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Reflective learning: increasing personal agency through challenge

Alary Watts


The focus of this chapter is on reflective learning. More broadly it is about reflective living, and the impact this may have on both learning and change throughout our lives. Coaching may often take the form of fostering transformative and emancipatory learning of a kind that enables our clients to take greater control over their lives and the choices they have in life. Coaches are in a unique position to adopt ways of working with their clients that enhance their learning for living and associated ‘performance’ in personally meaningful ways. Personal agency occurs when one has the capacity to initiate and direct purposeful action. It is enhanced when one has self-belief in one's ability to achieve chosen goals. It could be argued that a primary goal of coaches is to ‘give their knowledge and skills away’, thereby enabling then- clients to become effective ‘self-coaches’. This implies that through coaching the client gains improved reflection and change skills, and has the confidence to use these in self-coaching to support them in achieving their goals.

It is widely considered that building reflective capability has the power to enhance the coach’s professional practice. Development of the same reflective skills and mindset could therefore be assumed to enhance the practice of the client and empower them within their ‘everyday living’. I suggest that coach and client are both engaged in a process of meaning making, learning and change.


Expectations and predictions are often implicitly made and frequently not reflected upon. Where this occurs, personal learning from our actions is likely to be limited, resulting in reduced opportunity for self-selected and self-directed change. Action becomes an experience when we reflect upon it and a learning experience when we review and evaluate it in relation to our expectations and predictions.

Implicit in the statements in the preceding paragraph is the notion that it is possible for us to initiate life changes, mediated through critical reflection and associated personal learning. It doesn’t say what such changes may be, elaborate on the processes at the heart of initiating such change, nor detail the many things that might interfere with self-selected and self-directed change. This chapter considers some of the ways one can address these issues and enhance personal empowerment. Throughout our lives we are likely to be faced with opportunities and constraints. Many will pass us by in a somewhat unremarkable way. On other occasions we will become immersed in them - often expending considerable energy in worrying about possible future change, exploring missed opportunities or, more optimistically, generating and embracing new future opportunities and possibilities. Learning to negotiate our way through life, with its many ups and downs, could be described as Teaming for living’. Such learning combines different types of ‘knowing’, including that which relates to factual/hard data; that derived from primary experiences (those that I have personally experienced); and those derived from secondary experience (that which I have experienced vicariously through observing others, hearing their stories or reading). Our capacity for enhancing our Teaming for living’ is likely to go up and down throughout our life and be influenced by many things including our energy levels, mood, the situation we find ourselves in and our motivation for both generating and embracing change.

Coaching scenario

Ingrid is the head of a team of hospital-based cardiologists. On a daily basis she and her team make decisions and cany out clinical interventions with very real life and death implications for patients. These are closely regulated by detailed research-based protocols for practice. In her coaching sessions Ingrid seeks to enhance her reflective learning skills. Her particular focus is the everyday aspects of her leadership and managerial roles, for which there are no clear guidelines and protocols. She realizes that her reading about leadership is not sufficient to equip her to deal with everyday issues relating, for example, to staff tensions and stresses, motivation, organizational change, and her own fluctuating energy levels. A theme running throughout is personal empowerment through learning.

Before the popularization of coaching (Whitmore 2017) the theme of personal empowerment through learning was a significant topic for those engaged in adult education. The themes and agendas were not so different to those in coaching today - personal empowerment, personally meaningful learning, achievement of goals, and ability to initiate and manage change. Reflection was a core theme within much of this writing, as was learning through experience, termed ‘experiential learning’ (Schon 1983,1987; Kolb 1984; Mezirow & Associates 1990, 2018). Experiential learning, with reflective practice at its heart, became increasingly popular in many areas of professional education, especially those that were essentially people-focused such as the caring professions. Experiential learning, and linked reflective practice, is now a core-learning requirement in many areas of professional training. For example, those working in psychotherapeutic domains are required to keep reflective learning journals during their training and also beyond. This is not only intended for evidencing learning but is also an approach to fostering reflective learning. The same now applies in coaching where it has become core to professional learning and its assessment.

