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Understanding and Developing Reflective Practice

History of Reflective Practice

Over the last ten years reflective practice is a term which has been used in many universities and educational settings. However it is not a new phenomenon; in 1927 Mezirow identified reflective practice as being a 'transformative tool' when considering knowledge and situations.  In 1933 Dewey defined reflective practice as making links between our current knowledge and new knowledge that is gained whilst focusing on how we, as early years practitioners feel about certain situations (Rosen -ND ). Donald Schon describes reflective practice as being 'professional artistry' (1987:22) going  onto suggest that it is a complex concept which emphasises the need for practitioners to  think about situations when they occur , and then to consider the same situation  afterwards as a team, reflecting on whether or not the action taken was appropriate . In 1984 David Kolb introduced his learning styles cycle which, similarly to Schon, encourages practitioners to  think about a new situation that has occurred focusing particularly on how a team reacts to that new situation. Kolb calls this concrete experience, and like Schon,  Kolb accentuates the need to think after the event and consider how the situation  could have been dealt with differently;  this he calls reflective observation. He  then goes onto suggest that practitioners need to think differently about situations and maybe change practice in the light of this situation;  this he describes as abstract conceptualization . The final part of Kolb's cycle is active experimentation and this relates to the new ways of working which have been put into place in the light of discussions.

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Businessballs (May 2006) http://www.businessballs.com/kolblearningstyles.htm. LA 24.10.2013

More recently Siraj-Blatchford and Manni have described the notion of reflective practice as being the 'nurturing of collaborative dialogue ' (2007:17) and they emphasise the need for managers and early years practitioners to encourage their teams to think more reflectively on the work that they do. It has also been suggested  that practitioners should not only be discussing situations with each other, but that they  should  be including children in  dialogue   about issues which affect them  (Craft & Paige-Smith: 2011). Indeed article 12 of the U N Convention on the Rights of the Child (Unicef: 1989)   repeats the requirement that, as practitioners, we need to encourage children to discuss issues that affect them with adults / practitioners.

Siraj-Blatchford has developed the concept of reflecting with children further through the concept of sustained shared thinking  (2002).   Through this process children are encouraged, by knowledgeable adults, to work together in an intellectual way in order to either solve a problem or think more deeply / reflect on a question. Whilst being involved with this it is important for both the practitioner and the child to engage in a dialogue which will further develop the child's thinking and learning. This is a similar concept to reflective practice as it involves decisions which the child and adult make together.

Reflective practice and early years policy

It is important, when considering reflective practice to examine what early years policy and guidance statements say about the need for early years practitioners to be reflective practitioners. Whilst the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (2012) does not categorically mention reflective practice it does state the need for practitioners  to 'respond to children's emerging needs and  interests' (pg.7) 'whilst  building warm positive relationships with children'. The EYFS discusses the need for practitioners to plan activities around the needs of the child, evaluate their effectiveness and replan in the light of new knowledge which has been observed. It is interesting to note that the diagram produced  around planning in early years settings is similar to that of Kolb's learning cycle.

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(DFE 2012)

The EYFS, like Schon (1987), discusses the need to identify issues and challenges to practice as they arise but does not focus as much on the need to engage in dialogue as a team in order to reflect on situations.

 It does however; discuss the need for well qualified practitioners to engage with young children, to develop their thinking and to continually reflect both on their practice and the needs of the children that they are working with. This will help develop both the children and quality of the setting. Jackson: 2010)

Development Matters (Early Education: 2012) sets out the need for practitioners to observe all children, to reflect on those observations, and then to plan activities around both the interests and needs of the child. It then goes on to state the importance of positive relationships with practitioners,  who are not only able to plan stimulating activities but are also able to engage with a child's play,  encouraging  him / her to reflect on what they are doing and to build on that play.

The introduction of the Common Core of Skills and Knowledge by the Children's Workforce Development Council (CWDC) in 2010 sought to set out standards for practitioners in terms of working with all children. It sets out certain skills which practitioners ideally should have, in order to work with children and families. It describes the need for practitioners to use theory in order to reflect on their practice whilst meeting their own professional development needs. They also draw on the need to discuss issues with colleagues in order to reflect on situations and make changes to practice accordingly.

The early years teaching standards which have recently been developed by the National College for teaching and leadership (NCTL) (2013) also stress the importance of practitioners being able to reflect on their practice and to make changes to all areas of their work, in order to continue to improve practice across early years settings. Early years teachers are being acknowledged as being the right people to 'establish a culture of co-operative working ' with colleagues, families and other agencies involved with families and children. (NCTL 2013)

How can reflective practice help practitioners to change practice?

Reflective practice enables teams to focus on both the ethos and the everyday work of the setting, particularly in relation to inclusion issues. It assumes that through observation, discussion, and a willingness to work differently, teams can make changes to their practice in a positive way. It encourages practitioners to 'think outside of the box' about day to day issues that early years setting are continuously confronted with;  be that change in policy, the needs of a particular child or family or changing the layout of the setting. Reflective practice enables practitioners to develop their thinking about situations and helps to give practitioners 'a voice'. It gives groups of practitioners an 'excuse' to analyse what has gone before and to consider new ways of working in a more collaborative manner. (Pollard et.al 2002).

