Reflection beyond ePortfolios

by Paul Maharg on 24/08/2017

This has been a crazily busy eight-day visit to Australia but so productive.  It was marked by days of intense activities and meetings and more, making connections in ANU and UNE, giving an all day workshop on simulated clients (liveblogged in a series of posts on this blog), and a seminar on the SRA’s plans for the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE – post & slides to come), keynoting the ANU ePortfolio launch (post here, slides at the tab), and another on Disintermediation at an unconference at UNE (post here and slides in the usual place at the tab above).  And forming plans, building legal educational initiatives, with PEARL and other networks, and also talking to potential authors in Australasia for the Emerging Legal Education book series edited by Beth Mertz, Meera Deo and me.

The ePortfolio launch stayed with me.  Launches etc tend to be rather self-congratulory affairs, with little in the way of challenging thinking, so in my presentation I decided to be more challenging.  The participants were up for it, comprising as they did CHELT staff, ed tech developers, as well as SMEs and experts in disciplinary education, and from beyond ANU too.  Such good, sparky conversations; and still the ideas from them and earlier thoughts about reflection, what it is and how to embed it in learning, teaching and assessment are rattling round my head.  And I’ll be disappointed if Michele Leering, from Queen’s U, Ontario, who knows much of what there is to know about reflective practice, doesn’t come on board this post to tell me I’ve got it all wrong…  So below the fold there are two general points, and a longer excursus on reflection and formation, then three possible ways out of the dilemmas reflection pose for us: disciplinary-based reflection, formation, and a context for a profound fusion of reflection and formation.

As I say here  (summarising what I said at the launch), ePortfolios are highly protean, and they are so because, rather confusingly, they have come to describe both a container and the documents within that container. Second, and I think I said this at the event too, reflection is only one form of writing that an ePortfolio can contain.  ePortfolio-as-container could actually contain everything that a student produces, has found valuable, wants to keep hold of, etc., and there’s more on that towards the end of my blog posting above.

First, though, we need to start with two fundamental problems that reflective learning gives us — the first to do with the uncertain referential status of the word, the second to do with time.  The word is a noun that describes a process as well as a thing.  It describes how we think (but remains unclear how we go about that) and it also refers to the product of that thinking, the reflection that’s set down on paper or in pixels.  There’s thus a difficulty from the start: at any point, what are we referencing, the process or the product?  This lexical difficulty gives rise to another.  When we teach or facilitate reflection, we’re almost invariably talking about helping students with process, helping them to process experience.  And we judge the quality of the reflecting process by the reflective product. How else can we do it, we might wonder, since there’s no evidence of the reflecting other than the reflection?

Actually, there are other methods, derived from composition analysis, from which we could gain deeper insight into reflection. In the 1970s in the US, composition researchers were faced with the same problem. Scholars such as John Bereiter, Linda Flower and Marlene Scardamalia solved it in part by drawing upon the methods of Rogerian counselling, and psychiatric literature, and having writers record their spoken thoughts as they write – verbal protocols. The resulting data streams are quite resource-intensive to mark up and analyse, though of course much richer in understandings because two almost simultaneous channels, speech and writing, are used to capture both action and thought-on-action.[1]  What the technique proves, though, is that the reflecting that a person carries out in his or her head may not be caught very well, or at all, by the reflection that is the product on the page which, as soon as the writer starts to write, is subject to multiple forms of revision and re-analysis in the process of drafting. Indeed the process of writing calls into question the very idea of something called a reflection that we can point to and say that that is the actual reflection – part of the ancient opposition of stasis and kinesis.   Veracity, truthfulness to experience becomes impossible to verify.

Shouldn’t this cause serious problems in assessment of reflection?   In a sense, all assessment we perform of student work depends on words-on-page to evidence mental processes, but I’d argue that assessment of reflection is different.  If we assess an essay, we’re assessing the product, and referencing the argument against other arguments, facts, etc that can be checked, not the processes that give rise to the essay (we deal with that, or ought to, in helping students to learn good writing skills and styles, to develop legal reasoning, statutory interpretation, and so forth).  ‘Write an essay on sovereignty in the EU’ was an essay title I was asked to write on as a law student (and how poignant it is now to think about that, for a Remainer…); and it brings to it quite a different set of judgmental tools than a command to ‘Reflect on your professional skills in this program’.

