The difficulty of defining reflection

The difficulty of defining reflection

My recent contribution to the ELT Journal Key Concepts feature (Anderson, 2020a) provided an opportunity to investigate the concept of reflection. Since the 1980s, reflection has become one of the most popular buzzwords in practitioner development, including teacher education, despite Dewey’s (1910/1933) much earlier discussion of its importance, which, while frequently cited retrospectively, received comparatively little attention at the time (see Figure 1). Quite appropriately given the topic, my article went through 17 drafts over almost 2 years, as I explored both the vast literature on reflection and my own understanding of what it is, what it isn’t, and how it relates to other constructs and phenomena with which it is often linked (such as ‘thought’, ‘reflective practice’, ‘teacher research’ and ‘criticality’), all with the patient, helpful support of Richard Smith, the Key Concepts editor.

Figure 1: Google Ngram for ‘teacher reflection’, see here. Also see here how this is dwarfed when compared with ‘reflective practice’, evidence of Schön’s huge impact.

The paragraph in the piece that received the most attention is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the one where I attempted to define reflection. As this was a Key Concept piece, rather than expressing a personal opinion, I wanted to produce a definition that could encompass and acknowledge the wide variety of understandings of reflection that have resonated with teachers and teacher educators over the last four decades. This is arguably an impossible task for reasons that should become evident below, yet one I wanted to, at least, attempt. A second challenge involved the intended readership. Part of the brief of Key Concepts is to ensure that the writing style used is as accessible as possible for non-academic readers, with meanings that are non-technical and concepts that build on these transparently. A final challenge related to the need to keep both length and references to a minimum – I was not able to include all of the sources that went into the definition, nor to expand upon the features involved in the definition in more detail. This blog post serves as a supplement to the piece, both documenting some of my more personal observations, as well as concerns with how I have treated the subject. Before reading on, you might want to read the Key Concept piece itself (click here, open access), as the discussion below builds on it.

Two traditions, one catalyst

Having spent time investigating Schön’s construct of reflection-in-action (Anderson, 2019, 2020b), I was very much aware of a potential personal bias in my understanding of reflection, so I began my research with extensive reading, both of well cited authors on reflection, and discussions within (language) teacher education. At least within teacher education, I noticed  two rather different traditions: one Deweyan, comparatively scientific, and frequently rational, and the other Schönian, unmistakably professional and—at least initially—more intuitive. Fendler (2003) discusses these two traditions in detail, yet omits to identify an important similarity: both Dewey (e.g., 1933, p. 12) and Schön (e.g., 1983, p. 50) emphasise the importance of experientially-informed uncertainty or doubt leading to perplexity or puzzlement as the catalyst for reflection. Reflection is therefore fundamentally practitioner-centred in this sense, always starting with (in our case) the teacher’s agenda, rather than anyone else’s assumptions regarding what the teacher should attend to. Think both of ‘applied science’ models of teacher education that are frequently argued to be inappropriate, insufficient, or ineffective (see, e.g., Kennedy, 1987; Wallace, 1991; Korthagen, 2017; and my post here), and the agendas (personal, interpersonal and prescriptive) that line managers may sometimes bring to a lesson observation or teacher appraisal, either consciously or unconsciously, and the negative impact that such agendas may have).

Three features of reflection: stimulus, process and outcome

As I compared different understandings of reflection in the literature, I noticed three key features, evident particularly in the most durable discussions of it (e.g., Boud et al. 1985; Dewey 1910/1933; Schön, 1983, 1987; Shulman, 1987; van Manen 1991; Zeichner, 1981):  the stimulus, the process and the outcome of reflection:

  • Personal experience is usually seen as the stimulus, or raw material, of reflection (Boud et al., 1985; Fendler, 2003; Shulman, 1987), much more often than received or scientific knowledge (Fendler, 2003), especially experience that causes doubt or perplexity (Dewey, 1910; Mann & Walsh, 2013; Schön, 1983).
  • The process of reflection typically involves conscious, usually evaluative, and sometimes critical consideration of one’s practices and/or beliefs (van Manen, 1991; Walsh & Mann, 2015), what Dewey calls “active, persistent and careful consideration” of beliefs or “supposed” knowledge (1910, p. 6), sometimes through attention to specific problems (Dewey, 1933; Zeichner, 1981), although, in Schön’s writing (compare 1983, p. 56 and pp. 62-63) descriptions of this process seem to vary from more rapid responsive reflection to more sustained awareness involving “on-the-spot experiment[s]” (1983, p. 63), what I have called “micro-improvisation” during interactive teaching (Anderson, 2019, p. 14).
  • Finally, the expected outcome of reflection, particularly in teacher education, is learning of some sort (Shulman, 1987), especially new understandings (Boud et al., 1985; Fendler, 2003; Shulman, 1987), better judgement (van Manen, 1991), or an ability to take greater responsibility for one’s future choices (Evans & Policella, 2000; Ross & Bondy, 1996). It is this final feature, the formative impact of reflection that many authors have suggested makes it an important element of effective teaching (e.g., Farrell, 2015; Stronge, 2007; Mann & Walsh, 2017) and an essential component of teacher education programmes (Zeichner, 1981; Zeichner & Liston, 1987) – its ability to foster learning which is both situated in, and emerges from, the practitioner’s own practice and challenges. As such, it is sustainable, fostering the “power to go on growing”, as Dewey put it many years ago (1904, p. 15).

