The Power of Reflective Practice

Lauralee Pankonien, Senior Coordinator for Certification Administration


“If only I had time to think!” This sentiment may sound familiar to all of us as busy educators, but research shows that in order to be effective in our work we must treat time for reflection not as a luxury, but as a necessity.  Adults can develop the habit of mind that engages in reflective practice in order to make more informed decisions.  If teachers and school leaders are more reflective, they will be better placed to make good judgments about appropriate instructional leadership, accurate evaluative criteria and useful responses to group problems and other matters.  Therefore, informed decision making can be considered essential to effective leadership (Brookfield, 2002).

Reflective practitioners check their assumptions about good practice against the insights gleaned from colleagues, examine their colleagues’ perceptions, unearth and challenge their assumptions, and use their own autobiographical experiences and reading of educational research to help them view their practice from different, and helpful, angles (Brookfield, 1995).  These leaders are interested in understanding and questioning their own work because they take their own practice seriously.  Although today’s school leader does not enjoy an abundance of down time to kick back and mull over the situations encountered in a given day of work, it is possible to develop habits of reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action.

Reflection-in-action is sometimes described as “thinking on our feet,” and involves looking to our experiences, connecting with our feelings, and attending to our theories in use, which causes us to build new understandings to inform our actions in the situation that is unfolding.  Following any given situation in their work environment, educators may write up recordings, talk things through with a supervisor or colleague and so on.  The act of reflecting-on-action enables us to spend time exploring why we acted as we did (Smith, 2001) in order to consider questions and ideas about our activities and practice.

Decades of education research have helped us recognize that meaningful learning occurs through reflection and resolution of cognitive conflict.   Time used to reflect critically on one’s work can lead to new understandings, important new questions, improved coping skills (who among us doesn’t need a little help coping?) and innovative approaches to problem-solving (Hirsh & Sparks, 1997, Peterson, 2001).  It may be a rare leader who has built complementary personal habits of thinking on their feet when necessary and deliberately creating time for personal collaborative examination of their own practice when possible. That balance, which best represents the true power of the reflective practitioner, is a worthy pursuit for us all.



Brookfield, S. Using the Lenses of Critically Reflective Teaching in the Community College Classroom. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2002.

Hirsh, S., & D. Sparks. A New Vision for Staff Development. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1997.

Peterson, K. “The roar of complexity.”  Journal of Staff Development, 22, no. 1 (2001): 18-21.

Smith, M. K. “Donald Schon: learning, reflection and change.” (2001)  The encyclopedia of informal education, (accessed October 8, 2012).

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