However there can be some challenges to reflective practice which may relate to assumptions and generalisations that practitioners make in relation to particular groups of people / children. Practitioners may have stereotypical views in relation to gender, culture, and spiritual beliefs which impede their ability to think more deeply about day to day issues.  These can sometimes arise out of people's own experience or out of ignorance and an unwillingness to learn and discover new information.    But once again open dialogue between sensitive practitioners can help everyone in a team to reach new understandings of once held, but out dated views.

Examples of reflective practice changing practice

Soon after taking leadership of a Foundation degree in early years, a course leader from Sheffield Hallam University was asked to go to a conference which the local authority was putting on for childminders, to give a presentation on the degree and to explain why it was so beneficial for practitioners. Towards the end of the presentation one of the childminders asked if the University would consider putting on a group on a Saturday for potential students. The course had previously run on an afternoon and early evening and the leader was not sure whether her colleagues would adapt or agree to working on a Saturday.  However she went back and discussed this with her line manager and the rest of the team and it was agreed that not only would they accept this large group of childminders (assuming that they met the entry criteria for the degree) but that they  would be taught in full days so that they did not need to come to University as often as previous students. At the same time as this local authority budgets, which had previously paid for supply cover for students when not at their setting, also dried up and so other practitioners were interested in Saturday sessions. This group of students is about to graduate and they have been one of the highest attaining   groups that have completed the degree and a large majority of students have moved onto the B A top up route. Without reflecting on our previous practice and seeing an opportunity for the childminders to study they may have never taken the course, moved on with their practice, and for some of them gain an outstanding OFSTED qualification.

A newly established children's centre in a multi cultural area noticed that many of the parents attending a carers and toddlers group were happy to sit around the edge of the room talking to each other, but they seemed to prefer to talk to one another rather than engaging with their children except at snack and singing time. Their children rarely played with any of the toys and neither did the parents give them any encouragement to play with the toys. Each session was followed by complaints from practitioners who felt that the group should stop; however, staff recognised that it was good to see parents talking together and that the group met the need for parents to support one another.  This dilemma was discussed after each session until the issue was raised at a staff meeting. At  the same time a practitioner in the centre was needing to carry out a piece of research - it was decided that the research would focus on how other cultures viewed the 'westernised' need to provide toys, in abundance,  for their children.  The results of that research demonstrated that, some parents did not see the need in buying lots of expensive toys as they had few toys when they were growing up. Around the same time an emerging interest in treasure baskets and heuristic play was being discovered (Goldschmeid and Jackson:  2003) in many early years settings so after further discussion the team decided to use  elements of heuristic play  for the group. Slowly the sessions began to change. Parents enjoyed playing with their children and gradually the parents started to play with their children. Staff in turn would produce activity sheets for parents giving them tips about how they could use items from around their houses to play with their children. Not only did the group continue to benefit the children but it also benefitted the children who had more stimulation at home.

Through both of these scenarios we see evidence of groups of practitioners and in the second case, parents reflecting on practice and making changes to practice in the light of certain situations.  Bother of these were inclusion issues - if the University had refused to put the degree on for the childminders it would have been turning away a large group of early years practitioners who were eager to learn more about working with young children. If the practitioners in the children's centre had not discovered why it was that some parents did not see the need for toys they would never have been introduced to the benefits of heuristic play and treasure baskets.


Businessballs (May 2006) Kolb's learning cycle,[online]  http://www.businessballs.com/kolblearningstyles.htm. LA 24.10.2013

Children's Workforce Development Council (2010) The common core of skills and knowledge, London, DCSF.

Department for Education, (2012) Early Years Foundation Stage, Cheshire. DFE.

Goldschmeid, E., & Jackson, S., (2003) People under three (2nd ed.) London, Taylor & Francis.

Early Education (2012) Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation, London, Early Education.

Jackson, A. (2010) Defining and Measuring Quality in Early Years Settings, in Reed, M., & Cannings, N., (eds.) Reflective Practice in the Early Years, London, Sage.

McLeod Sam (2010) Kolb - Learning Styles Cycle, Simply Psychology.

Mezirow, J, (2003) Transformative Learning as Discourse. Journal of transformative education 1 (1) ps. 58 - 63

National College for teaching and leadership (2013) Early years teaching standards [online]https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/early-years-teachers-standards. L A 23.10.2013..

Pollard, A, et al(2002) Reflective teaching: Effective and Evidence Informed Professional Practice, London, Continuum.

Rosen, J G (no date) Problem solving and reflective thinking: John Dewey, in Flower and Richard Young, [online], L A 24.10.2013

Schon, (1983) The Reflective Practitioner, New York. Basic books.

Siraj-Blatchford,I., Sylva,K., Muttock,S., Gilden, R and Bell, D. (2002) Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years. Research Report No. 356, DFES, London:Routledge.

Siraj-Blatchford, I. & Manni, L. (2007) Effective Leadership in the Early Years sector (the ELEYS study), Issues in practice series. London. University of London Institute of Education.

Unicef(1989) United  Nations  Convention on the Rights of the Child, [online]  http://www.unicef.org/crc/files/Rights_overview.pdf  L A 24.10.2013

Penny Borkett
Penny spent many years working as a teaching assistant in a variety of schools, and began her degree studies as a mature student. She went on to complete an MA whilst working as a Portage worker in a Children's Centre, and later took on the role of Children's Centre Co-ordinator. She is currently the Foundation Degree in Early Years course leader at Sheffield Hallam University.<br />Penny has written an article on diversity and inclusion in the early years, published in 'Good Practice in the Early Years' (ed: Janet Kay)
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