From reflective to redirective to refractive practice

The quality that I associate with reflective practice is “not simply continuing along previous lines.”  Of course, there are good reasons to continue along previous lines—we would be using the skills, resources, networks of connected people that we have built up over time and, in to a large extent, have embodied.   However, the idea is to make that continuing not simple, to consider it in tension with alternatives.  To do that entails preparing for any step before proceeding either:

  • from one phase to another,
  • on from an activity or event,
  • into dialogue with others, or
  • at a branch point, when choosing an activity or path to pursue.

Preparing can mean many things, including:

  • Freewriting to bring thoughts and feelings to the surface of attention and clarify them
  • Listening well to others and to oneself (through structured turn-taking in dialogue process and through supportive listening)
  • Making a habit of taking stock, e.g., through plus-delta evaluations
  • Gathering thoughts at end of dialogue or other activity
  • Having one’s plans or insights or questions witnessed in a closing circle
  • Strategic personal planning
  • Definitional ceremony (following Michael White)
  • Daily writing and other habits that assume and affirm one’s generativity
  • Allowing oneself to jostle among the six themes-in-tension: “negotiate power/standards,” “horizontal community,” “develop autonomy,” “acknowledge affect,” “be here now,” and “explore difference.”

(Source for many of these: Taylor & Szteiter, Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement,

I was recently introduced to the term “redirective practitioner” (Source:  This captures better than reflective practitioner the idea of not simply continuing along previous lines.  However, it might shift the attention to the outcome—a new direction—than the process in which an individual stops to make space—to reflect using various tools or processes.  This line of thinking led me to invent “refractive practice,” as conveyed by the diagram below.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

5 Responses to From reflective to redirective to refractive practice

  1. Rhoda says:

    Peter – I like the visual this gives to the understanding of your thinking. The concept of refractive practice lends itself to new associations beyond the simple “mirror-like” reflection.

  2. Chris London says:

    Some years back I started trying to replace ‘development’ with ‘directed social change’. I also started using the metaphor of a sluice gate (though I guess I should have just used a canal gate or something like that; same thing, different scale) to talk about development practice. The idea being that doing social change is like redirecting the flow of water for crop irrigation. You can’t keep the water, it will eventually filter through; water can’t be controlled, in the long run, it pretty much goes where it wants to go. The best we can do is nudge it in particular directions that are useful to us. So doing good development work isn’t about control, planning, budgets and all the rest, it’s about opening up possible variants through which the social can flow.

    Recently, now that I’ve put on the teacher’s hat, I’ve combined these phrasings with some ideas from a chapter of my dissertation that I’ve visualized here:

    The first variant is conventional modernization, where there is one good past that goes into a social change moment and plots one good future. This is modernization as Americanization; Walt Rostow and the rest.

    The second variant is drawn from Albert Hirschman ( who argued that, no, there are multiple pasts but still clung to the one good future. Basically this is what is today talked about as ‘social capital’, i.e., it is the dominant discourse in the World Bank and all the rest.

    The third variant is the open-ended future, which I based on Ollman’s rendition of Marx’s dialectics ( and which I’ve ended up talking about as nudging (though not to be confused with the Cass Sunstein’s Skinnerian use of the word). A social change situation is a flow from past into future. In reality it’s always happening, the present is only a valve in constant systole and diastole (I’m full of metaphors today), the future is not a mechanical reproduction of the past. Directed social change can’t stop that, or redo it, it can only drop the gate and try to help things flow in a somewhat different way. But given that this is always already happening in some way, there is great potential for something to come of what we do.

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