Working Conceptualization of Reflective Practice – Discussion

Introduction to “reflective practice” and a working
conceptualisation for discussion purposes
A work in progress – July 2011 – GAJE workshop
Research project: Encouraging reflective practice in a professional school: Developing
a conceptual model and sharing promising practices to support law student reflection
As a Community Leadership in Justice Fellow, I undertook an action research project at a
Canadian law school hoping to encourage the adoption of reflective practice as a core
competency for legal professionals. In the pages that follow, I set out some brief background
to explain the concept of “reflective practice”. (An Annotated Resource list is contained in the
Resource Kit for Reflective Practice and contains references for the literature cited below.)
The purpose of the working conceptualisation (which starts on page two) is to reconcile
different definitions and to establish a holistic framework for discussion purposes. I’ve set out
three key interrelated aspects of a reflective practice model based on what I’ve read in the
literature, learned from the eight law professors I formally interviewed, observed while
sojourning at the law school for an academic term and at legal education workshops, and from
my experience as a poverty law practitioner in a community legal clinic for 26 years. Several
of the professors I interviewed recommended a simpler working definition be developed—this
is a work-in-progress and the current draft is at the end of this short discussion paper.
How do you view “reflective practice”? Do you believe developing a “reflective practitioner”
(RP) conceptual model specifically for legal education would be helpful? How can we
encourage building reflective capacity and promoting the concept for law students? Can the
concept be simplified so it is quickly understood? As a faculty member, would you describe
yourself as a reflective practitioner? Do you model reflective practice for your students? How
does it or could it help you improve your teaching practice?
Context – Reflective practice is an important professional capacity and attribute
Faculty in medical and health disciplines, teaching and social work professions have explicitly
adopted reflection and reflective practice as essential attributes of professional competence,
although the definitions are diverse and often amorphous. The legal profession has also
begun to incorporate a notion of reflective practice both in law schools and in legal practice,
although we are at an early stage.
There is little academic literature promoting reflective practice as a component of legal
education in Canada. In a 1993 article about poverty law scholarship, Buchanan stressed that
lawyers should be “practising” critical theory, by becoming a “practicing theorist”, an aspect of
critical reflection which enriches Schön’s (1983) original notion of reflective practice.
Advocating for the encouragement of reflective practice, Macfarlane (1998, 2002, 2008) has
described reflective practice as a method to encourage the development of the new legal skills
required for mediation and alternative dispute resolution, and to help lawyers cope with the
ethical challenges presented by these new ways of practicing law. Rochette and Pue (2001)
argue that reflective practice helps meet evolving professional and societal demands which
include developing “responsiveness to change, flexibility and professional self-growth,”
contrasted with conventional legal education in “black letter legal rules” and doctrinal analysis.
In the field of clinical legal education, American educators have encouraged reflective
practice, principally through experiential learning opportunities, with reflection most often
fostered through learning journals. Sonsteg et al (2007-2008) in A Legal Education
Renaissance: A Practical Approach for the 21st Century extol the virtues of reflective teaching
and learning. Ogilvy, Wortham and Lerman et al (2007) place a great emphasis on law
students learning about reflective lawyering. Schwartz (2008) in his text Expert Learning for
Law Students stresses the role of reflection in the self-regulated learning cycle he
recommends for students. Similarly, Stuckey et al (2007) endorses the development of a
capacity for self-reflection while Neumann (1999) proposes six strategies to incorporate
Schön’s concept of reflective practice, including in a first year skills’ course in legal writing.
The movement to humanize legal education (Washburn Law Journal, 2008) and the field of
therapeutic jurisprudence also discuss the need for building a reflective capacity in law
students and thereby contributes to a more holistic model for reflective practice (Silver, 2007).
