Facilitating reflection (a follow up from my previous post)

Following my post ‘COVID-19 and meaningful reflective practice’ two days ago, my colleague Pauline Ridley referred me to an interesting 2013 piece by John Cowan. Cowan notes that there are surprising few detailed accounted of how facilitators/ teachers support the and promote reflective practice. On one hand I am quite surprised by this given the widespread use of reflection in many disciplines/ professions (especially health sciences and education); however, I have been working in education long enough to know that just because a practice is common (and perhaps very good) and widely promoted does not mean that it has been researched and debated in the scholarly literature.

The role of the facilitator

Some interesting points Cowan makes about the role of the facilitator (not instructor/ tutor) of reflective practice are worth picking out.

1. “Often they may already have known me previously as an active instructor. But past relationships should be set aside when the facilitated reflection begins.” (p. 4) Therefore to be an effective facilitator Cowan needs to disregard his previous relationships and opinions of the student and his prior assessment of their abilities.

2. “… we simply grow into knowing each other” (p.4). The relationship between facilitator and student develops naturally.

3. It is useful to reflect on both ‘reflection-for-action’ (future) and ‘reflection-on-action’ (past) (p.5)

4. The person reflecting must set relevant questions to which they do not know the answer (or only know the answer in part) (p.6).

5. The facilitator and writer are frank with each other. A trusting relationship needs to be established.

6. Students should be encouraged to write about their feelings – some reflection is little more than a set of facts (though see comment below on inappropriate reflections).

7. Those reflecting should state their assumptions. Those facilitating should encourage students to state what assumptions they might be making.

Other considerations

Cowan writes of ‘inappropriate reflections’ (p.10) which go outside the boundaries of the reflection, e.g. talking about friendships or depression. This is particularly challenging at this time of lockdown where our professional practice exists alongside family life and personal circumstances in way we have not know before.

He also addresses issues of confidentiality and privacy and their relationship with professional practice. “… privacy may be valid in the case of a personal diary. But the journaling which I facilitate is explicitly and formatively concerned with the development of abilities which are professional priorities for the journal writer and intended learning outcomes for the course team”. (p.10). He firmly puts reflection into a different category of private diary.


Cowan, J. (2013) Facilitating reflective journaling – personal reflections on three decades of practice. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, Issue 5. Available at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/b62f/2be49cb2777359a2ca770c834e78e4de70a5.pdf (open access).

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