Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Reflective Practice and Professional Development Planning

One valuable application of reflective practice is the improvement of every day personal practice that arises from identifying, capturing and systematically examining unexpected significant events that happen on a daily basis. Systematic critical analysis of relatively small events can be a very effective approach to practitioner problem solving and personal improvement. On first encountering this approach to learning many undergraduate students feel they are already instinctive reflective beings but once they have critically reviewed literature and experimented with critical incident theory in the workplace they start to report that they are more alert in the workplace and notice that each day is full of significant events that could become critical incidents. These may be events such as noticing body language and tonal cues that indicate an explanation has not fully made sense to pupils or clients. Reflection in action can often be a good solution at such times and can provide a cue as to when deeper reflection after the event might be needed to uncover a better solution. These events are largely unpredicted and awareness of reflective practice heightens sensitivity and helps practitioners become aware of them.

 I have met people who say it is important to think in terms of solutions not problems, this aims to stop people feeling they are drowning in a sea of problems when they could see themselves as swimming towards solutions. I do feel that a changed perspective as to what a problem is can also be valuable. In addition to rectifying problems where there is an obvious weakness that needs to be addressed there is always the task of how to get better at something we are already very good at doing. Purposeful improvement of already competent behaviour can also be seen as problem solving. Problems are something to be hunted out and addressed where-ever they lie, noticing that problems exist should not be seen as an indication of lack of competence or failure. In some organisations a blame culture can develop where problems are identified and the solution is to blame others for them, this can lead to stagnation and resentment. In the worst case scenario problems are ignored and major failure can result.   A no blame culture with a positive attitude to problem solving is key to good professional practice and a thriving organisation. Identifying a problem is the start of finding a solution and that is a vector that leads towards success.

Many workplaces have an organisational system that involves most employees in professional development planning, this often an annual cycle or target setting and learning. This can be an effective system and could be seen as a 'Do-Review-Plan-Learn-Do' cycle that has resonances with reflective and action inquiry cycles.

Do - behaviour in existing practice.
Review - identifying aspects of existing practice where improvement is needed.
Plan - setting achievable and relevant targets and the means by which they can be met.
Learn - implementing strategies through which new learning can be achieved.
Do - implement the improved practice that arose from the new learning.

 Within this over-arching cycle there is the opportunity to apply reflective practice strategies to implement a critical approach within the Review, Plan or Learn stages - reflective practice for professional development can have cycles within cycles. In addition to your main PDP targets you may have many minor development areas that arise as unplanned needs that may take a few minutes, hours or days to fullfil. Reflection and action learning may be effective strategies to apply to these as well.

 A professional development plan will often set multiple targets so there is a branching at the planning stage. If sufficient depth of learning is to be achieved it is important not to set too many main PDP targets, as a rule of thumb three targets is a sensible aim in any one year.
Fig 1. Basic PDP strategy.

The review stage is where reflective practice is particularly relevant, in the diagram below I have added some ideas for steps in a systematic review process. There are others that could also be relevant to augment some steps such as 'How do I feel about that?' - 'What do others feel about that?'. Reflective models offer ideas for structuring analysis of real world events. Exploring the application of models you find in the literature is a valuable means of testing theory against practice. You are likely to find yourself uncovering other questions that are valuable to a specific context. One of the important overarching learning outcomes from BA LTR modules is learning about what kinds of questions are useful to solve problems. You might find the ones in my diagram useful, there are many others that could be asked. In many of our modules we ask you to apply models that appear in literature and are widely accepted as being valuable. In order to meet module learning outcomes it is important that you carry out these tasks. Students are encouraged to show their autonomy in managing their learning by devising their own approaches to problem solving. I have started building in an active experimentation phase to some modules - this enables you to consider adoption of existing models and to build your own structures based on the foundations you meet in literature. 

Fig. 2. PDP with detailed review cycle.

Looking in more detail at the structure, each learning cycle could also be broken down by showing approaches such as those discussed by Kolb, Piggott-Irvine and others that BA LTR students will read about in the course literature. Piggott-Irvine (2000) highlights the potential complexity in her Problem Resolving Action Research model. Reflection and action based cycles can prompt new vectors that are related but tangential to the planned core learning path. For the purposes of time and word limit bound undergraduate modules we advise students to focus mainly on the main cycles in their assignments in order to provide sufficient evidence of deep analysis. Tangential paths may well be very valuable in work practice and are something that is sensible to discuss concisely in the stitching section of a module to show transfer of learning strategies and wider adoption across practice but it is important to keep to main cycles in the core patches of modules.

It is not unusual for all or at least some PDP targets to be treated as having been met after one cycle and for a different set of new targets to be identified in the subsequent annual cycle. A conscientious employee may well continue development by remaining aware of the potential for on-going improvement. Learning is a long term process hence the term 'life-long learning'. Learning is a transferable process and can extend across different contexts in the workplace and into life beyond work hence the term 'life-wide learning'. The life wide aspect was very much brought home to me in a stitching piece by a mature student in one of the first cohorts of the BA Learning, Technology and Research course. Having applied reflection in action and on action to good effect in her workplace she was also very please to be able to say she has transfered the skills to home life and was now winning all arguments between herself and her husband. Other students have mentioned using reflection to help plan decisions about where to go and what to do on holiday, how to manage financial decisions by reflecting on needs and then prioritising spending.

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