Monday, 14 February 2011

Introduction to critical thinking

Critical thinking skills are a key component of your learning during this degree.

In a nutshell critical thinking involves questioning things rather than accepting them, there is not really any limit on what the thing to be questioned is; some examples that may be relevant to you include: a small but significant critical incident in the workplace, an accepted wisdom or way of doing something, an idea from literature, a personal belief, a statement from a colleague, workplace policy, global warming, life the universe and everything.

The aims of critical thinking include: understanding a problem, testing the validity of a statement or idea, trying to arrive at improved and valid knowledge, there are many more.

You have your own understanding of the world, this developed over many years, it evolves from many influences and experiences and will vary from person to person; your own understanding provides a framework against which new things can be tested, critical thinking may change what you believe or lead you to challenge what others have said or done.

From an academic perspective critical thinking helps us make more sense of the world, what we believe about it and who we are. It is important to take an objective or unbiased stance when attempting to understand something new however it is also valuable to question the information in the light of personal constructions or understanding - two themes emerge:

1. What sense is being conveyed?
2. What sense does this make to me?

In respect to reading new literature you might first consider what the author is trying to say (1) - What sense is being conveyed?
This can be augmented by considering the ideas from your perspective - (2) what sense does it make to me?

A real world perspective can bring personal understanding from consideration of an abstract theory and can be useful in showing your understanding to others.

There is a third consideration:
3. What do others think?

This can lead to comparison (showing how things are similar) or contrasting (showing how things are different) of one author's views against those of another author. It may also involve consulting informed others to help consolidate your understanding - e.g. your peers in a learning community or colleagues in your workplace.

Considering all three aspects should lead to a well informed perspective; you are in a position to make good judgements, you can make firm assertions or develop well founded arguments drawing on your deep examination of sense, your objective critique, your link to personal beliefs and experiences. many philosophers argue you will never reach the absolute truth of anything, statements like "it seems..." or "xxx appears to be the case" are more accurate than, "I now know that xxx is true."

In order to think critically and objectively you need to be able to deconstruct information taking it apart and examining it from many perspectives, you need to be able to rise above personal beliefs, to be open to changing what you believe and be willing to challenge the views of others.

In order to present the results of critical thinking in a clear way you need to avoid constructing statements such as:
"We all believe that xxx...". This is a universal statement, no unified theory of the universe yet exists - avoid universal statements; we are all different.
"Obviously xxx is right." This is an unsubstantiated and finite statement, it assumes the reader has the same view as the writer. A more sensible approach is a tentative statement that refers to evidence to give it substance such as - "It appears xxx may be the case because..."
" I know xxx is right." Again no substance is provided, only a personal statement of opinion.

Avoid ambiguity; look for it in what you read and what others say and try and eliminate it from what you say. Ambiguity is where meaning is not clear; some words can be inherently ambiguous or it might be sentence construction that is ambiguous. Consider have you said what you really meant to say; could your words be interpreted differently?

Saturday, 12 February 2011

An introduction to Reflective Practice.

An introduction to Reflective Practice.

An introductory overview created for students on the Anglia Ruskin BA (Hons.)  Learning, Technology and Research course.

Dewey (1933) identified the three characteristics or attitudes of people who are reflective as; 'open-mindedness', 'responsibility' and 'wholeheartedness'. At a basic level models of reflection exist to provide guidance to help us look back with an open mind and re-examine significant events that have happened and to turn them into learning experiences. When we do this with a purposeful and systematic approach we turn a 'significant event' into a 'critical incident'. A good source on critical incident theory is Tripp (1993).

In essence, reflection help us to:

Look at an event - Understand it - Learn from it

When first encountering the concept students sometimes say something along the lines of: "Reflection is like looking in a mirror." Reflective practice is more than that; a mirror shows only what is there on the surface in the here and now, it shows us an image of what we are used to looking at, albeit a laterally reversed version of current reality. A mirror does not help us examine the past, critique what happened and conjecture about what might happen in the future. The concept of 'going through the looking glass' is perhaps better than looking into one but that lead Alice into a very strange world, whereas good reflective practice takes us into a detailed retrospective of the real world, we are deeply concerned with accurately capturing what we did, reflecting on how it impacted on ourselves and on others and aspiring to gain deep learning from critical analysis and forward thinking. 

