Reflecting on reflective practice not, in itself, being a good thing

This post begins with a general question and a personal question: Why do people avoid reflective practice? Why do I avoid deep emotion intensive reevaluation on some issues that recurrently emerge in my reflective practice?

There’s an assumption behind the first question. Namely, reflective practice is a good thing, which everyone should do more of. This assumption is conveyed in the first diagram, my picture of refractive practice. Notice the slight change in terminology. Refractive practice is giving yourself some space, some routine, some interaction that prevents you simply continuing along previous lines. In this picture we see a line going through the refractive material and coming out in a different direction. The direction is not known in advance and thus the ?’s. The refractive material might be taking five minutes at the end of the meeting to make notes; it might be engaging in a dialogue process with a group of people; it might be doing free writing before you begin a meeting or a new project to bring your own ideas to the surface and clarify what’s important for you to put out and what you can just keep to yourself.


I use the phrase “continuing along previous lines.” The assumption that reflective practice, or refractive practice, is good is equivalent to the idea that we are better off if we do not simply continue along previous lines, if we are able to expose and entertain alternative directions. The personal question, the second question at the start, suggests, however, that there are areas in which we are not so open to possible redirections—that we have resistance to not simply continuing along previous lines.

In fact, everyone continues along previous lines for at least some or many aspects of our lives and works. We build upon what we have already built, on our skills, reputation, connections. For example, I lead the program that promotes critical thinking, but my role in that depends on an academic system that gives me a job and, more or less, an audience. But that role of generally promoting critical thinking takes me away from belonging to a particular disciplinary community that might be a basis for creating durable change. So, my role depends on some areas of my work and life being able to continue, and the flipside is that my work is underlain by some level of fear that those resources could be taken away. My response, for example, to horrendous conflicts in the world is to, in part, be thankful that I don’t have to address such things day-to-day. In part, it also depends on my avoiding going into territories quite close to home in which there are conflicts, whether physical or political.

Now, although I say that everyone continues along previous lines for at least some lines in their lives and works, the world is always changing and we have to respond. Even as we try to hold on to some of the conditions that underlie our work, the conditions are changing, whether those are obvious changes or subtle longer-term changes. Now, there are differences in how different people approach these openings to respond to change and thus how they change, and I’ll get back to those differences later.

The next figure conveys schematically two dimensions of how we face possibilities of change. The vertical dimension says when we think about a different way of knowing, of understanding, or a different way of making something work using technologies, these differences might assume that social arrangements stay just as they are. That’s the bottom of the axis. Or they might require many changes in existing social arrangements. On the horizontal axis we see how large the constituency is being built to support any action, any change in social arrangements, around the change knowledge or technologies. The question is how much effort is put into building the constituency.


In both dimensions how far we push across those gaps depends in part on how much fear and resistance we have about losing the conditions for our continuing along previous lines. Indeed, refractive practice opens up alternative responses, responses that push upwards and to the right. But movement in that direction is limited to the extent that we do not delve deeper into the fears that hold us back, the fears that may be the legacy of past hurts.

Now, even though we have to accept that everyone, including ourself, continues along previous lines for some lines of our work and lives, I think it is possible to put a positive value on refractive practice for clarifying alternative directions to pursue. Especially if supplemented with reevaluation of stuck places so they have less emotional power, refractive practice makes a person more likely to a be fulfilled in some sense that needs to be filled out. And it makes a person less likely to perpetuate injustices to others that are associated with continuing along previous lines. I say a person is more likely to be fulfilled and less likely to perpetuate injustices, but there are no guarantees given that making change depends on the particular situations a person is in and the diverse resources and practical considerations that they face in making change.

Given this positive value for refractive practice and its limitations, should I be involved in generalized promotion of refractive practice supplemented by reevaluation of fears? My answer would be yes, but: one should acknowledge limits that correspond to promotion of refractive practice and reevaluation not being tied to the particular situations in which people find themselves. I would not proselytize that refractive practice is a virtue in itself. Instead, I would:

  1. Suggest that people can use refraction to expose and explore alternative directions within the diverse practical considerations that are involved in their particular situations.
  2. Organize “connecting, probing, reflecting” (CPR) spaces that people can choose to join when ready.
  3. Model in my own work and lives refraction and deeper reevaluation at variable frequencies. (Walking the talk makes it more likely that people get engaged by #1 & 2.)
  4. Make use of the length of studies in the Critical & Creative Thinking graduate program that I direct to emphasize “slow” mode even in world that pushes the “move” mode.
  5. Embrace people’s actual paths within their particular situations and don’t have overly large expectations that CPR spaces will result in changes in what they are able to do.
  6. Allow the time it takes to make possible bridges between general promotion of refraction and people’s actual paths.


