As professionals, it’s important that we don’t see obtaining our professional qualifications as the end of our development journey, especially as we are still likely to have many decades of work ahead of us after obtaining the letters after our names. Because of this, our professions strongly emphasise that we continue developing beyond qualification, with increasing encouragement for learning over our lifetimes (‘lifelong learning’). A critical component of effective learning is identifying the goals of your desired development, which offer a reference point to compare your introspection, action and progress against.
As we race towards the end of the year, the time for performance appraisals is rapidly approaching again. They offer us the opportunity to reflect on our performance and development, as well as consider what we’d like to do differently in future. In this vein, this article explores the value of professional reflection, drawing from approaches followed across a number of professions. It considers Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and possible activities, and the shift from rules to principles and the increased flexibility for and responsibility on professionals to manage their professional development. Read more to explore different models of ‘reflective practice’, possible drawbacks, and practical frameworks to use for reflecting in a CPD context.
Our follow-on article on the topic of professional reflection ("Getting Value from Reflective Practice Discussions") then delves into feedback and discussion with others about our development, including examples of possible questions in a reflective practice discussion (or diffraction discussion, as at least one professional body calls it).
Continuing Professional Development
While different professions will have different guidelines on what is included in official Continuing Professional Development (CPD) activity, here are some general examples, both formal and informal:
From Rules to Principles
Across a number of countries, we have seen a broad societal shift towards individual freedom, choice and flexibility (combined with more personal responsibility). Coinciding with this is the trend away from rules towards principles, with guidance and direction provided by institutions, regulators, and professions, rather than explicit diktats. Within this context, Continuing Professional Development requirements are moving away from being hours-based rules towards more outcomes-based frameworks which allow professionals to tailor their development to their specific roles and needs i.e. they give members of professions more freedom around, but also greater responsibility for, their ongoing learning and development. Professionals are increasingly responsible for identifying their own professional goals and objectives, including where their career might evolve and which areas of their work or fields they need to develop knowledge in. Many professions recommend that their members draw up a plan of activities and development opportunities for this purpose, perhaps keeping a journal of their activities and outcomes.
The problems of real-world practice do not present themselves to practitioners as well-formed structures. Indeed, they tend not to present themselves as problems at all but as messy, indeterminate situations. Often, situations are problematic in several ways at once. These indeterminate zones of practice – uncertainty, uniqueness, and value conflict – escape the canons of technical rationality. It is just these indeterminate zones of practice, however, that practitioners and critical observers of the professions have come to see with increasing clarity… as central to professional practice.”
To maximise effective learning, a number of professions actively encourage the activity of “reflective practice”. These include the healthcare/medical, teaching/education, and actuarial and accounting professions – please let us know of others you’ve encountered (or are members of) in the comments.
Dr Linda Finlay, in “Reflecting on ‘Reflective Practice’”, explained that “reflective practice is understood as the process of learning through and from experience towards gaining new insights of self and/or practice (Boud et al 1985; Boyd and Fales, 1983; Mezirow, 1981, Jarvis, 1992)”. She expanded that this often involves examining assumptions of everyday practice, critically evaluating our responses to situations in order to gain new understanding and improve our future practice (as part of the process of lifelong learning) i.e. our reflection must lead to developmental insight and drive a change rather than being purely cerebral.
In the professional setting, reflection means assessing the values and theories that inform our actions at work. In assessing those values and theories, and questioning our experiences, we are able to identify why we act in such a way and how we deliver our work. This understanding can in turn help us shape our learning and future development, by allowing us to make better informed decisions.”
It is referred to as ‘reflective practice’ because it is deliberate: experience alone does not necessarily lead to learning. Another important element of reflection is consciously considering our emotions, intentions, actions and responses, and using this information to reach a deeper level of understanding.
In a teaching context, professor of education Barbara Larrivee argued that reflective practice allows professionals to modify their skills to suit specific contexts and situations, and eventually to invent new strategies. This mirrors our previous discussion on learning curves, where individuals at more advanced stages, such as ‘Proficient’ or ‘Master’ in the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition (1980), shift from following recipes to improvising their own to reach the intended goal, perhaps intuitively i.e. application of higher-order thinking. Modifying our skills and behaviours is helpful in leadership contexts too – where, for example, coaching can help individuals understand their self-limiting reliance on preferred ways of reacting and responding, and instead establish new behaviours appropriate to the circumstances. Part of reflection and transforming ourselves is uncovering our assumptions, beliefs and values which underlie the ways in which we see the world i.e. our mental maps. Great reflection allows us to see the current way things work as informed by the past and by political and power dynamics (rather than as fixed) and enables us to challenge these customary practices and conventional arrangements within our professional contexts.
Reflective practice is seen as a way to promote development of autonomous, qualified and self-directed professionals, as well as effective professional teams, including in a healthcare context, says Tony Ghaye, author of “Developing the Reflective Healthcare Team”*.
In her article “Embracing Reflective Practice”, Samantha Davies identified some limitations of reflective practice, including the time it can take, how self-evaluation may be uncomfortable for some, and how some practitioners may not understand the reflective process or be confused about which experiences or situations to reflect on. And, in “12 Reflective practice prompts for health professionals” Anne Marie Liebel references literature reviews which point out conflicting interpretations and applications of the term ‘reflective practice’, as well as variation in how it is facilitated and assessed in medical education and pharmacy education.
With these in mind, the remainder of this article aims to provide examples of practical frameworks for CPD and reflection on our professional experiences. We now turn to these examples of models of reflection.
Models of Professional Development & Reflection
Given the cyclical nature of experiencing situations, reflecting on them, and taking action (in the situation itself, or in new ones), there is a natural alignment with the control cycle, a key element underlying actuarial practice, for example. In our article Professional & Personal Development Cycles, we set out how that model can be applied to technical/analytical situations as well as strategic/qualitative situations involving interpretation, communication and ethics. Its main steps are: (i) identifying and specifying the problem, (ii) developing and implementing the solution, and (iii) monitoring and responding to experience, and it applies well to professional development too. Cycles of professional development support us in our careers i.e. deciding where we need to improve, doing it, and then assessing our progress. Reflective practice is particularly helpful in the monitoring and responding step, and also informs the other steps in the ongoing cycle.
Other innate elements of actuarial training are helpful in reflective practice too, such as critical thinking, sensitivity testing, scenario planning, root-cause analysis, detecting patterns and making connections between different topics.
An example from the Actuarial Society of South Africa of steps in the cycle of professional development:
1) List the various professional roles you perform plus any new areas you want to grow into
2) Analyse what capabilities you need for these roles and determine where you need further development
3) Select and carry out development activities
4) Look back on the progress made or the outcome of each activity
5) Discuss your reflections with another professional person, mentor or coach [called a ‘diffraction discussion’ by that Society]
They emphasise too that the last step leads to the beginning of a “new cycle of planning, acting and analysing”.
Graham Gibbs’ model (1998) offers a more detailed view of the reflection and evaluation elements of these development cycles, offering a number of questions we can ask as we reflect:
A further technique which can help when reflecting is looking for emerging patterns and the connections between them, and asking ourselves what the patterns and connections mean to us. For example, which ones are most important, which we are proud of, which ones worry us, and how we might build on them or manage the concerns.
Our follow-on article on the topic of professional reflection ("Getting Value from Reflective Practice Discussions") shifts tack from models of reflective practice to the benefit of feedback and discussion with others about our development. It shares practical examples of questions to explore in a reflective practice (or diffraction) discussion.
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