 Although academic authors might disagree on occasion, and sometimes moan about each others ideas, most of them seem to view systematic reflection as a beneficial behaviour. Many students, when they are first introduced to reflective practice, identify this as a natural or instinctive process I agree most people seem to naturally reflect. When you start to explore literature such as Schon and the concept of 'reflection in action' and 'reflection on action' your awareness of the natural process is being raised and your ability to apply it to good effect can be improved considerably.

An instinctive approach to reflection can appear to be unstructured although there is often an emergent structure even if we take a fairly open approach such as mulling something over in our minds or writing everything about an event down in a stream of consciousness. It is not unusual for questions to emerge and for us to examine them over and over - elements such as: What happened - what really happened? Oh why did I do that / why did X do that? I wish Y had not happened. What did I want to happen? What else could I have done? 

Reflective practice models offer a set of prompts or questions that help us bring structure to  our thoughts. Structured critical reflection may involve deconstructing events systematically, taking them apart in detail, thinking about specific aspects of action or potential consequences, examining events from a range of perspectives, constructing new understanding, developing new approaches that could help improve a situation or help us be better prepared the next time we meet a similar event. Reading some academic papers can lead to a perception of reflection being a complex and convoluted approach to learning but if you can tunnel through academic language the basic principles and strategies are deceptively simple. They provide a step by step journey through a logical process often in the form of a cycle. In my experience, and judging by the feedback from my students, reflective practice can be very effective means of problem solving and it can transform workplace practice; it is an essential tool.

Schon identifies two kinds of reflection:
1. Reflection-in-action - this is reflecting on the hoof, where you reflect on your actions during an event: "This isn't going well; what can I do now to improve things?" Or: "This is going well; how can I maintain the momentum?" You no longer stumble blindly on following what may be a well thought out plan with little heed to what is going on around you you are hawk like; sharp eyed, monitoring your actions and how others are responding to them. You make on the hoof informed improvements, you respond to changing situations, adapt your approach, optimise your interactions with others or with the physical world around you - all this comes from being aware that you can benefit from taking care about what you do and remembering to regularly spend a few seconds on reflective thinking while in action. 

If you think about just the act of simple conversation we adeptly adapt explanations, cutting them short or expanding them as we monitor how well we are being understood. When listening to others we use non-verbal utterances, facial expression, gesture or other 'body language' clues to affirm understanding or show we are uncertain or disagree with what is said to us. Most people are fairly adept intuitive reflectors on that level but to be really effective practitioners in the workplace we may need to look deeper. Schon raises our awareness of when we can reflect. Time is limited for reflections in action, we may be brave and say to an audience "Just a moment let me think about that..." but often there are only a few seconds available and we try to squish reflection in unnoticed so others do not perceive us as less than expert or lacking in conviction or confidence

When a fire alarm goes off there is an option to just run aimlessly or to reflect as we are acting, constantly assessing the situation and revising our actions to attempt to act in a way that is most likely to lead to survival. I was on a ferry last week wondering what would happen if there were a disaster - fair enough I knew where my nearest muster point was but would I have blindly followed the instructions to head that way had most of the smoke been between me and that nearest point of safety - I think I would reflect in action and run the other way hoping to find a safer alternative. That might not be the best action - that is where the limitations kick in we have to act on limited information in a very short time-frame and the reflections are consequently potentially flawed or at the least 'not the best action' but may also be better than responding blindly. Schon is aware that reflection in action has limitations - it also has value too, if you have planned to do a presentation in your work setting, do you stick blindly to your plan running through the presentation as if it were a TV program, or do you keep an eye on the audience, engage with them asking questions to check they are following your presentation and understanding it. Do you dare to adapt your approach on the hoof? If you do the latter you need to reflect in the moment and respond by identifying what they have missed and providing additional explanations to ensure they do understand, on the hoof improvements may not be perfect but are likely to be better than just going on and on churning out your planned dialogue having lost the audience and not noticed.

