Theories of Reflective Learning

Dewey is credited with instigating the modern discourse about reflective learning.  Although Dewey is a prominent philosopher of education, you don’t encounter him much on philosophy course in my experience.  As a progressive thinker who emphasizes the empowering aspects of education, one of the things I’ve been hoping to get out of H808 is a more detailed exploration of his ideas.

Dewey thought of reflection as a preoccupation or dewlling upon things that puzzle or disturb us, and saw reflection as a kind of precursor to action.  (This might be one way to understand his innovation: rather than regarding reflection as a mulling over of the past, Dewey’s reflective energies are future-facing.)

Schön (who wrote his PhD thesis on Dewey) went on to distinguish ‘reflection-on-action’ from ‘reflection-in-action’.  The former refers to the kinds of tacit knowledge we reveal in the way we carry out tasks and approach problems.  The latter occurs after the fact, and is often conscious and/or documented.

One of the most prominent names associated with reflective learning is David Kolb.  Kolb turned Dewey’s ideas about experiential learning into a more structured learning cycle.

Pedler, Burgoyne and Boydell argued that Kolb’s model is too focused on the perspective of the educator.  They attempted to simplify the model in such a way that emphasized learner perspective (especially emotional experience).

The simplified version replaces concrete experience with ‘something happens’; reflective observation with ‘what happened?’; abstract conceptualisation with ‘so what?’ and active experimentation as ‘now what?’.


Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company.

Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) Toward an applied theory of experiential learning. in C. Cooper (ed.) Theories of Group Process, London: John Wiley

Pedler, M., Burgoyne, J. and Boydell, T. (1991, 1996) The Learning Company. A strategy for sustainable development, London: McGraw-Hill.

Schön, D.A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.


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