question and fostering understanding

Here we review the process of reflection as one of five elements of a working process built around praxis.

contents: introduction · reflection · reflection in and on action · questioning · further reading and references

Hayle Youth ProjectFostering understanding - the process of encouraging reflection - is the third aspect of the model of the working process that we will explore. The other four elements are:

Assess the situation and our role

Engage in conversation

Discern what makes for flourishing and commit to change.

Develop a response - plan and make change.

The process we will review here is basically the model of reflection put forward by David Boud et al (1985).


For  Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985) reflection is an activity in which people 'recapture their experience, think about it, mull it over and evaluate it' (ibid: 19). They focus on three aspects:

Returning to experience - that is to say recalling or detailing salient events.

Attending to (or connecting with) feelings - this has two aspects for them: using helpful feelings and removing or containing obstructive ones.

Evaluating experience - this involves re-examining experience in the light of one's intent and existing knowledge etc. It also involves integrating this new knowledge into one's conceptual framework. (ibid: 26-31)

We are suggesting here that this is a process that we as educators seek to foster when when working with an individual or group. Sometimes we may want to give information or talk about a theory - the classic teaching mode. At others we may seek to encourage people to learn from their experiences. In other words, we use different approaches to foster understanding and, hopefully, action. However, when working with material brought by an individual or arising out of a group discussion we are more likely to be looking to the sort of concerns that Boud et al (1985) are talking about.

It is worth bearing in mind three points when looking at this model.

First, 'returning to experience', is not as straight forward as some would have us believe. Experience isn't simply a sensation - it also entails thinking. We have to know that we we have 'had an experience'. Thus, Boud et al (1993) argue that 'experience has within it judgment, thought and connectedness with other experience'. Oakshott (1933: 9) has similarly argued that 'experiencing' and 'what is experienced' 'stand to one another in the most complete interdependence; they comprise a single whole'. What is more what we return to changes. Our memories of a situation alter over time, and according to the mood we are in when we are recalling some event or experience.

Second, one of the strengths of this way of viewing reflection is that it brings in feelings. Connecting with our emotions at a particular moment (in the past or now) and encouraging others to do so is not easy and is fraught with problems.  

We have also have to remember that it is people who are returning

This way of approaching reflection has the advantage of connecting with common modes of working e.g. we are often encouraged to attend to these domains in the process of supervision and journal writing. 

Reflection in and on action

As informal educators we have to think on our feet. We have to consider situations and experiences and then act in that situation. Our thinking about this owes a great deal to Donald Schön. His great contribution has been to bring the notion into the centre of any understanding of what professionals d through the ideas of reflection in and on action. In the case of the former,

The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. (Schön 1983: 68)

To do this we do not closely follow established ideas and techniques - textbook schemes. We have to think things through, for every case is unique. However, we can draw on what has gone before.

We can link this with reflection-on-action. This is done later. Workers may write up recordings, talk things through with a supervisor and so on ( more of this in the next chapter). The act of reflecting-on-action enables us to spend time exploring why we acted as we did, what was happening in a group and so on. In so doing we develop sets of questions and ideas about our activities and practice.


In this process informal educators look to raise questions and to help to develop understandings. This doesn't mean picking up on, and exploring every point. We can soon become engulfed by trivia. Rather it entails looking for the 'big points' and significant questions - those which lay at the heart of the subject we are exploring. We therefore need to have an eye for focus - and to be able to connect this back to what may work for human flourishing. And it is to this we turn to next - Discern what makes for flourishing and commit to change.

Further reading and references

Boud, D. et al (eds.) (1985) Reflection. Turning experience into learning, London: Kogan Page. 170 pages. Good collection of readings which examine the nature of reflection. The early chapters make particular use of Dewey and Kolb.

Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think, New York: D. C. Heath. Classic and highly influential discussion of thinking.

Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action, London: Temple Smith. 374 + x. Influential book that examines professional knowledge, professional contexts and reflection-in-action. Examines the move from technical rationality to reflection-in-action and examines the process involved in various instances of professional judgement.

© Mark K. Smith
First published November 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014