A rich review of literature on reflective practice has been provided by Kovacs and Corrie (2017), who draw attention to how it might be used to enhance coaching. In particular, they focus on how it may be used by a coach to enhance his/ her coaching interventions. In support of this they present a number of questions that may be used by a coach to prompt reflective thinking about their coaching. For example:

  • 1) What worked well? What does working well mean in this context?
  • 2) What hypotheses was 1 holding in mind and how did Igo about testing these?
  • 3) How are my emotions, beliefs or assumptions influencing my ability to work with the client at this point?
  • 4) Am I applying the theories in which I am trained or just going with the flow and my gut feel? What are the implications of this?
  • 5) What different assumptions or beliefs would help me act differently next time? What would be the potential impact on the client?
  • (Kovacs & Corrie 2017, p. 10)

The table of questions, which includes many more than those illustrated above, and the wider review of reflective practice provided by Kovacs and Corrie, are a very useful introduction to how a coach might build reflective capability. Though the emphasis is on assisting the coach in her practice, the client may also engage in self-empowered, reflective learning. Accordingly, in this chapter each of the coach and client is viewed as an active meaning maker, striving to learn from and for living, with multiple goals and intentions, values and beliefs, expectations, predictions and goals. Each is an agent, an influencer and has experience of being influenced. Their personal biographies and social and cultural circumstances will be shared in certain respects with others, and also be uniquely theirs.

Coaches and clients together create a shared world as well as remaining a part of their individual worlds. Each is a learner and learned, influencer and influenced, reflector and predictor, supporter and supported. In life beyond coaching they each take on multiple roles and these will be reflected in a variety of ways within the coaching relationship. A coach may, with the client’s consent, move between different coaching roles, such as being a mentor coach, a skills coach and even a supervisory coach. Likewise, the client may be leader, learner and vulnerable job seeker, within the same client/coach relationship.

The reflective learner

Several key assumptions and perspectives underpin this section. Some of these are listed next:

  • • There are many different types of learning and knowing (for example, knowing published facts about Parkinson’s and knowing what it feels like to have it; and learning what treatments are available and learning how, in everyday living, strategies may be adopted to better manage it).
  • • Not all learning involves learning to do (for example, learning that some of what I do gives me great satisfaction whilst other things cause me stress).
  • • Reflections can contribute to our personal meaning making and understanding of self and others (for example, through her reflections, Ingrid, the cardiologist in the vignette on p. 9, started to understand the impact of her behavior on others and think creatively about the type of leader she wanted to be).
  • • Critical/questioning reflections can lead to transformative thought and action (for example, recognizing and challenging some of my core assumptions about myself and my goals has caused me to have a major rethink and change the direction of my life).

You may pick up others as well as become aware of some of your own assumptions and perspectives, particularly if they are in opposition to those I have just articulated. Jarvis (1992) suggests that it is from recognition of and reflection on such tensions and disjuncture that new learning may emerge.

Returning to the sample of reflective questions for the coach from Kovacs and Corrie, listed on p. 10, it is interesting to consider how they might be re-framed to relate to the reflective, learning, client - and also to all other people interested in learning from and for living. If they are useful to the coach they are usefill in equal measure to others who wish to take control, and enhance aspects, of their learning and action. This learning may be achieved in a variety of contexts including in education, coaching, supervision and self-directed and self-supported learning.

Kovacs’s and Corrie’s questions are re-presented in what follows with small changes to extend the focus beyond the coach.

/ What worked well? What does working well mean in this context?

This question is relevant to all adults and children who wish to understand the relationship between their thinking, actions and outcomes, and allows and encourages curiosity and a questioning approach to life. Its regular’ use reflects an approach to life that could be described as a particular’ kind of mindfulness - one where self-challenge and the questioning of personal assumptions is at the heart of reflective, leanring from living (Chaskalson 2011; Dalton & Dunnett 2005; Illeris 2018; Jarvis 1999).

2 What hypotheses was I holding in mind and how did I go about testing these?

This question takes the first question a stage further. It is relevant to all of us, whatever our role or position in life. It acknowledges that we hold beliefs and assumptions about what has been, what is, and what may be in the future. It links closely to the statement near the start of the chapter, which suggests that ‘Expectations and predictions are often implicitly made and frequently not reflected upon’.

We all cany around expectations and predictions and much of our behaviour is based upon these - even when they are not within our conscious awareness or made explicit in our thinking and verbalizing. We hold hypotheses, often implicitly, and we act upon these. Kelly (1955) refers within his very detailed and fascinating theory of personal constructs, to the person as similar to a research scientist, who holds hypotheses and engages in testing these. However, we often hold hypotheses that we take for granted and that could be proven inaccurate and unhelpful if we were to question and test them. As suggested towards the start of the chapter, hypotheses we hold that are never reflected upon and questioned may have the effect of reducing our learning and related change.

