08 November 2013

...Writing to Learn

This post aims to share my growing awareness of the value of writing as a reflective learning tool. I start by sharing my own early experiences and my feelings about writing. Then I briefly discuss a current view of reflective professional practice, before sharing the importance of self-reflection and 'writing to learn' - particularly for those of you working in a professional field.

I've never been one who keeps an up-to-date, intimately detailed diary of my life. And that's despite a number of genuine attempts to commit to doing so over the years. My failure has not been because I have nothing to say, or because the intimate details might be too gruesome, provocative or felonious... It's simply this: I find that writing is hard work. 

When I was at school, I found that having to communicate my knowledge by writing an essay was an unnecessarily tortuous process, which did little justice to my true understanding of a subject. But whether, like me, you find it hard, or if you write so prolifically that you're visiting Paperchase for a new journal every month, harnessing the writing process in a deliberate, critically reflective way can help you to make sense of the complex situations you encounter from time to time. 

We know a great deal about 'reflecting' on events - reflective practice is a well documented approach to learning, which can help professionals understand and deal with the messiness and unevenness of their experiences...

Effective reflective practitioners:
Look forwards as well as backwards – reviewing and projecting 
Focus on strengths rather than deficits – amplifying positives
Embed reflection in their practice – continually improving
Move beyond description – learning to analyse
And, I would argue, effective reflective writing is undertaken with a clear purpose in mind. That purpose might be to document your professional development, to record your successes, or simply to offload... But the underlying purpose is to develop deeper understanding.

Developing understanding is of particular importance in a professional field. Teachers, for example, are continually faced with dilemmas - it's par for the course in a dynamic classroom environment. And it is important for them to clarify their thinking, to be aware of assumptions and underlying issues, and to build on their understanding of the situations they encounter. Reflective writing demands that we re-conceptualize and articulate our understanding of a subject in a way that just mulling something over doesn't require.

Consider this. Everything you do - your actions - are based on judgements you make. In turn, the judgements you make in a particular situation are informed by your understanding of that situation. Your understanding is governed by the knowledge you posses, and that comes from your experiences, education, upbringing, relationships et cetera... So, reflection on your actions must involve a level of honest self-reflection - exploration of your values and beliefs, and how they are relevant. Writing to learn is very much to do with your personal agendas, and depends on your willingness to actively and honestly question yourself.

One final thought; you should know that reflective writing takes practice. All useful or important skills do. Unpicking meanings and developing new understanding of complex situations gets easier the more you do it. And it is a skill worthwhile developing as it can transform professional thinking, identify and challenge ineffective practices, and remove barriers to improvement... and isn't that what best practice is all about?

References and further reading

Bolton, G. (2010) Reflective Practice: Writing & professional development (3rd ed.) London: Sage.

Ghaye, T (2011) Teaching and Learning Through Reflective Practice (2nd ed). Oxon: Routledge.

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Regards, DJA