More reflections on ‘reflective learning’

Posted on October 2, 2010


I contend that there is nothing new in the general concept of reflective practice or reflective learning based on experience involving the senses. That, in fact, much of the more recent crop of theories falling under the heading of reflective practice harks back to an illiberal educational tradition going back 2,000 years and more than to the ideas of more prominent theorists of the more recent past.

In this I find myself in broad agreement with Brenda Cohen who argued in 1969 (in Educational Thought: an introduction) that there are basically two contrasting educational traditions. She places, as an example, Plato on the one hand and Rousseau, Froebel and Dewey on the other.

These two sides, she contends, represent “freedom as opposed to authority, experience as opposed to knowledge, liberal as opposed to ‘therapeutic’ aims in education, specialisation as opposed to integration of studies, and the issue of equality”.

It is also my contention that all thinking is, by its nature, reflective, being the result of present or past stimuli which are reflected upon. All learning therefore involves experience of one or other sort followed by reflection on that experience. Precisely how this occurs and what neurological or other processes may be followed remains an area of debate, except for the many lifestyle and management consultants such as Science for Success ( which promote marketable certainties where scientific uncertainties exist.

However, the addition of the adjective, “reflective” to the noun, thought, implies thinking of a different or “higher” order. Although there seems to be a considerable muddle in much of the literature, particularly those in the management training area, reflective thinking usually implies experiential learning (ie: learning through practice and reflecting on the practice concurrently and/or subsequently). The crux here is that the thinking be done in an organised, methodical way.

This implies — correctly, I think — that much thinking by perhaps a majority of people, is disorganised, shallow and even, to a degree, random (the “grasshopper mind”). Yet it is evident that organised patterns of thinking and methods of approach to analysis can be learned and that whatever neurological processes that take place to enable thinking can be trained to be more efficient. So there has been, particularly in the last century or more, a concerted attempt by some governments, by military establishments and by industry to discover a single formula — a “one size fits all” — method to coach the electorate, troops or workforce to behave in desired ways.

To a large extent, this approach is based on the tabula rasa (blank slate) idea which Paulo Freire (in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970) called “banking education”. According to this approach, students are largely empty vessels into which knowledge, morals and attitudes have to be deposited.

On a national scale, this form of attempted mass manipulation reached one of its modern apogees in South Africa during the time that the behavioural psychologist Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd was prime minister. (see: Unfinished Business – South Africa, apartheid & truth). He established a secret research group and structured the national schooling system in a manner that he hoped would produce an infinitely malleable population. This was a rigidly hierarchical approach which demanded that all reflection be directed towards satisfying the demands of the power elite.

I contend that this approach is merely an extreme version of much of the more sophisticated reflective learning promoted today; that the theories of David Kolb ( and developments ( such as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) are also narrow in their focus, often, as in the case of Kolb, overly academic, and are designed to serve elitist interests

In the intensely competitive global marketplace and among the national political entities that house its corporations, there is an obvious desire to discover ways and means to create the most efficient and cost-effective workforce possible while assuring, if not political support, at least docility among the electorates.

We should all, always ask about every programme, policy or proposal: who profits? Who, in the final analysis, benefits from this? To do anything less than this is to become a cog in a machine designed and operated by others.

* Originally published 03/2007

Posted in: Archive - 2007