As training professionals we know that reflection is a good thing and we encourage our learners to do it. Needless to say, we also use reflection as a development tool for ourselves; right? Well, maybe not as much as we should. Jo Ayoubi investigates.
Why is reflection so important?
The science behind reflection is compelling. We know intuitively that we learn by experience and also that we learn from our mistakes. But research is increasingly telling us that without the process of actively thinking about those experiences, and questioning ourselves about what they mean, learning doesn’t really happen. What gets us from experience to understanding is reflection. With the aid of a simple question like 'what did I do well in that situation?', 'what could I do differently', we can make small but cumulative steps to doing things better.
Reflection also helps to provide deeper learning by looking at situations through a different lens and by asking yourself searching questions that challenge one’s assumptions about the world around you.We also have a tendency to focus on the negative. An exercise in reflection or self-assessment provides a structured and safe way to think about the positive as well.
Levels of reflection
Reflection can take many forms and encompass many activities. Working with a coach – where the coach guides your reflection through questioning – is one of the most effective ways of learning through reflection. And self-assessments can be a powerful, structured way of helping learners to think about their effectiveness in the activities that they carry out as part of their role.
At a simpler level, creating learning logs and writing down experiences helps to clarify what actually happened, to understand one's own interpretations of those events and then putting a meaning to them. And even five minutes to yourself at the end of your working day can help to put what you've done into context. It's easy to remember what's just happened and so it’s a great opportunity to think about what’s worked, what hasn’t and what you can do differently (or more of) tomorrow.
The progress principle
Reflection also links with another critical element of the inner work life; the ability to make small changes and achieve small wins – called 'the progress principle'. This simple but powerful concept is based on research that shows that the most important factor in boosting people’s motivation is in making progress in meaningful work.
In studies with project teams in numerous US companies, volunteers were asked to diarise their best days and their worst days. It was found that the most common event triggering a 'best day' was any progress in the individual’s work or that of their team. The most common event triggering a 'worst day' was a setback. It seems obvious, but it’s something we probably don’t pay enough attention to. In particular, small incremental achievements were found to be just as effective as achieving large or significant goals in boosting inner work life.
So, being able to reflect on our achievements can be a powerful learning activity and motivation booster. Framing setbacks as opportunities for learning is something we encourage learners to do but, unless we provide them with the opportunities to reflect, they will not be able to do the reframing required.
Making time for reflection
And for us in learning and development, reflection can be a powerful, free tool for developing our skills, confidence and motivation. A piece of paper, a pencil, a mug of tea and a quiet five minutes at the end of the day could make all the difference.
Jo Ayoubi is managing director of Track Surveys, a company that specialises in 360 Degree Feedback and assessment tools for UK and international organisations