Schon and the Art of Reflection - a blog by Patrick Brook

3 March 2023

Our newsletters have a regular feature called 'Focus on a student'. The idea behind this is to provide a space where someone from our current or alum student body can celebrate a recent success, highlight/publicise an important project they are involved in, or just enjoy a chance to reflect on their experiences as a Connexus student and how their learning with us has impacted them personally and professionally. Thinking about what to do with this feature for our Spring edition, an idea came to me based on a conversation I had with Georgina about the kinds of questions we are currently answering to those interested in studying on our Foundation Year. One set of questions particularly piqued my interest as they were somewhat leftfield compared to our usual enquiries: 'What educational philosophies underpin your curriculum, and how will this help my learning and where I want to get to in my career?' 'Wow!' I thought, 'What great questions'!

The answers, however, are not wholly straightforward. One of the strengths of Connexus (USPs as I have learned they are known in Marketing circles) is that all three Directors have extensive backgrounds in the field of education, teaching and learning: John as a teacher and latterly, Headteacher, and before becoming psychotherapists, Lisa in many international executive training roles, and me as a secondary teacher, a lecturer and University head of department. Therefore, the influences we draw on are many and varied. However, the work of one educational theorist in particular, Donald Schon, has influenced us all at various times in our careers. His work on 'reflection' has offered a unifying strand that helps partially answer the question about what underpins our curriculum. You have probably heard the term 'reflection' in the context of teaching and learning, but did you know that Schon essentially put it on the map?

Donald Schon (1930-1997) was a renowned and influential scholar in education, organisational change and public policy. A professor at MIT and Harvard, he is best known for his work on two theoretical concepts describing ways to develop and apply knowledge: 'reflection-in-action' and 'reflection-on-action'.

The first, 'reflection-in-action', refers to a continual learning process in which people examine their learning while 'doing' something – essentially, it can be summarised as 'thinking while doing'. It involves evaluating/re-evaluating one's thoughts, feelings and behaviours as they occur at a given moment and being open to critically assessing where they might come from and how they might need to be changed. A simple example would be if you were trying to cook a new recipe. As you are cooking, you pause to reflect on how the dish is coming together and consider any changes that might need to be made. Based on your reflections, you might adjust the seasoning or add an additional ingredient. After making the adjustments, you reflect again to ensure your changes have improved the dish. This process of reflecting and adjusting is an example of Schon's idea of 'reflection-in-action' and can be applied to many different contexts.

By contrast, 'reflection-on-action' is reflecting on thoughts, feelings and behaviours after a particular event or experience has finished or been completed. It has a retrospective feel: 'looking back' on previous experiences, analysing the results, and understanding the implications of those results. A simple everyday example would be keeping a diary. You write down what you did and how you felt each day. At the end of the week, you might review the entries and reflect on what might have worked well and what didn't. Based on this reflection, you might change a routine or activity or make different choices. You might use this process to help you become more effective in your daily life.

Both types of reflection require different kinds of deliberation. Though there is some overlap between the two concepts, Schon's main point is that 'reflection' is vital to sustainable long-term learning and transformation.

An interplay of these ideas is essential to all aspects of learning at Connexus. However, as the question came from a potential Foundation Year student, I thought it a good idea to focus on that particular year. We account for 'reflection-in-action' by creating a reflective environment where students feel safe and secure and can learn and thrive. Doing this requires the fostering of open dialogue, active listening, and the establishment of trust. The co-creation of this strong and holding social learning space allows for particular methods: relevant (Socratic) questions, discussions and fun, targeted activities, which encourage engagement and critical discussions (in pairs, small groups or as a whole class) that enable the opportunity to take a step back. Students can evaluate current and past experience/knowledge from multiple and alternative perspectives at these' stepping back' moments. We account for 'reflection-on-action' through our assessment approach for this particular year. Recognising that many have been out of education for some time and wanting to encourage students to 'get back into' a writing process, we require short reflective writing pieces as the primary assessment tool – 8 x 500-word pieces over the academic year in total. The staged compilation of these pieces allows students to produce a small portfolio articulating their understanding of the material and how they integrate it into their immediate contexts. Students then have the opportunity at the end of the year to source a 5-minute clip of people interacting authentically and discussing their understanding of what is going on using TA concepts.

In the spirit of the piece and to give a flavour of the effect of this type of learning, I asked five students from last year's two cohorts for their 'reflections':

'The course gently and safely opened me up to an awareness of my early unconscious decision-making. The insightful and fun teaching methods have meant that I am now so hooked on TA I'm retraining in my forties -  I have found the TA course at Connexus a bit like Pringles: once you pop' (JT)

'With each well-timed and led monthly topic, I have felt encouraged and inspired within a safe group environment to explore and develop my interest in TA. The year has given me the confidence and passion for furthering my TA journey academically' (MH)

'As a coach and trainee psychotherapist, the course gave me a foundation in a psychology modality I could connect with at every level. It put words and concepts to themes I had seen and experienced intuitively in my work and with my clients. Learning and exploring with others provides much of what we all look for in this life.' (PA) 

'As the Foundation course continued, I began to look at my own narrative with less judgement, and I started to believe I could be me. I was so pleased at how the learning influenced my professional life: I got a placement at the agency that was my first choice, and a promotion at work, which I would never have gone for had I not been studying in the way we did!' (MC)

'By the end of the course, my aspiration to change my career path to becoming a TA psychotherapist had been confirmed. The course exceeded all my expectations, and my tutors made the experience so very engaging and fun.' (MI) 

Our collective educational experiences recognise the power of reflective learning in a curriculum that starts in our Foundation Year and encourages a transformation process throughout the training. As just one educational theorist that has influenced our thinking in the creation of our lovely institute, Donald Schon's work on reflection 'in' and reflection 'on' action helps us to answer the questions about the philosophies that underpin our curriculum – it is so very heartening to see how our students take ownership of their learning process, deepen their understanding of the material, gain valuable insights about themselves, and provide a unique opportunity for personal growth and development as they move into more exciting prospects and career roles.

If you want to become a Counsellor, Psychotherapist, or Certified Transactional Analyst in Psychotherapy or Organisational TA, join our weekend-based professional training courses and start with us in September 2023.

About Patrick

Patrick is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and supervisor, a Certified Transactional Analyst, CTA (P), a Provisional Teaching and Supervising Transactional Analyst, PTSTA (P) and an NCS Senior Accredited counsellor and supervisor.  As well as being the academic director of Connexus Institute, Patrick has a private psychotherapy and supervision practice in Brighton and Hove. He integrates his work as a psychotherapist into his work as a Director and has written and delivered a number of workshops on themes supporting healthier organisational dynamics.

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