A key question for us all is ‘how do we decide which hypotheses to test, and when and how to do this’. We rely on our beliefs and the accuracy of our hypotheses in every day living. It would be enormously time consuming and most likely very stressful to question everything. How do we become a skilled and discerning questioner and tester of hypotheses?

3 How are my emotions, beliefs or assumptions influencing my ability to be effective at this point?

The original question 3 refers to ‘my ability to work with the client at this point’. When we take out the notion of working with the client and insert instead the more general notion of being effective, we again see that the question has relevance to us all - child, adult and senior adult, in any context. It is not meant to imply that there are no constraints upon our effectiveness, but suggests that emotions, beliefs and assmnptions may have an impact on our thoughts and actions. To consider the impact of these requires an opening up to what they are - to reflecting upon them and considering within our reflections what their possible impact may be. There is a place for the coach doing this when they review their coaching, for clients to do it within coaching, and for all of us to develop skills in doing this, so that it becomes a common, but very significant, life skill.

4 Am I applying knowledge and understanding from previous learning and experience or just going with the flow and my gut feel? What are the implications of this?

In this question ‘the theories in which I am trained’ has been broadened and replaced with ‘understanding from previous learning and experience’. The questions now have meaning and relevance in a broader context. They suggest that reflecting on previous learning and experience can have implications - and so too can going with my ‘gut feel’. Acting on gut feel, or instinct, is an important area, as demonstrated in the work of Mercier and Sperber (2017).

5 V/hat different assumptions or beliefs would help me act differently next time? What would be the potential impact on those around me?

In this question, reference to those around me has been inserted instead of reference to ‘the client', thereby generalizing and broadening the question. Tire focus of the question has moved explicitly to action and a consideration of the impact of ‘my action on others’. Implicit in this fifth question is a sense that reflection can lead to change, both in my thinking and my actions, and that in turn this may impact on and, in some way, change others.

There are many more reflection-focused questions that might be asked, however, those presented are sufficient to demonstrate that reflection can be engaged in by all of us; that asking certain types of question can be the trigger for reflecting; that when we engage in reflecting we may find ourselves challenging former beliefs, assumptions and ways of behaving; and most significantly, that reflection can lead to change on the part of the reflector and those around them. George Kelly, when elaborating his psychological theory' of personal constructs, drew attention to the importance of asking questions, even if at some point in the past those same questions may have seemed to be satisfactorily answered and acted upon. As life changes, so do the issues and questions relating to it, and even where a question is still relevant the previous answer to it may not be. Kelly suggested that ‘the function of an answer is not to make further questioning unnecessary but to hold things together until a round of better questions has been thought up’ (1969, p. 115). He suggested that ‘a pat answer is the enemy of a fresh question’. It prevents us from reviewing what we think we know, the sense we make of things around us, including our own personal, often implicit understandings and beliefs. If we allow no space for ‘doubts and issues’, asking no questions that will allow these to surface and be explored, we limit the degree to which we may' knowingly and insightfully explore and initiate changes in our way of living and being.

Learning and experience

The reflective questions presented earlier, along with others that you, the reader, will readily' identify, can be used to support and enhance the process of experiential learning outlined by Kolb (1984). He depicts the individual as having a concrete experience upon which the individual reflects, and based upon these reflections they generate general and abstract conceptualizations relating to the experience. From this, Kolb suggests, we then move on to a stage of active experimentation prior to starting the process again

The work of Argyris and Schon (1974, 1978) and Argyris (1993) explores the nature of actionable knowledge, drawing a distinction between espoused theories and theories in use, and between applicable knowledge and actionable knowledge - suggesting that the latter requires the identification of specific and relevant behaviours. Attention is also drawn to the distinction between reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action, the former occurring after an event and the latter whilst one is in the process of acting.

One cannot explore the nature of reflective practice for long before one is presented with issues of inconsistency, incongruence, contradiction, disjuncture and paradox. Learning from experience isn’t simple and straightforward but complex and often contradictory. We may combine elements of unreflective following of routine with deliberative thought and action or espoirse personal theories but act in contradiction to them. We may recognize paradoxes in our experience of living and learning or we may not. Indeed, Jarvis (1992) dedicated a whole text to pursuing the theme of ‘paradoxes of learning’ in which he referred to learning as the process of transforming everyday experience into knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and beliefs. One of the main arguments within the book is that:

Learning begins with a fundamental disjuncture between individual biography and the socially constructed experience. This disjuncture leads people to ask questions and thus sets the learning process in motion. . . . Individuals can learn from the experience of life or learn to take life’s experience for granted. Learning, then, is not straightforward but complex and even contradictory.

