Wright, N. (2003) ‘Tri-Angles: Patterns of 3 in Reflective Practice’, Training Journal, Fenman, December, pp32-35.
Some say, “Bad things come in 3s”. I disagree. So many things fall naturally into 3s that it’s hard to miss the imprint of God (Father, Son, Spirit)[i] in all creation – at least that’s what I think[ii]. Take, for instance, the 3 primary colours (red, yellow, blue), 3 physical states (solid, liquid, gas) and the way in which we configure our education and other social systems, e.g. 3 foundational skills (reading, writing, arithmetic), 3 emergency services (police, fire, ambulance) – not to mention all those things that permeate our thinking, training and organisational lives.
The same pattern of 3 applies to learning processes too, although the 3rd element is often overlooked. Imagine a typical learning programme (e.g. training course) that includes (1) some form of theoretical input alongside (2) the opportunity to practice skills. What’s missing? A critical component that both grounds and integrates the two. We call this 3rd dimension reflective practice – ‘insight in action’.[iii]
Reflective practice is, in essence, a way of working that involves switching off the mental auto-pilot, thinking out of the box, considering the ‘whys’ behind the ‘whats’ and acting on the basis of fresh insight and understanding. It’s an approach that has become very popular within certain professional disciplines (e.g. nursing, social work, counselling, teaching), perhaps owing to the inherent complexity and ambiguity of those fields, but has far wider application to people development and learning as a whole.
Reflective practice is particularly important in the training arena because, without it, learning programmes of all types can easily drift into abstract theorising on the one hand or simplistic pragmatics on the other. I’ll offer various case examples throughout this article in order to illustrate ‘patterns of 3’ for those who might like to develop this aspect of their own practice.
3 time horizons
I was asked recently to run a training workshop on reflective practice for new learning mentors, contracted to support students engaged in post-graduate studies. I jotted down some ideas in preparation and noticed immediately how even reflective practice itself has 3 principal dimensions:
At the seminar itself, I was able to use participants’ own experience of entering the learning programme, exploring ‘live’ material within the group in order to illustrate and work with each of these dimensions:
The method used here is an experiential learning technique[iv], enabling participants to reflect on their experience, learn from experience and apply learning to influence future work practice. It is worth note how the movement from past, through present, towards future reflects a corresponding movement from reflection, through understanding, towards action.
McHardy & Brown (2003)[v] describe a similar 3-stage process in terms of (1) what, (2) so what and (3) now what?
Try thinking of an example from your own work currently and see what emerges as you work through these steps.
3 levels of planning
Joanna, another client, is director of an independent design studio. The business had been struggling over the past year and Joanna had been feeling increasingly despondent. I was invited, therefore, to meet with Joanna and her management team to explore their business strategy. We used the following pattern of 3 as a starting point for discussion:
Strategic What is happening in the wider environment/future?
Tactical What are the relationships that will hold things together?
Operational What are the day-to-day tasks that need to be done?
This model was presented diagrammatically on flipchart with participants writing key words, insights and ideas inside the relevant shapes.
It became apparent fairly quickly that the team had a strong sense of vision for the future (strategic element), a good grasp of its wider business environment (strategic element) and efficient day-to-day working practices (operational element). However, owing to immediate work pressures, it had neglected important external relationships with suppliers and customers (tactical element).
As a result of this exploration, Joanna readjusted team priorities immediately in order to reflect a greater tactical emphasis on supplier and customer relationship management. Training was provided in this area, as a result of which the team revised its core operating principles/priorities and the business has started to recover.
3 development dimensions
Samuel was participant on diploma course in church leadership that incorporated, implicitly, 3 principal learning dimensions:
Spiritual development Beliefs, values, mission
Personal development Knowledge, skills, attitudes
Social development Groups, teams, organisations
He mentioned in a seminar group one afternoon that a church group for which he held leadership responsibility was so preoccupied with activity that there was little room for genuine relationship-building. From Samuel’s point of view, this over-emphasis was both futile and self-defeating.
I offered Samuel the opportunity to explore this issue using the spiritual-personal-social model described above. We did this by placing 3 chairs around a coffee table. Each seat represented one of the 3 perspectives of the model, and the table in the centre represented the locus of the issue.
By sitting in each of the seats in turn, Samuel was helped to explore the issue from a diverse range of perspectives. It was noticeable how physical movement from one chair to another seemed to enable psychological movement from one frame of reference[vi] to another too. Examples of the questions and ideas that Samuel articulated, with minimal prompts from other participants, were as follows:
Samuel moved from reflection to corresponding action-planning in all 3 dimensions and his fellow students learned through his reflections too[vii]. The church group for which he holds responsibility is still very active but a number of key projects have been modified to allow more time for relaxation, reflective prayer and being together.
Alternative patterns of 3 used in this type of scenario could have included, for instance:
The possibilities are virtually endless – I encourage you to experiment and design new triads of your own.
3 learning modes
The positive result achieved with Samuel (above) in terms of insight/motivation was markedly different to that achieved in previous meetings when similar issues had been explored through group discussion alone. This illustrates a foundational principle of training/learning design that different people learn differently.
