featured articles: informal education, lifelong learning and social action


exploring reflection and learning

How do we work with others to deepen learning. What is the place of  reflection and experience? Support page for chapter 4 of Informal Education
emancipating and enlarging experience
the nature of reflection
learning from experience
elliot eisner-  connoisseurship, criticism and the art of education


photo: the ladder project/ people and work unit

Here we look more closely at the process of working with others (or ourselves) to deepen learning. In particular, we explore:

emancipating and enlarging experience - these are John Dewey's words and our interest here is looking at what we mean by experience, and how we can create opportunities for new experiences, and for learning from them.

the nature of reflection - here we look at remembering, attending to our feelings, and building new understandings. This is a process central to our work.

learning from experience - we look at the popular model put forward by David Kolb.

We argue that as educators, while we look to experience, we should not fall into the trap of ignoring the importance of giving information. In many respects this goes back to earlier issues about facilitation and teaching. We need both in our work.

If you want to explore John Dewey on reflection, the complete 1910 edition of  How We Think is available. The 1933 edition involved fairly substantial reworking.

Check out the Informal Education forum and discussion page.

Some questions to consider

At the end of the chapter we give you some questions to think about - and we want to look briefly at each.

1. Reflection involves returning to experience; attending to feelings; and evaluating experience. Consider some recent conversations you have had in your work. Have all three elements been present? Have you worked so that people can attend to each?

In different conversations we may be focusing on just one or two of these. It could be that we tend to forget or overlook one element generally in our work. Or it could be that we attend to all three aspects, but don't spend enough time with one (such as exploring feelings).

This question is not an easy one to approach. It may be helpful to talk it over with a colleague or with a supervisor or mentor. Talking through an encounter - describing what happened, looking at your feelings at the time, and now, and looking for the learning - what you are doing in thinking about the encounter is the process you are exploring in this question.

2. Consider the picture of experiential learning below. Compare it with a recent piece of work with a group or an individual. How well does it fit what occurred? What seems different?

The workshop picture representing experiential learning is from the EFEO Action Workshops in 2008. It was taken by devilarts and is copyrighted. It is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic) flickr:

This, again, is something that may be worth working through with someone else. One thing that we have found helpful in this task is if we have made a record of the work. Somehow, being able to look at the work on paper, allows us to put some distance between ourselves and the work. This can help to see things more clearly.

It may be that when you looked at the work it did follow these stages. However, as we point out in the chapter, it is our experience that things don't often work out in this way. Things tend to happen all at once - our mind jumps around. But this doesn't mean that the model is not useful. It does alert us to important aspects and provides a good starting point for thinking about educational encounters.

3. Often our work is such that we are only able to go so far with people. We are interrupted; we only have a short time with people - and so on. How do you handle this as an educator? What do you do with your feelings?

This can be a real problem. After some conversations we can be left with real concerns and worries. We may not see the person again, we do not know what is going on for them. Another possibility is that the conversation has brought up issues for us - perhaps about the way we work or about some event in the past. We, thus, need ways of dealing with this.

A common temptation, knowing this may happen, is to push the person to come to some 'conclusion' in the conversation. We may press them for a decision or for them to tell us what they are going to do next. The problem is that they may not be ready to do this. We are, thus, acting to deal with our own feelings rather than looking for what may be helpful for them. There may be a case for us 'pushing' - but it has to be made in terms of the 'clients' well-being.

A better way of handling things is through talking with others - and personal reflection - perhaps through recording or keeping a journal. Just as we talked of trusting in conversation, we need to have faith in people's abilities to work at things. Furthermore, we need to work in ways that respect and strengthen people's abilities to make difficult choices and to take responsibility for their lives. However, this is easier said than done.

In the end, there will always be times when we are left with feelings that we would rather not have. We have to learn to live with them.

4. Do you spend enough time reflecting on your own work?

How do we make judgements about this. What is enough time? Different jobs will require varying depths of analysis and reflection.

Perhaps the first step is to get a picture of how we spend our time. Here it may be worth keeping a brief note in your diary of the amount of time spent on different activities.

Another step may be to consider whether we are happy about our work. Are we coming away from sessions at ease with the way we worked and the direction things took?

Our guess is that most workers do not spend the time they should reflecting on their practice. This is often born of pressures to do other things - and sometimes guilt at taking time out for this type of activity. Certainly, it is possible to go the other way - as we say in the book, time spent recording may take time away from face to face work. We have to make judgements on their value to the work.


Take time out to record a group that you are involved with. It could be one you are participating in as a member (such as a staff team) or one where you are the main worker. Try to make some judgements about the attention paid to remembering, attending to feelings and developing understandings.

Look at your recordings and think about the group process. Were the elements there? How did they relate to each other? Can you make any judgements about outcomes (what were they)?


Acknowledgement: The workshop picture representing experiential learning is from the EFEO Action Workshops in 2008. It was taken by devilarts and is copyrighted. It is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic) flickr:

© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published August 7, 1997. Last update: July 08, 2014