Taking a longer view: the reflective practices of higher education leaders

Dr Neil Raven wrote an intriguing article in our 2011 summer edition of Engage on the role that reflective diaries can play in leadership development. After 5 years of exploring this concept, Dr Raven shares with us further insights into the reflective practices of higher education leaders.

Neil Master

The insights for the study I discussed in the Engage were drawn from first-hand experience. However, I was also keen to learn about the reflective approaches adopted by others. While there is a growing recognition of the value of reflection in professional development, there have been few empirical studies in this field.  Yet, such research has the potential to afford insights into practices that could have wider application. To discover more, in-depth interviews were conducted with nine leaders from a variety of higher education institutions and supporting agencies who were engaged in some form of reflective practice. These revealed the practitioners to be using one of three broad methods of reflection.

The first method involved holding ‘reflective conversations’. In each case, certain individuals were approached with the aim of ‘engaging them’ in a conversation.  These individuals were selected because they were considered capable of providing ‘the best response’ to a particular issue, as well as being judged ‘trustworthy’. In addition, reflective conversations tended to be ‘iterative’ in nature, with ‘further feedback’ sought on subsequent occasions. The reciprocity of this arrangement was also discussed. The interviewees would take their turn to provide feedback on subjects broached by colleagues.

The second reflective method made use of notebooks. These were preferred to computer-based word packages because of their portability, and the immediacy with which ideas and thoughts could be captured without the delay of having to switch on a machine and enter a password. In addition, entries were structured. Initial descriptions were followed by ‘some form of interpretation’, or attempt to comprehend and analyse an experience. Moreover, entries would be returned to, reviewed and, on occasions, added to.

Files or folders formed the basis of the third approach. These acted as repositories for reflective thoughts that were initially scribbled down on pieces of paper. Generally, a number of folders were kept, with each dedicated to a specific theme or project. Folders would also be revisited and, in some instances, their subject matter reclassified in the light of new insights.

These variations are best explained by Cooper and Stevens (2006), who talk of practices being honed to meet the needs and circumstances of the individual. This interpretation is underpinned by the detailed findings from the interviews. These revealed differences amongst those adopting the same broad approach, including in ‘the number of phases and intricacy of the processes involved’.

Yet, although methods and approaches may have differed, the nine interviewees were certain of the benefits to derive from reflective practice.  The process helped to nurture a sense of confidence in their ability to manage and lead.  Although time had to be set aside to engage in reflective practice, all were convinced of the ‘net gains’, with the process providing a chance to critically assess ideas, make connections and to ‘take a longer view’. A more detailed account of this study can be found in Reflective Practice. If you are interested in the details of this study, or wish to explore the application of these findings, please contact me.

Dr Neil Raven’s specialism is in research and evaluation services in the areas of outreach and widening access, lifelong learning, and post-compulsory education.

More information 

  • Reflective practice is part of the post-programme activities for gaining an LF Fellows award, the post programme development that turns the experience of a LF programme into tangible evidence of effective learning and continue to receive the nurture and inspiration that leaders need. For more on LF Fellowships, please click here.