Each person has a primary learning mode, that is, the principle sensory means by which he/she experiences the world and, subsequently, expresses that experience to others. The 3 principal modalities may be described as:
Visual Diagrams, pictures, imagery
Auditory Discussion, word plays, ‘sounds like’
Kinaesthetic Movement, sculpting, doing
I have found that in particular, if a person or group is struggling to express an idea or experience, it is worth experimenting with these different modes in order to find one that works well for the particular person(s) concerned.[viii] For example:
An alternative view of learning modes is expressed by a different pattern of 3[ix]:
Rachel, a health service manager, was feeling very stressed at work but found it difficult to understand, articulate or express clearly why she was feeling that way. Using this second model, the intervention method used in a training session was as follows:
Whilst remaining in posture mode, I asked Rachel a number of reflective questions: “What is it you are trying to pull?” “What do you want to achieve by moving it?” “How else could it be moved?” “Who could help you to move it?” “What else could be moved instead?”
The shift in Rachel’s energy and insight when we moved from rational/emotional to physical mode was really quite remarkable. By experimenting with different modes of expression in this way, Rachel was both able to make sense of her stress experience and, with the help of fellow participants, find new ways to tackle it positively.
3 intervention modes
The examples described above illustrate how the consultant/trainer can use a variety of intervention modes to support learning. Broadly-speaking, these interventions may be divided into 3 categories:[x]
Directive “Do it this way”
Non-directive “How might you best do it?”
Positive withdrawal “I’ll leave you to do it”
The consultant/trainer must consider what specific type of intervention mode is appropriate to:
In this situation
At this time
A directive intervention is appropriate when, for instance, one or more of the following conditions apply:
The trainer has specific knowledge/information that the learner needs (e.g. where to find websites containing
useful course-related material).
The learner has insufficient experience to rely on his or her own judgement/skills (e.g. how to operate a
potentially dangerous piece of machinery).
The trainer has specific responsibilities and/or expertise to deal with a crisis situation (e.g. instruct participants
to leave the building if the fire alarm sounds).
A non-directive intervention may be appropriate when:
The learner has the required knowledge/skill but doesn’t realise it (e.g. learning to adapt existing skills to
match the needs of a new situation).
The learner has the required knowledge/skills but lacks confidence/experience to apply them (e.g. a learner #
using his/her course material at work for the first time).
The learner doesn’t have all the required knowledge/skills but could develop them through supported
reflection and/or experimentation (e.g. how to lead a team meeting effectively).
A positive withdrawal intervention may be appropriate when:
The learner needs space to experiment without further training input (e.g. practising skills learned on a
The learner needs to develop personal confidence and experience by putting into practice what he/she has
learned (e.g. presenting a project proposal to a senior management team).
The learner has a strong preference for self-teaching methodologies (e.g. books, journals, on-line).
In practice, the consultant/trainer may well use all of these modes within a single training session. The reflective trainer will be aware of the implications of these modes for participant learning and, therefore, choose modes consciously and deliberately to match the needs of individuals and the group. With experience, he or she will learn to glide between these modes, moving back and forth between time horizons (above) as each situation allows and demands.
3 practice recommendations
What we have seen here is that implicit in reflective practice is a deliberate commitment to move beyond ‘intuitive’ (subconscious) learning to generate and incorporate ‘incidental’ (emergent), conscious-reflective and planned learning dimensions.[xi] This is where reflective practice is genuinely transformational, producing fresh insight derived from action-reflection and capable of re-application.
What I would recommend, therefore, in light of my own experience are the following 3 action points:
Make sure that a specific ‘reflective practice’ component is incorporated into all learning programmes.
Build a variety of methods into learning initiatives to ensure that participants with different learning modes are
able to engage with material effectively.
Evaluate learning interventions according to the degree to which participants have grown in ability as reflective
3 books for further reading
Moon, J (2000): Reflection in Learning & Professional Development. Kogan Page.
Schon, D (1987): Educating the Reflective Practitioner. Jossey-Bass.
Bolton, G (2001): Reflective Practice – Writing & Professional Development. Sage.
[i] That is, God revealed in Christian theology.
[ii] For those with interest in this area, cf Romans 1v21 in the Christian New Testament.
[iii] For further reading, see Wright, N (2003): Pause Reflect Act, Training Technology & Human Resources, Institute of Training & Occupational Learning, Jan-Feb, p18.
[iv] For further reading, see Beard, C & Wilson, J (2002): The Power of Experiential Learning.
[v] McHardy, A & Brown, M (2003). Applying Theory to Reflection through Critical Incident Analysis. British Journal of Occupational Learning. Institute of Training & Occupational Learning. Vol 1. Issue 1. p60.
[vi] For further reading, see Reid, S (2002): How to Think.
[vii] For further reading on group-based learning, see Jaques, D (2000): Learning in Groups; Hogan, C (2003): Practical Facilitation; Doel, M & Sawdon, C (1999): The Essential Groupworker; Proctor, B (2000): Group Supervision.
[viii] For further practical ideas, see Lahad, M (2000): Creative Supervision and Wiener, R (1997): Creative Training.
[ix] I am indebted to my mentor, Brian Watts (Karis), for introducing me to this model.
[x] AVEC, 1992.
[xi] See Mumford, A (2001): Four Approaches to Learning from Experience. ITOL Journal. Institute of Training & Occupational Learning. Vol 2. No1.