Reflective practice: the difference across the helping professions

One of the great benefits of being able to work across different agencies in the helping professions is the insight I gain into how differently sectors approach similar concepts.  A good example is reflective practice. I’ve been doing some thinking and reading about how differently people perceive and practise reflection. It’s also an area I explored in my Master of Public Administration degree, where I researched how public sector leaders and senior civil servants (outside of the helping professions) might learn about how reflection can assist in their leadership practice.

There is a clear cultural divide across the helping professions in respect of reflective practice – and I’m not sure we talk enough about it! Doing so might help us to learn from each other about how better we embed reflection to support insightful change that enables us that go about our work more effectively when supporting others.

All professions begin, predictably and understandably, with considering reflective practice through the lens of Donald’s Schön’s eminent work from the 1980s.  At university, student nurses, student doctors, student social workers and student teachers all become familiar with the constructs of ‘reflection-in-action’ and ‘reflection-on-action’ and augment this learning, to varying degrees, through the use of reflective models.  Some professions go on to require evidence that reflection has become embedded into daily work as part of post-qualifying mandatory training, for example the assessed and supported year of social work training.

Thereafter, I think the culture of the profession plays a major role in determining how reflection is practised and, arguably, how effective it subsequently is in providing insight into future work.  Take medicine, for example.  Student doctors learn about the construct of reflection but then in day-to-day work it comes particularly to the fore as an explicit activity after a serious incident.  The net result is that there’s a real risk that junior doctors perceive reflection as something associated with ‘when things have gone wrong’.  There’s also been some controversy about whether a written reflection can be ‘used against’ a doctor in investigations against doctors. These cultural issues, specific to the medical profession, thwart the potential effectiveness of reflection as a tool for doctors to gain insight into how their approach might help or hinder patients.

In contrast, social work (a profession arguably more influenced by therapeutic approaches) had long been influenced by the need to intentionally reflect, into a consideration of the impact on/of self, before the 1980s.  Schön’s work was arguably something of a useful articulation of a pre-existing concept.  Today, almost all agree reflection (perhaps including work such as group reflection) is an inherent part of good social work practice and leadership (a very different approach to medicine). Perhaps the major issue is the pressure on services to allow space for that work.  Where it occurs, it is very focused on how our individual self is impacting on relationships, giving opportunity for pause to consider the impact of the work on ourselves too.  In teaching, the literature associated with reflection takes on, in my view, a wholly different tone to social work despite the ‘father text’ of Schön being similarly central. Here, you might expect to see much more focus on ‘mastery’ – ie on how best educationalists can progress to excellence in their profession, and how reflection can assist in developing knowledge and skill (both of pupils and the teacher).  There are parallel issues regarding time and space for reflection, but much less of a routine expectation that the ‘self’ has an impact on work.

So, we can see that despite the construct of Schön’s approach to reflection being the same, the culture of the profession has a powerful influence on how this might actually play itself out at work.  How can we learn from each other?  What approaches can be ‘borrowed’ by each profession so that the best approach can be achieved by all?  I feel privileged to be able to consider these questions as a result, now, of working across sectors in the helping professions with some fantastic leaders and practitioners.  I hope to do some more thinking about these issues in the coming months.  Watch this space!