2. Reflection-on-action - this is retrospective reflection, you reflect on actions that have already occurred. This is usually, but not always, done fairly soon after the event. 

Things that didn't go well; what what went wrong; what can I do next time to improve things?
Things that went well; what were the factors that lead to success; how can I use this knowledge to repeat success in the future?

You recall incidents and chew the cud, ruminating in depth on how you can improve your practice. You may mull something over spontaneously while travelling or resting or you may put specific time aside and formally structure your reflections. Schon does not provide a cyclical model but maybe the value is in the raising of our awareness that reflecting both in and after an event has value. Imagine you were in the presentation scenario I outlined, if the audience did not understand the planned presentation and you needed to reflect in action to modify it - you have a good clue that you need to reconsider at some length why they did not understand the well thought out presentation. You can then apply a model like Gibbs or Borton etc to structure the 'on action' reflections after the event when you have time to reflect in detail.

Schon tries to stop us going blindly forward, he prompts us towards heightened awareness of our own practice, to respond to changing or unpredicted circumstances on the hoof or 'in action' and to engage in post-event analysis - 'on action' reflection. As Practitioners interested in exploring reflective practice in real world situations a practical exploration of structured approaches may augment what you do naturally. Whether you find it more effective to use a given model to structure post-event reflections or to just spend time thinking about what happened in an unstructured way is a key question that will only be answered when you try the strategies out for yourself.

Critical Incidents
Tripp (1993) discusses critical incident analysis as a good approach to reflection. A critical incident can be described as an event that offers a significant opportunity for learning and to which you have applied a critical thinking strategy. They may be small events but they can turn out to be big little things once reflected on in depth. When I was training to be a Primary school teacher I was exploring reflective practice and an incident I used might illustrate the concept well. 

I had a well thought out lesson plan that aimed to explain the concept of fractions, it involved me drawing images of pizzas and birthday cakes on a white board and turned out not to be that well delivered. Some of the class understood and some did not. I tried to think on the hoof what was wrong but couldn't see it and time ran out. Later I reflected at length on what happened, I imagined the scene again and again and eventually realised that I had been standing in front of the pizza obscuring it from part of the class. Bingo a revelation via reflection. I kept on thinking; the model I was using prompted me to consider the feelings of those involved. Eventually another light bulb moment - not one of the children had the confidence to say "Hey Mr Tindal I can't see." That was the big one, the spin off from the main mistake of blocking their view. Next day I made friends with the children told them "Who couldn't see the pizzas? If I do something daft like that again just shout out, let me know." 

So that was a critical incident, a little big thing that, after examination through structured reflection, changed my teaching practice forever. 

You might try and record an event where you are aware of reflecting in action, then also apply retrospective reflection to the same event, this would provide a comparison of the effectiveness of reflection in action and reflection on action and assist in analysing the value of Schon's thoughts.

Thoughts on capturing Critical incidents:
The first step in rigorous and unbiased reflection on a critical incident is to capture what happened as accurately as possible. We can't go back and turn on a video camera, sometimes we don't realise until after an event just how significant it was. It is important to create a record as soon as possible, after an event has occurred and before time provides a mist between us and what really happened that we can not fully penetrate. The police have done a lot of research into recall and it well known that if there is a lot of intervening time before a witness provides a statement it is more likely to be lacking in detail or inaccurate. Were there others present at the time who you can discuss the events with? They might have a different perspective or might recall small details that help you remember events more clearly. If not write down what you think happened then spend some time imagining you are back in the event and see what else you can recall; was your original account correct? You need to dig deep and look with honest eyes if you are to explore the 'truth' of the situation. 

In a discussion a few years ago in Anglia University, Richard Winter, who originated the Patchwork Text approach to assessment, talked about the use of genre as a means of freeing the creative voice, of letting students step outside the usual restricted forms of writing to gain wider perspectives on their practice and the events they experience.

