“We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.”
― John Dewey
These words by John Dewey point to a truth about learning that is often forgotten. Experience alone is not sufficient for true learning to occur; reflection is an essential part of the process and our failure to include time for this is why our learning often does not stick.
Reflective practice is a mix of active and passive processes. The most obvious part of the process is the deliberate and conscious act of reflecting on what has occurred. As our brain replays the events of the day or moment we review our actions, thoughts and feelings and make efforts to understand what transpired. Perhaps a new piece of information has been surfaced or maybe our feelings of comfort were challenged by new circumstance. Particularly when we encounter moments of cognitive dissidence our brains demand the time to reflect and make sense of the events that have resulted in this challenging mental state. Likewise, when we confront a tension, need or conflict between how things are and our sense of things might be we are likely to require this time to consciously reflect and seek a new state of balance.
When engaged in this conscious internal reflective practice our mental processes are dominated by self-talk. It as though conversation is occurring inside our mind and it is this conversation which we are most likely to consider as our reflective self. In the background of our minds and in relative quiet occurs a reflective practice which we are often not consciously aware of. Perhaps only when a solution to the tension we were experiencing occurs to us or when we find that a situation which previously was misunderstood achieves clarity, do we experience the benefits of this hidden reflective practice. Although this is a process largely beyond our control we can deliberately allocate time to this by building time into our day for our mind to be quiet and still. In our always on, always connected lives, this time is often lacking and when combined with poor sleep patterns, its absence from our daily schedule can result in poor processing of new information and concepts. Without this time for peaceful, disconnected reflection our brain is unlikely to form cohesive schemes from our new learning experiences and our learning will be shallow.
These internal reflective practices, rely upon our cognitive processes to achieve resolution and as such are limited by the knowledge structures and conceptual frameworks which we have access to. Our capacity to make sense of the world is constrained by our imaginings of what is possible and conceivable. To move beyond the walled gardens of our minds we need to expand the circle of influence within which our mind functions; we need to externalise our reflective practice and bring new perspectives into our realm of possibility.
Taking our reflective practices out of the private domain of our minds and into a public space requires the meeting of certain conditions. We must be comfortable with the vulnerability that comes with sharing what would otherwise be a private practice. High levels of trust are demanded if we are to be genuine in sharing the puzzles of our mind. Unless we feel safe in the environment we choose for this, we are always likely to seek ways to protect ourselves by restraining what we share and how we present our inner tensions. The trust relationship involved is of greatest importance and those we trust need to understand the privileged position they are in and honour the trust extended to them. Where there is not the reciprocal arrangement of a reflective partnership, the potential for damage resultant from broken trust is an ever present risk.
The significance of these trust issues must be considered by any workplace that hopes to implement a mentoring or coaching relationship. Unless there exists a culture of trust and great respect for the dignity of the individuals involved, such programmes are almost guaranteed to fail at best or cause irreparable damage at worst. Where a coaching or mentoring relationship is imposed and where there is a power imbalance between the people involved the sanctity of the trust relationship involved must be absolute.
While going public with our reflective practice carries degrees of risk, there are real benefits to be had. We make the process of reflecting more deliberate and leverage the power of our conscious mind. We articulate our understandings, describe our tensions and name and notice the salient points of the events causing us concern. We begin anew the act of processing information as the reflections we share return to our mind through our own sensory channels. Our listener provides us with a mirror as their responses, both verbal and non-verbal allow us to see our reflected thoughts in a new way. Where we invite another person to share their thoughts on the conundrum we are sharing we gain an alternate perspective and the opportunity to hear our puzzles shared in someone else’s words. Beyond this we have a new experience and new insights on the original puzzlement to incorporate into our private reflections. After all, we do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.
By Nigel Coutts