To return to the impossible task, I wanted to combine these three elements  into a single, clear, one-sentence definition of reflection. My final choice is rather cumbersome in its structure but acknowledges most of the above:

Reflection is conscious, experientially-informed thought, at times involving aspects of evaluation, criticality, and problem-solving, and leading to insight, increased awareness, and/or new understanding. (Anderson, 2020a, p. 1)

Concerns with the definition

I still have several concerns with this definition including whether I could have made the ‘catalyst’ element that Dewey and Schön refer to clearer, and whether I should have explicitly stated ‘learning’ in the outcome element (it was present in earlier drafts), or whether this is clear in the three outcomes mentioned?

A third, deeper concern relates to my use of the rather equivocal term ‘critical’ in the definition. In teacher education, some of us use the phrase ‘critical reflection’ to refer to self-questioning within the Schönian tradition. However, there is another, more outwardly focused understanding of critical reflection, within ‘transformative pedagogy’ (e.g., Liu, 2015; Mezirow, 1998), where it refers to critique of perceived unjust socio-political structures, organisations and conventions, and advocates change within the Freirean critical pedagogy tradition. Thus, I took the decision to include a footnote after ‘critical’, where I referred the reader to Banegas and Villacañas de Castro’s (2016) Key Concept on this theme, which attempts to link all these different understandings of ‘criticality’ together, in part through ‘critical thinking’, another rather slippery term. However, I am still (personally) unsure about the relationship between these understandings of ‘reflection’. The reflexive (inwardly-focused) criticality that Schön proposes might also cause me to question the extent to which I can be certain about my personal views of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’, either in pedagogy or the wider world. In Schön’s words, “radical critique cannot substitute for … critical self-reflection” (1983, p. 290). Criticality, in this sense, must first and foremost cause me to be aware of, and critical towards, any views I seek to impose on others, and to try to understand them as part of who I am and part of the habitus (to borrow Bourdieu’s term) that I embody. As Edge puts it, through two key questions that we may ask ourselves as teacher educators:

“What difference does it make to the teacher education that I offer that it is I who offer it? What difference does offering this teacher education make to me as a teacher educator?” (Edge, 2012, ix, italics in original)

The metaphor of reflection

In my attempts to try to make sense of reflection, I also considered the extent to which our understanding of it derives from the verb at its root (to reflect), and its ‘literal’ meaning, to describe the act of light being ‘cast back’. This seems to be true – at least at first glance.

Firstly, the act of reflection always requires the presence of what we might call a ‘reflective artefact’ (the mirror or other surface implicit in the act) – a tool of some kind to provide access to the necessary insight. In the world of teacher education, this can vary greatly from more literal reflective artefacts (e.g., a camera for video self-observation, a photograph of one’s boardwork, or even a real mirror used by a trainee teacher to practise a future lesson), to written ones (e.g., a diary or self-evaluation pro forma), and even to people (e.g., a critical friend or mentor).


Secondly, the verb ‘reflect’ can invoke one of two acts: looking at oneself (one’s ‘self’), or looking back in time, and these can be quite different, one relating primarily to identity (reflexivity), the other to memory (retrospectivity), with each invoking a different reflective question: Who am I? versus What happened? While both of these are potential cues for reflection, it is only when they are combined that we get the more recognisable (retroflexive, if you like) act: What did I do?, Why did I do it?, Could I have done it differently? or, as I sometimes wonder after one of my less successful lessons: Did I actually do anything at all?

Yet there is one element of the meaning of the verb when used to refer to (cognitive) reflection that does not seem to be present in the ‘literal’ meaning at all, nor is it very clear in my definition above (although it is implicit there, I think). Paradoxically, it’s the most commonly understood meaning in everyday use: that of reflection as extended thought. Dictionaries define ‘reflect’ as, for example, “think deeply or carefully about”. Yet light reflection is instantaneous, so why should this be? Is it because, we assume that the act of looking back, or inward, necessarily requires more extended thought (a claim that Schön might have contested), or is it simply that the origins of the two verbs are independent, as two separate uses of the prefix ‘re’ and the verb ‘flectere’, which simply means ‘to bend (back)’ in Latin? Irrespective of the origins, it seems clear that the ‘literal’ meaning has been co-opted, absorbed even, into the figurative meaning, to describe a process that is both reflexive and retrospective, and assumed therefore, to be extended.