Using an alternative genre to the standard written approach to recording thoughts might help you reflect from a new perspective; for example a poem might help you uncover and convey emotions, if you need an objective and concise perspective then a newspaper or news report might provide a good framework, if physical space was important an animation or photo-story might help show details that would be hard to convey through text. Consider how you might use technology to convey an event. Many students on BA LTR and BA LTT have produces small videos or comic strips about events and reported that the immersion in the creative experience helped with both recall and reflective problem solving.

A strategy that is also useful for overcoming writing blocks is focused stream of consciousness writing or talking. Although this can generate a lot of text it is an acknowledged method for uncovering deep insights and can be a good starting point. In a nutshell you just start talking or writing about a given theme or experience and, giving little heed to grammar or structure, just capture any old words that convey your reflective thoughts. For example as part of your application of a reflective model you might have to reflect on and convey how a critical incident made you feel - you could start by creating a stream of writing in the style of a news reporter/poet/play writer etc - don't stop until you have got it all out. Consider what you have as your raw data; analyse, hone and reduce it, use photos, cartoons, drawings etc. to enhance how you convey your reflections.

Models for structured reflection
These provide a framework to structure your reflections, there are a wide range of models, far more than are mentioned here. Search for more and try exploring some by applying them to real world critical incidents.

Greenaway outlined three simple steps to help learn from experience:
1. DO - have an experience
2. REVIEW - review what happened and what can be learned
3. PLAN - plan a way to approach the next round of experience

Borton translates this as; 'What- So what - Now what'.

Kolb suggested that experience alone does not provide a sufficient learning experience in many situations, "there are many examples where experience alone is not sufficient for meeting particular learning goals.  In such situations, it seems to work better if the raw experience is packaged together with facilitated exercises which involve thinking, discussing, or creatively processing cognitions and emotions related to the raw experience".

Kolb also suggests structure is useful in reflection:  the first step is Concrete Experience, followed by Reflective Observation, then the formation of Abstract Conceptualizations, he then suggests conducting Active Experimentation, this implements new solutions that are again subject to reflection to consider their viability. 

Gibbs identified a series of 6 steps to aid reflective practice, these elements make up a cycle that can be applied over and over.
Description - what happened ?
Feelings - what were you thinking and feeling ?
Evaluation - what was good and bad about the experience ?
Analysis - what sense can you make of the situation ?
Conclusion - what else could you have done ?
Action plan - what will you do next time ?

Gibbs takes in to account the realm of feelings and emotions which played a part in a particular event. Other models do not specifically exclude examining feelings but some are less concerned with prompting this element.

 What other models can you find?

 Which model are you going to try out first?

Introduction to Reflective Practice Part 2.  This extends the systematic strategy to encompass espoused theory and theory in use as well as consideration of governing variables those factors that we might not initially be aware of but that govern behaviour and the ability to implement change.

Reflective practice is a useful tool in Professional Development Planning, this post provides an initial insight into how that is utilised on the BA Learning, Technology and Research course.

1. Bolton, G. 2010. Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development. Sage publications. (click here for google book preview)
2. Boud, D., Keoh, R., Walker, D. 1994. Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. Routledge Falmer (click here for Google book preview)
3. Clifford, J., and Thorpe, S. 2007. Workplace Learning & Development: Delivering competitive advantage for your organization. Ch 3. (Click here for a link to Google book extracts)
4. Gibbs, G. 1988. Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Further 
Education Unit, Oxford Brookes University. 
5. Kolb, D. A. 1984. Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall. 256 pages. 
6. Kolb, A. and Kolb D. A. 2001. Experiential Learning Theory Bibliography 1971-2001, Boston.
7. Johns, C. 2009. Becoming a reflective practitioner. 3rd ed. Singapore: Wiley 
8. Pollard, A. 2005. Reflective Teaching. Continuum.(Click here for extracts from Google book)
9. Schon, D. 1995. The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. 3rd ed. Hants: Arena. 
10. Tripp, D. 1993. Critical Incidents in Teaching: Developing Professional Judgment .Routledge. (click here for a Google book preview)