* * *

Earlier I mentioned that different people have different approaches to responding to the challenge of making their lives and work respond to the changes in the world. This schema tries to capture that, even if it is hard to take in at first.

Gaps23Sep14What is depicted here is first a path of critical thinking, the trajectory on the left. As a critical thinker I find that I am often proposing changes to the way an issue is understood, changes to the knowledge. Moreover, I’m proposing changes that entail alternative social arrangements, whether that is in the peer review process in the in a academic community, or the wider world of politics and economics and commerce.

At the same time, I am not spending so much time on creating a constituency to support any action around the proposed different ways of knowing. I do however teach courses on Action Research, which is captured in the blue across to the right. Action Research is more attentive to the necessity to build a constituency around any idea, or any proposal for social change, and thus has to allow for other people to help shape that idea, to revise the way the situation is understood and the desired replacement to the current social arrangements. This process of dialogue and refractive practice is represented by the loops in Action Research trajectory.

The other four labels derived from my Mexican colleague, Raúl García Barrios, who suggests that societies depend on four different approaches working together. In his account there are innovators, enthusiastic consumers of innovations, rational capitalists – the people who build and maintain the structures of continuing the production that is consumed – and selective consumers, who live more at the subsistence level and eventually take in what is made available to them by the operations of the other three groups of people. These four groups in Raúl’s classification system link together here in the up and down and across, with a broadening out to capture reversion to the existing social arrangements as people move innovations into wider social acceptance.

This post is about refractive or reflective practice and in this schema each movement—whether it’s the critical thinker, the Action Researchers, or the four interconnected social groups of Raúl’s classification scheme—can be nudged or encouraged to move upwards and to the right through more refractive practice. That is, by spending time on refractive practice, exposing alternative directions and making it harder to simply continue along previous lines.

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

3 Responses to Reflecting on reflective practice not, in itself, being a good thing

  1. jennymackness says:

    Peter – this is a very interesting post which I need to read more carefully and think more about.

    I think it relates to the work that Roy Williams and I have been doing about probes for surfacing tacit knowledge and understanding. Our most recent paper was published in these conference proceedings – – if you are interested.

    You ask ‘Why do people avoid reflective practice?’ I don’t think it’s only fear. It’s hard work and often we do not allow enough time for it.

    Another thought I had in reading what you have written is that I personally do not see the purpose of reflective practice as changing direction – but more as a deeper understanding of ‘self’ for want of a better word.

    These are quick responses for now. Apologies if I have, in my haste, misunderstood you. I will read more carefully and hope to come back.

    I have passed on the link to this post to my colleague Roy.

    Thanks – Jenny

    • Thanks for your response, which will help me spell out some of the thinking not stated or visible. For example, the first question should really have been “Why do people who recognize that reflective practice is valuable still not make time for it?” You say it’s hard work [and thus needs time]. Yes, but why don’t we allow time for this valuable hard work?
      Anyway, I look forward to reading your document (but not till I have clear time).

  2. Teryl Cartwright says:

    I’ve been looking at all the diagrams including from Jenny’s link and trying to put them together. What if NO one is truly continuing along previously lines? With all the forces and tensions we could be instead traveling on dotted lines, stepping stones to small gaps with the refractive practice as those wobbles or more perceptible changes of direction. Then the four corners of Raul’s diagram (our communal reflective work) can be combined with the more intentional or directed changes we make and are aware of making–sort of Venn diagram/ripple influencing ripple. I liked the diagram in Jenny’s link as a cross section/top view of your refractive lines if you think of them as similar to tree rings. So in her diagram the central point become more the straight line direction we see from the side as your picture while hers is an overhead “footprint” of the factors and journeys we take within each moment of choice and directionality. Maybe instead of a tree growth for the lines it works better to think of a car that on a GPS monitor looks like it is going on a certain line on the road yet if viewed overhead with the driver’s moment to moment steering it is not a true line as seen on the map with the wind, potholes and drift of unbalanced tires causing the minor corrections. Perhaps we are afraid of more than reflective practice when we are tired from the smallest and constant decision making–how can we have the discernment and courage for the great ones? Even practicing to build this skill doesn’t address the emotional practice we need to include. Critical thinking not to suppress or dismiss the emotion but embrace and harness that part of ourselves in the process.
    I really like how you have pointed out that reflective practice cannot necessarily be considered as good when I have seen it used in negative ways. I am pondering the gaps and the graph in which you have added critical thinker and the open spaces–I like the addition of action research but wish there was a way to ensure that refractive practice line could meet or intertwine with the collaborative pathway. I really appreciate the comment you included to address that something so valuable needs time and agree that fear or comfort keeps us on continuous lines trajectory rather than making the break and choosing the alternative. Great post and fun to try to make things connect even if a bit of an overreach in mixed metaphors…I’ll work on not being so wordy too!

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