Linguistic relativism?

This got me thinking about other languages, and whether ‘reflection’ only really holds its power as a concept in English, or possibly Latin languages. In Russian, for example, the verb used to describe light reflection (отражать) is rarely used to describe thought; the mental process of reflection would more often be described using размышлять or perhaps раздумывать, both of which derive from verbs which relate only to thought, and imply—as the dictionary definition above does—careful, considered thought; meditation, or pondering – as such, the meaning is subtly different, the metaphor absent. I’ve also been informed that it would not be possible to use the same verb in Finnish, Hindi, Odia or Turkish either.

What about other languages? Is reflection the same thing when you think about it in Arabic, Cantonese or Kiswahili, for example? Or were Sapir and Whorf right after all? Comments are welcome below.


Despite all this research, I still can’t profess to fully understand reflection, either what it is in me as a teacher, or how I might define it to others. It’s definitely many things, the majority of which seem to have some things in common. And I hope I have identified some of these above, even if I may have included others that I don’t need, or perhaps you don’t need. All are, at best, potential, contingent components of the fuzzy core of helpful thought.


Anderson, J. (2019). In search of reflection-in-action: An exploratory study of the interactive reflection of four experienced teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 86, 1-17.

Anderson, J. (2020a). Key concepts in ELT: Reflection. ELT Journal, 74, 1-4 (advanced access).

Anderson, J. (2020b). Interactive reflection. English Teaching Professional, 127, 4-6.

Banegas, D. & Villacañas de Castro, L. S. (2016). Key concepts in ELT: Criticality. ELT Journal, 70(4), 455-457.

Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (1985). Promoting reflection in learning: A model. In D. Boud, R. Keogh, and D. Walker (Eds.), Reflection: Turning experience into learning. East Brunswick, N.J.: Nichols.

Dewey, J. (1904). The relation of theory to practice in education. The third NSSE yearbook (Part 1). Bloomington, IL: Public School Publishing.

Dewey, J. (1910/1933). How We Think: A Restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (1st and 2nd editions respectively). Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.

Edge, J. (2012). The reflexive teacher educator in TESOL: Roots and Wings. New York: Routledge.

Evans, J. F., & Pollicella, E. (2000). Changing and growing as teachers and learners: A shared journey. Teacher Education Quarterly, 27(3), 55–70.

Farrell, T. S. C. (2015). Promoting teacher reflection in second language education: A framework for TESOL professionals. New York: Routledge.

Fendler, L. (2003). Teacher reflection in a hall of mirrors: Historical influences and political reverberations. Educational Researcher, 32(3), 16-25.

Kennedy, M. M. (1987). Inexact sciences: Professional education and the development of expertise. Review of Research in Education, 14, 133-167.

Korthagen, F. (2017). Inconvenient truths about teacher learning: Towards professional development 3.0.

Liu, K. (2015). Critical reflection as a framework for transformative learning in teacher education. Educational Review, 67(2), 135-157.

Mann, S. & Walsh, S. (2013). RP or ‘RIP’: A critical perspective on reflective practice.

Mann, S. & Walsh, S. (2017). Reflective practice in English language teaching: Research-based principles and practices. New York: Routledge.

Mezirow, J. (1998). On critical reflection. Adult Education Quarterly 48(3), 185-198.

Ross, D., & Bondy, E. (1996). The continuing reform of a university teacher education program: A case study. In K. Zeichner, S. Melnick, & M. L. Gomez (Eds.), Currents of reform in preservice teacher education (pp. 62–79). New York: Teachers College Press.

Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Schön, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Towards a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1-22.

Stronge, J. H. (2007). Qualities of effective teachers (2nd edition). Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

van Manen, M. (1991). The tact of teaching: The meaning of pedagogical thoughtfulness. New York: State University of New York Press.

Wallace, M.J. 1991. Training foreign language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walsh, S. & Mann, S. (2015). Doing reflective practice: A data-led way forward. ELT Journal, 69(4), 351-362.

Zeichner, K. M. & Liston, D. P. (1987). Teaching student teachers to reflect. Harvard Educational Review 56(1), 23-48.

Zeichner, K. M. 1981. Reflective teaching and field-based experience in teacher education. Interchange 12/4: 1-22.


4 thoughts on “The difficulty of defining reflection

  1. Reblogged this on Jumal Ahmad and commented:
    Penelitian saya adalah tentang Refleksi dan saya sangat bungah mendapatkan tulisan dari Anderson tentang definisi Refleksi. Yah, sepertinya sejak zaman Dewey sampai sekarang pengetian dam definisi Refleksi terus berkembang. Teman-teman yang punya minat yang sama tentang Refleksi sila membaca ulasannya.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s