The second problem to do with reflection is that, as the word implies, it is about the past. Actually there are two sub-problems here. First the past is of course not often fixed in some form of record (or if it is, it’s a record that’s invariably fragmentary) and which requires instant interpretation if we are revisit the past in our thoughts.  When we reflect we’re dealing with interpretations of the past, always creating or recalling narratives about past events, people, conversations, knowledge, emotions, and so on.  It’s a process of historical and narrative interpretation, a form of reconstruction that is powerfully determined by the purpose to which we want to put the past. Purpose determines construction. If as Heraclitus says we can’t step into the same river twice, this is true of dipping into the rivers of our own memories.  The second problem to do with the pastness of reflection is that it doesn’t reference the future to any great extent. How the reflection on past action relates to the future is unclear from the reflective narrative itself.  This is in part because of the status of the genre. The focus of this reflection on the past is not to create, eg, a narrative that will persuade others of its originality or its truth to fact or its interpretive power, or even in its fictive, illustrative or recreative power, such as novels, or autobiographies or historical narratives may do for us.  Its focus is the production of an introspection that describes itself.  It is self-referential.

I’d argue for three alternative approaches to reflection.  First, instead of reflection in general, I’d argue for the development of disciplinary-based reflective practices. If physicists or comp sci’s are socialised by their disciplines into specific forms of academic and professional writing, why not adapt them? It makes reflection as an activity that much more accessible.  One way of describing reflective practice for STEM, eg, might be that it’s a form of meta-commentary or metadata on text, activity, thought; and teachers can develop forms, examples and activities around that.

Second, I’d argue for the development, too, of a future-looking emphasis on formation that includes but goes beyond reflection. Formation points to something much more substantial, and something that is in the world.  Formation-as-process leads to something that is built or done or experienced.  It’s also more future-oriented, something that is continuing through the present into the future. It’s not self-referential – there’s a construct there, the self, which is certainly not quite as immanent in the world as, say, a computer, but can identifiably exist in time and through time.

Formation also has another and ancient sense, that of identity or ethical formation, the creation of a personal array of reasons and intuitions for doing certain things in certain ways.  The approach goes back at least to Roman and Greek Stoic philosophies, that have surfaced at many points since, in the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods and in modern philosophy too.  Admittedly there are ways in which formation is heavily normative – one thinks of established religion, for instance, with its codes of behaviour and its embedded social codes in marriage, family, rituals of birth and death, etc. Or of a professional practice, with its established cultural modes of practice and associated ethical codes. But normativity is not a necessary function of formation, which is more fundamental and radical than that.  Indeed formation of identity often means questioning moral order and form, fashioning other modes of moral argument, observing and critiquing the professional, economic, cultural value-sets of society.

So for a doctor or a physicist or a computer scientist, formation might be one way of embodying disciplinary-relevant reflection. Another technique might be the development of a X + humanities approach, in the same way that medicine has developed medical humanities. See for instance the excellent Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University, co-directed by Jane MacNaughten, whose work I recommend not just because she’s a fellow Scot, but because she intertwines breathtakingly (literally – see her latest project) interdisciplinary work that is one long absorbing reflection on what it is to be human – seen through the professional eyes of a medic.

And one of the great subjects of the humanities, time and death, brings us to the third and final approach to reflection, one which renders the rest vibrant, resonant, within and beyond Higher Education.  It brackets everything above.  I’ve said that reflection predominantly looks back, formation looks forward.  But perhaps when we manage to dwell upon both in the same moment it is a qualitatively different experience than doing one or the other.  How could we achieve that experience?

Let’s follow Eliot’s example in his The Four Quartets, and start again;[2] and this time advocate for a much deeper and profounder reflection, the relationship between reflection and silence, to be explored and taken seriously.  If there is a fundamental similarity between legal educations world-wide, it is that there is almost no space for deep silence in them – a point I made in my chapter in the Affect collection.  I don’t mean the silence of the library (though that’s disappearing fast enough) or the individual scholar alone with her thoughts at a desk in the silence of the deep night.  I mean the intimate silence that can be productive of profound reflection, and which you can find practised in many spiritual movements.  It can be experienced alone in a natural surrounding, extensive forest, a mountain or a small island; or in with others in community – a monastic community or in a tea ceremony or at a Quaker meeting.  It is a restorative silence, not least because it restores us or calls us back to our best selves through meditation upon what we wish for of value in our life, a meditation upon our death and that of others, upon loss, desolation, the spirit, new beginnings, creation, love, time.

Is it possible to imagine a legal education that values and finds space for such reflection?

Is it possible to imagine an education in justice that can exist without such reflection?

  1. [1]I haven’t seen it discussed anywhere, but I’ve always thought of this aspect of compositional research as a research technique that parallels the distinctions that Schon and Argyris make between single and double loop learning.  Verbal protocols, when analysed alongside the writings that they describe, analyse and reflect upon, provide a valuable meta-commentary upon not just the words on the page, but the writer’s intention, both cognitive and affective.
  2. [2]‘That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory’ – East Coker.

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