(Jarvis 1992, p. 4)

It is often at the point of recognizing disjuncture or paradox that an individual might seek the help of a coach. Alternatively, an individual may not recognize, or choose to ignore, incongruities in his/her experience. Such a person may be referred for coaching by another and be at a completely different starting point to the person who has personally chosen coaching as a means to changing something in their circumstances and behaviour. To complicate matters further, when we reflect upon experience and translate this into personal learning and behaviours for change, one camrot separate out the impact of culture and ideology. These may often be implicit and invisible influencers (Watts et al. 2020).

From this short account a number of key issues emerge relating to learning fr om experience, with perhaps the most powerful being the significance of not only reflection, but also engagement in the kind of reflection that enables dilemmas, contradictions and paradoxes to emerge. Certain types of qrrestions may help to surface these, and also facilitate their subsequent exploration. As Kelly suggested, a pat answer may shut down reflective exploration and debate, and restrict a potential learning opportunity, and with it, the creative ideas and momentum for personally driven change.

Within the context of exploring transformational adult learning Mezirow and Associates (1990,2018) engaged in a detailed analysis of the concept of reflection and its theoretical foundations. His associates elaborated upon them in relation to a range of practice contexts. I draw attention to some of these in what follows, linking them with the world of current day coaching.

Reflection may be situated within not only a personal, interpersonal and psychological context but also changes to broader social, cultural, organizational and socioeconomic systems:

Changing social nonns reinforce our need to critically examine the very paradigms through which we have been taught by our culture to understand our experience. This process of critical self-reflection has the potential for profoundly changing the way we make sense of our experience of the world, other people, and ourselves. Such transformative learning, in mm, leads to action that can significantly affect the character of our interpersonal relationships, the organizations in which we work and socialize, and the socioeconomic system itself.

(Mezirow & Associates 1990, p. xiii)

Coaching may be used as one route for fostering this type of reflection. It is easy to slip into the way of assuming that this type of reflection is for adults. However, the cultural paradigms that we are exposed to as children influence the way that we understand and learn from our experience. There is therefore scope in adulthood for introducing and supporting the key elements of questioning reflection that naturally occur within young children - and that are so often ‘trained’ out of them by an adult’s unreflective and pat answers. Considering a child’s approach to the world may help foster a mindset that is prepared for the sometimes challenging, critical self-reflection that Mezirow refers to.

A distinction may be made between reflection, critical reflection, and critical self-reflection. Reflection describes ‘the examination and justification for one’s beliefs, primarily to guide action and to reassess the efficacy of the strategies and procedures used in problem solving’ (Mezirow & Associates 1990, p. xvi). This type of reflection is commonly used in coaching and is perhaps at the heart of what many coaches refer to when they use reflective practices in their coaching. Engaging in reflective practice of this kind enables us to stop, step back, and take stock of habitual and maybe mindless thoughts and actions that may be interfering with us becoming more effective in our problem solving in a particular area. A good coach can facilitate us in using reflection to enhance particular areas of activity in our lives.

Critical reflection Mezirow describes as involving a critique of the presuppositions on which beliefs have been built, recognizing that errors in presuppositions will inhibit effective problem solving. This type of reflection is likely to be more challenging than taking a more general reflective but less critical stance. The concept of “critical self-reflection’’ is even more challenging. Here the focus is very much on the individual’s own meaning perspectives and how we pose and formulate problems in the first place. Not only are we to look at how our beliefs might interfere with effective problem solving, but we are challenged to consider where and how these beliefs might have originated, to question then-validity and consider possible alternatives. Our values, beliefs, and a whole range of interconnected constructs, influence the way we pose a question, and indeed the very issues we choose to focus on. An individual’s personal constructs influence the lenses through which they see and make sense of the world and are in turn influenced by their personal experiences and interpretations of that world. It takes great skill on the part of the coach to support and facilitate a client in the process of critical self-reflection. Timing, style of coaching, and a strong coaching relationship are all essential - not only for effectiveness, but also to ensure that no harm is done to the client.

