tool to help you reflect after the experience, and is a useful model if you are new to reflection as it is broken down into clearly defined sections.


In this section, the practitioner should clearly outline the experience. This needs to be a factual account of what happened in the classroom. It should not be analytical at this stage.


This section encourages the practitioner to explore any thoughts or feelings they had at the time of the event. Here the practitioner should explain feelings and give examples which directly reference the teaching experience. It is important the practitioner is honest with how they feel, even if these feelings might be negative. Only once the feelings have been identified can the practitioner implement strategies to overcome these barriers.


The evaluation section gives the opportunity for the practitioner to discuss what went well and analyse practice. It is also important to consider areas needed for development and things that did not work out as initially planned. This evaluation should consider both the practitioner’s learning and the students’ learning.


This section is where the practitioner makes sense of the experience. They consider what might have helped the learning or hindered it. It is in this stage that the practitioner refers to any relevant literature or research to help make sense of the experience. For example, if you felt the instructions you gave were not clear, you could consult educational research on how to communicate effectively.


At this stage, the practitioner draws all the ideas together. They should now understand what they need to improve on and have some ideas on how to do this based on their wider research.

Action plan

During this final stage, the practitioner sums up all previous elements of this cycle. They create a step-by-step plan for the new learning experience. The practitioner identifies what they will keep, what they will develop and what they will do differently. The action plan might also outline the next steps needed to overcome any barriers, for example enrolling on a course or observing another colleague.

In Gibbs' model the first three sections are concerned with what happened. The final three sections relate to making sense of the experience and how you, as the teacher, can improve on the situation.

'Reflection-in-action' and 'reflection-on-action'

Another approach to reflection is the work by Schön. Schön (1991) distinguishes between reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action.

Reflection-in-action is reflection during the ‘doing’ stage (that is, reflecting on the incident while it can still benefit the learning). This is carried out during the lesson rather than reflecting on how you would do things differently in the future. This is an extremely efficient method of reflection as it allows you to react and change an event at the time it happens. For example, in the classroom you may be teaching a topic which you can see the students are not understanding. Your reflection-in-action allows you to understand why this has happened and how to respond to overcome this situation.

Reflection-in-action allows you to deal with surprising incidents that may happen in a learning environment. It allows you to be responsible and resourceful, drawing on your own knowledge and allowing you to apply it to new experiences. It also allows for personalised learning as, rather than using preconceived ideas about what you should do in a particular situation, you decide what works best at that time for that unique experience and student.

Reflection-on-action, on the other hand, involves reflecting on how practice can be developed after the lesson has been taught. Schön recognises the importance of reflecting back ‘in order to discover how our knowing-in-action may have contributed to an unexpected outcome’ (Schön, 1983).

Reflection-on-action means you reflect after the event on how your knowledge of previous teaching may have directed you to the experience you had.

Reflection-on-action should encourage ideas on what you need to change for the future. You carry out reflection-on-action outside the classroom, where you consider the situation again. This requires deeper thought, for example, as to why the students did not understand the topic. It encourages you to consider causes and options, which should be informed by a wider network of understanding from research.

By following any of the above models of reflection, you will have a questioning approach to teaching. You will consider why things are as they are, and how they could be. You will consider the strengths and areas of development in your own practice, questioning why learning experiences might be this way and considering how to develop them. As a result, what you do in the classroom will be carefully planned, informed by research and previous experience, and focused, with logical reasons. All of these models stress the importance of repeating the cycle to make sure knowledge is secure and progression is continued.

Common misconceptions about reflective practice?

It doesn’t directly impact my teaching if I think about things after I have done them’

Reflection is a cyclical process: do, analyse, adapt and repeat. The reflections you make will directly affect the next lesson or block of teaching as you plan to rework and reteach ideas.

Ask yourself:
  • What did not work?
  • How can I adapt this idea for next time?

This might mean redesigning a task, changing from group to paired work or reordering the lesson.

‘Reflection takes too long; I do not have the time’

Reflection can be done on the spot (Schön: reflection-in-action). You should be reflecting on things as they happen in the classroom.

Ask yourself:
  • What is working well? How? Why?
  • What are the students struggling with? Why?
  • Do the students fully understand my instructions? If not, why not?
  • Do the students fully understand the task? If not, why not?

Do your students ultimately understand what success looks like in the task or activity? Can they express this for themselves?

‘Reflection is only focused on me, it does not directly affect my students’

Reflecting and responding to your reflections will directly affect your students as you change and adapt your teaching. You will reteach and reassess the lessons you have taught, and this will allow students the chance to gain new skills and strengthen learning. Creating evaluation models will help you to know whether the actions you have taken have had the intended effect.

‘Reflection is a negative process’

Reflection is a cyclical process, meaning you grow and adapt. You should plan to draw on your own strengths and the best practice of colleagues, which you then apply to your own teaching. Try any of the reflection models listed in this unit to help you progress. By getting involved in a supportive network everyone will develop.

‘Reflection is a solo process, so how will I know I’ve improved?’

Reflection is best carried out when part of a supportive network. You can draw on the support of colleagues by asking them to observe and give feedback. You can also draw on student feedback. Reflection should trigger discussion and co-operation.

Reflective practice in action

As a reflective practitioner you will continuously review the learning process to make sure all students make maximum progress. While working through this document you may have identified a model which appeals to you. As well as using the Reflective Practitioner tool, you can carry out other reflective activities to develop your practice. These can include the following.


Asking yourself questions can help you understand the effect and efficiency of your teaching.

Experimenting with new ideas

Trying out new methods or approaches in the classroom can create new learning opportunities. These changes can be as simple as varying a small activity or as adventurous as changing your whole approach or plan.

Discussing with other colleagues

Drawing on support from colleagues will allow you to cement understanding and get involved with others’ ideas and best practice.

Discussing with students

Drawing on student feedback will make sure your reflections are focused on your students. By reflecting with students, you allow them to play an active part in their learning and gain insight into what needs to improve to support student development.

Observations and feedback

Being observed by colleagues will allow you to gain others’ perspectives into your practice and provide feedback and ideas on how to improve. Observing your colleagues can also provide new ideas and approaches which you can try in your own practice.

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About the app

RP is an educational app that helps teachers reflect on their lessons. It helps teachers to critically reflect and evaluate their lessons with the view to improving student progress and attainment.

As teachers we have a professional responsibility to be reflective and evaluative about our practice. As a result of this reflection we will be able to identify how to improve our professional activity in order to improve the quality of our pupils' learning. Reflection causes us to evaluate what happened and why; it encourages us to try out new ideas and promote changes in pupils' learning behaviour.

There is a big focus these days on teachers reflecting on their lessons, it’s what we’ve been taught whilst completing our teacher training, however there’s one thing us teachers don’t really have in abundance of supply – time. The pressure to cover content/syllabus and, at times teach to the exam can prevent us from reflecting and evaluating our lessons. Prof. John Hattie’s book on Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning (Routledge, 2012) states that expert teachers are not committed to specific teaching strategies – rather, they regularly focus on evaluating the effects they have on students and adjust teaching methods accordingly.

Let the RP app make reflecting and evaluating your lessons easy and efficient.