In the United Kingdom over the last decade, law teachers have been augmenting their
teaching strategies to develop law students as reflective practitioners with dedicated support
from the UK Centre for Legal Education (Hinett, 2002). Julian Webb (2006) uses the term
reflective practice to describe how to actualize Arthurs’ (1993) notion of humane
professionalism, and there are also favourable references to the concept in his earlier text
Teaching Lawyer’s Skills (Webb & Maughan, 1996). Some Australian law schools have
identified reflective practice as a desired and expected attribute of law graduates, and at least
one law school has proposed strategies to develop reflective capacity in the first year
curriculum (McNamara & Field, 2007).
That a galvanizing conception for RP is necessary seems self-evident. There is a growing
awareness that legal education must be enriched to nurture the kind of legal professionals that
our increasingly complex world requires. Professional knowledge is already multi-faceted,
and the constant need to learn new skills and keep abreast of substantive law changes is
challenging for lawyers. Practitioners require a range of skills, competencies and capacities
that continue to expand. The influential Carnegie Report – Educating Lawyers: Preparation
for the Profession of Law (Sullivan et al, 2007) identified a critical need to reform legal
education to integrate knowledge, skills and values while at law school. Developing a
reflective practice model could be a critical contributor to this need for integration. A Canadian
law school reforming their upper year curriculum has identified a “reflective approach” and a
reflective practice model as a key component of their three-pronged reform strategy which
also includes “outcomes-driven” and “integrative” approaches to learning.
An overview of the working definition
Reflective practice has been described and understood in many different ways in the literature
and in practice settings. It is important to establish a working definition to represent what it
means in the context of developing legal professionals. To begin to conceptualize it, I
incorporated three important aspects of developing reflective capacity. The first aspect is
based on the original “instrumental” model popularized by Donald Schön (1983) which
represents the importance of professional education including reflective practicums to help
students integrate theory and practice, and to encourage the habitual practice of learning from
experience for professionals.
The second and third aspects illustrate the importance of developing the skills of critical
reflection and self-reflection. The Venn diagram below with its three intersecting circles
symbolizes the need to integrate all three aspects to develop an “integrated” Reflective
Practitioner (IRP), An IRP is self-aware and can reflect on practice and critical theory as a
self-directed life-long learner, often engages in collaborative reflection, and takes action to
improve her/his professional practice. The benefits of developing a discipline of reflective
practice apply to every stage of professional development from the novice law school learner
through to the professional expert. The benefits also apply to all types of legal professionals
including law students, law faculty, lawyers in practice, and those who practice law in other
conventional and non-conventional ways (mediators,researchers, policy makers etc.)
The (conventional) reflective practitioner (RP)
In 1983, Donald Schön first coined the term reflective practitioner” in his seminal work The
Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. He described reflective practice
as “a dialogue of thinking and doing through which I become more skilful” (Schön, 1987, p.31).
Professionals must be helped to learn the “artistry” of their profession by progressively gaining
knowledge about how to deal with complexity, indeterminacy and value conflicts. They must
be able to apply technical knowledge in the “swampy lowlands” of actual practice – “confusing
messes.” The capacity to “reflect-in-action” and “reflect-on-action” develops professional
expertise through a rigorous and disciplined learning experience and builds reflective
judgement. Later authors have asserted that developing capacity for “anticipatory reflection”
before action is also crucial. This approach is synonymous with experiential, self-directed and
action learning. Reflection on experience deepens learning and increases resiliency and
effectiveness. At a minimum, this approach is intended to improve one’s technical practice by
integrating theory and practice, and knowledge and skill.
Critically reflective practitioner (CRP)
A second aspect of the model is developing skills at becoming critically reflective. This
includes the need to be constantly vigilant about unpacking assumptions and questioning our
frames of reference or “mental models.” Ideological critique, deconstruction, consciousnessraising, unmasking power and privilege, and creating emancipatory knowledge also exemplify
this aspect. A critically-reflective practitioner questions the status quo, understands law as a
social construct, is curious about alternative conceptions of the role of law, is aware of legal
pluralism, and engages in critical legal studies including poverty law scholarship, feminist and
critical race theory. Furthermore, when learners are exposed to “disorienting dilemmas”
(disturbing facts or information or critical theory that contradicts their earlier understanding),
critical reflection can support transformative learning and shifts in perspective. Critical
reflection appears to be strongly nurtured at the law school where I undertook my research,
and the impetus to increase a critically reflective stance underlies much of the current
curriculum reform. This type of reflection can tap into and support a nascent inclination for
social justice, developing a perspective on professional responsibility that includes a desire to
increase access to justice.