Recently, two coaches I was supervising and I wrote a chapter on supervision (Watts et al. 2016). We envisioned supervision as being primarily a reflective learning process. We made several statements that for us were at the heart of our perspectives and understanding of the supervision process. These were that:

  • • Supervision is about learning.
  • • We can engage in it alone and with others.
  • • It benefits from creative and flexible thinking.
  • • Learning is ongoing and never ending.

Our premise was that ‘We are all, whatever our role and personal history, engaging in a process of learning, albeit it in distinctive, individual, ways’ (Watts et al. 2016, p. 213).

These points seem hugely relevant to coaching and also to the broader endeavour of Teaming from living’ that we all engage with to a greater or lesser degree. This type of active learning is very different to that which is so often described and researched in psychology, where the learner is depicted as a passive recipient of things that happen to them (Olson & Hergenhahn 2016).

This more active, personally led, reflective form of learning can be defined as ‘the process of making a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of an experience, which guides subsequent understanding, appreciation, and action’ (Mezirow & Associates 1990, p. 1). Mezirow’s three types of reflection each contribute to a more active and personal form of learning. Coaching and supervision are ideal forums for supporting and facilitating them. The skills involved in engaging in this type of learning may be supported by another person but may, more importantly, become core to a person’s way of being and of living so that they can initiate and sustain their own reflective learning process. Perhaps a key aspect of this way of being, relates to the notion of‘not knowing’ or ‘un-knowing’ as described by Spinelli (1997). Allowing oneself to be in a state of ‘unknowing’ is the first step towards having an open and enquiring mind that recognizes that there is much that we don’t know, and that what we do know is still only partial knowing. Learning to recognize the discomfort that may go with this, staying with it, and working with it rather than avoiding it, are all important steps in challenging ourselves to learn from experience. So, to the four statements on page 16,1 would now add a fifth:

• Being open to not knowing, and becoming un-knowing, are essential to transformational learning and change.

The in depth analysis by Mezirow and his associates (1990) brings to life the many ways in which critical reflection can trigger transformative learning. The chapter titles alone indicate they are as relevant to coaching today as they were in education in the 1990s - especially when one considers the increasingly broadening remit that coaching is now embracing. They include:

Liberation Through Consciousness Raising

(Hart 1990, pp. 47-73)

Challenging Habits of Expectation

(Roth 1990, pp. 116-133)

Using Critical Incidents to Explore Learner’s Assumptions

(Brookfield 1990, pp. 177-193)

Reflective Withdrawal Through Journal Writing

(Lukinsky 1990, pp. 213-234)

Repertory Grids: Playing Verbal Chess

(Candy 1990, pp. 271-295)

Consciousness raising is an important step towards finding one’s voice and becoming empowered to act in self-directed ways. Habits of expectation may have utility but can also come to define who we are, thus making it difficult for us to evolve from one identity to another. We all hold assumptions and exploring critical incidents may help us to surface these and their impact, as well as consider alternative ways of thinking and acting. Keeping a reflective journal may help us to ‘step back’ from our world, reflect upon it, and re-enter it with a different attitude. Repertory grids, initially introduced by George Kelly (1955) when he developed his theory of personal constructs, are a conversational tool for helping us surface our acts of thinking, our judgments, values and expectations, so that we may reflect on these, review them, and choose whether we wish to make changes (Stojnov et al. 2011).

The chapters in Mezirow’s book, written in 1990, each encapsulates an area of learning and change as relevant for the coach and her client today as they were for educators 30 years ago. We may learn the skills of reflective learning for engaging in living research whilst working collaboratively with another, but these skills will serve us well if practiced and further honed throughout our lives - enabling us to become our own coach, our own supervisor and our own learning guide and facilitator. Personally managed reflective and transformative learning and change will become an integral part of our lives.

As we leant these important skills, at one level we will appear to need coaches less. However, on another level the role of the coach will become greater through their engagement in an ever-widening range of activities designed to educate the client in the knowledge and skills necessary to become their own coach. Coaches will give away their skills - but to do this requires that they understand what it is they are giving away; how the process of reflective learning works; how they might help an individual leant how and when to use it; and when it is appropriate and advisable for the client, and indeed themselves also, to seek support and further guidance from another. The key message at the heart of this process is that just as leadership skills may be considered relevant for everyone (Watts & Come 2013), so too may reflective learning skills be considered relevant for everyone!

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