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Reflective Practice – A Concept for Practitioners Interested in Constant Improvement!

October 24, 2018 2:32 AM | Deven Wisner

Reflective Practice – A Concept for Practitioners Interested in Constant Improvement! Let Me Show You How!

Tiffany Smith, Ph.D.

University of North Carolina at Greensboro


*Note, anything underlined you can CLICK ON to learn more!

 Who am I, and Why Do You Care?!

My name is Tiffany Smith and I am the Senior Evaluation Specialist in the Office of Assessment, Evaluation, and Research Services at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. That’s a lot to say! What’s important about who I am is that I am an evaluator as well as an educator and researcher on evaluation. For the past four years I have spent hours in the classroom preaching the benefits of the concept of “reflective practice” in the evaluation field and beyond. Similarly, my dissertation surrounded reflective practice, my current efforts toward training and research on interpersonal effectiveness in evaluation are undergirded by it, and my growth and development has been all thanks to the concept itself operating in my daily life. But, reflective practice can seem like a mystical and nebulous concept for practitioners and scholars alike. Let’s explore what reflective practice is, how I’ve used it, and the ways in which it has developed in my life personally -- as well as some fun and useful resources for you to be more purposeful about using it in your daily practice.

“Insights and innovation await us only if we are capable of stepping outside of the frenzied worlds of data and distraction that wash over us… time for reflection is an open invitation to discover what awaits us…”

Daniel Forrester

Reflective practice, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is a fancy way of saying “think critically about what you’ve done in your practice in order to learn from it for next time.” The Essential Competencies for Evaluators outlines reflective practice as pivotal to our work, as does the Program Evaluation Standards, and so too do numerous seasoned evaluation professionals (Michael Quinn Patton, Jean King, Hallie Preskill, and many others!). I like to think of the reflection process as both a personal journey and a collaborative one. On my own, I can spend time truly reflecting, journaling or making note of problems and potential solutions during my week. But, I can also spend time opening myself and my practice up to others, seeking critical friendship from trusted colleagues and friends along the way. This sheds the light of multiple perspectives on my dilemmas of practice! I for one, believe in the power of collaborative reflection, as you will see below. However, both individualized reflection and collaborative reflection are just a part of healthy professional practice.

“It’s hard to look at modern life and see our capacities for reflection or meaning-making.  We don’t use our gifts to be more aware or thoughtful.  We’re driven in the opposite direction.  Things move too fast for us to reflect, demanding tasks give us no time to think, and we barely notice the lack of meaning...  we cannot stop life’s dynamic of self-reference or the human need for meaning. If we want to influence any change, anywhere, we need to work with this powerful process rather than deny its existence.”

Margaret J. Wheatley

Ways of Reflecting

I have recently transitioned from a teaching faculty position to a full-time practicing evaluation position. When I moved to North Carolina this summer to begin my new job, it was, by nature, a reflective time in my life. As I have moved through the Fall semester, getting up to speed on evaluation projects, pitching our office’s services, and learning about our department’s culture, I have absolutely NEEDED reflective practice to grow as a professional. So, what have my reflective practices been? The answer is that the reflective process is embedded in everything I do, and I think making the process a “practice” means making a concerted effort toward including it in your way of doing things in order to improve yourself. Here are some areas where I see reflection in my life.

Reflective Practice as Journaling: Journaling in any capacity is just good reflective practice. Keeping notes on projects and meetings, being able to review and reflect on them as you go. I have been a proponent of Bullet Journaling ever since two Christmases ago when one of my favorite past masters students, Deven Wisner (you might know him!) gifted me a Moleskine notebook and set of Staedtler pens to begin a journey of making note of my life. The bullet journal is freeing, in that you create your agenda as you go. You decide what goes in your journal, how, and why. If you’re interested in learning more about bullet journaling, go here. I like to interrupt my bullet journal every so often and take a few pages to write reflections on my day, week, or semester. Over the course of this summer and fall the way I have begun to bullet journal has shifted, and I’ve noticed! More future-oriented, more time breaking down tasks for better task management, and more time spent taking note of moments when further, more critical reflection need to happen. Speaking of which…

Reflective Practice as Dialogue with Critical Friends: Journaling and reflecting on my own is great, but I think we can all agree that when we spend too much time thinking on our own about something, we tend to get really frustrated (even stuck). I have found that having a wealth of good “critical friends” I can connect with to bounce ideas off of, as I move through the daily challenges and learning opportunities associated with practice, is invaluable to my work. It is because of good critical friendship that I have stronger surveys, healthier logic models, more polished and thoughtful evaluation plans, and more productive conversations with stakeholders. And, generally, I feel like I have learned, and can grow, from my practice.

How do you find good critical friends? They can be anywhere! I suggest finding people who challenge you, will shoot it to you straight, and are willing to spend the time thinking it through with you. If they know the subject matter, great! If not, your ability to explain it to them may unlock keys to your mind that you may not know exist. And, of course, you should be willing to return the favor and lend an ear when your critical friend needs it!

“You could almost say there is a Zen of practice, and part of that is being present not just in the moment, but present all the way through the experience so that you can look back… it’s almost like there’s two of you so… it’s a cognitive process, it’s an intuitive process, and it’s an iterative process, where you review, you think, you study what you’re doing, you study what you have done. You look at the results that came out of that and then you make a judgment accordingly… So it really is the process of conscious and intuitive thought that come together.”

Dissertation Participant

Utilizing the above two ways of reflecting are just a couple elements of reflective practice as a way of being. I think that in order to be our best selves, as well as our best evaluator-selves, we have to be reflective about what we do. To be thoughtful about what our actions were for that day, for that project, for that conversation. And, to take advantage of that thoughtfulness by delving deeper, asking ourselves why, and planning how to move forward having learned for next time. As one of my dissertation participants said, it is like a Zen of practice, that we are aware of ourselves, as ourselves and as evaluators. My reflection has led me to fun places these past few months, as I have been finding gems of books to read to further my passion for learning about science, communication, and social change. [Here are some books I have been reading, for fun : We Make the Road By Walking, Mystery of Mysteries, If I Understood You Would I Have This Look on My Face?!]

Using the DATA Model for Reflection: See you at AEA?

I’ve spent the past few paragraphs talking to you about my reflective experiences and their benefits, and I haven’t even gotten to the model that I have written about in the Journal of Evaluation and Program Planning. If you are an evaluator or educator who is looking for a systematic way to reflect on your practice, or a model to help walk through the reflective process alone or with others, the DATA Model for reflection is a very useful process. If you’re in Cleveland, come join Libby Smith, Deven Wisner , and I as we walk you through a skill-building workshop called “Reflective Practice Should Not Be Optional: Exploring an Essential and Unforgettable Competency for Evaluators”! The session is 8AM-9AM (hey! I didn’t pick this time!) on Friday November 2nd in Veteran’s Meeting Room A. See the session abstract and additional details here: AEA Reflective Practice Skill-Building Workshop. I am very much looking forward to this year’s conference. This theme is a very reflectively oriented one in my eyes, and as such I hope to dialogue with you about it there!

Come join us, get your degree in evaluation (MS or PhD) in the Program Evaluation Track at UNCG. Learn more, here: Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation at UNCG

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