Self-reflective practitioner (SRP)
The third aspect of reflective practice is developing the capacity to be self-reflective.
Encouraging this capacity is fundamentally important to developing a personal vision or an
explicit philosophy of practice, and to integrate professional knowledge, skills and values.
This type of reflection fosters professional and personal integration. Self-awareness and a
capacity for self-regulation support ethical and moral development, and contribute to civility.
Self-knowledge and open-mindedness (“enlargement of mind”) help build intercultural
competence, and an ability to work productively and creatively with others, supporting
emotional and social intelligence. Furthermore, healthy self-reflection and self-care can help
foster a stable work-life balance, increase personal coping strategies, and support improved
emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health. Healthy self-reflection leads to increased selfefficacy and commitment to act on what one believes in. Reflection on learning and learning
needs nurtures self-directed learning which in turn will support a desire for life-long learning.
Being able to reflect on one’s strengths and weaknesses, to learn from constructive criticism,
and to develop new strategies are important outcomes of self-reflection.
The integrated reflective practitioner
A growing synthesis between all three aspects develops an “integrated” reflective legal
professional. It is possible to envision reflective activities helping to move one along a spiral
of learning – touching on instrumental, critical and self-reflective aspects. New perspectives
and actions are informed by this learning spiral.
Reflective practice becomes a way of being, supporting a life-long journey of learning,
professional growth and commitment to action. Reflective practitioners are committed to
making changes to their practice based on what they have learned through all three types of
reflective activity. Additionally, they reflect in community, subjecting their reflection to scrutiny
by peers.
Additional resources to inform our discussion
I developed mind maps to explain why reflection and reflective practice are important learning
and professional development tools for law students and legal professionals. (See Mind Map #
1 – Potential Outcomes of Reflection and Reflective Practice in the Resource Kit for Reflective
Practice.) I also used one to organize the multiplicity of potential methods to encourage
student reflection (See Mind Map # 2). There are many opportunities at law school to
encourage reflection from the initial application process, to orientation, and on through to
graduation (See Mind Map # 3). A pervasive approach to encouraging reflective practice
would be most beneficial. In my view, the learning environment at law school is very rich and
the potential for fostering more reflection is robust.
To demonstrate the complexity and depth of the concept, I compiled a collection of quotes
about reflection and reflective practice that can be found in the Resource Kit. To place
reflection and reflective practice in the context of adult and higher education terminology, I
have also developed a Glossary of Terms. The PowerPoint presentation provides an
overview of some of the findings of the research project including some of the ideas and
practices to encourage law student reflection that were shared by the eight professors I
A simplified definition:
A legal professional who:
 Learns in action and is constantly improving his/her technical competence through
reflection on experience and action and learning from his/her practice
 Has the capacity, knowledge and desire necessary for critical reflection (in the many
manifestations which could include ideological critique, critical thinking, unpacking
assumptions and mental models, alternative conceptions about the role of law, enlarged
conception of “access to justice,” critical legal studies including poverty law scholarship,
feminist and critical race theory, legal pluralism, etc.)
 Is self-reflective (implying a personal vision, a philosophy of practice, personal and
professional integration, growing emotional and social intelligence, ongoing ethical and
moral development, self-aware, self-directed, self-regulating, able to articulate one’s core
values, etc.)
 Reflects in community, and can engage in collaborative reflection.
Prepared by: Michele Leering, 2009 LFO Community Leadership in Justice Fellow &
Executive Director/Lawyer with Community Advocacy & Legal Centre, Belleville, ON, Canada