Bridging Theory and Practice: Reflective Learning in Higher Education

Bridging Theory and Practice: Reflective Learning in Higher Education

Eva Cendon (Deutsche Universität für Weiterbildung, Germany)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0024-7.ch012
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This chapter focuses on reflective learning in higher education as central point of reference in answering to the social demands and the ongoing changes in modern societies. Empirical basis is a two and a half year study with a group of students in different master's programs at a University for Professional Studies and interviews with teachers who are teaching in master's programs of professional studies. The chapter presents a concept of reflective learning that values the students' practice and expertise as professionals and provides ways to further develop and transform this practice into new contexts. Hence, the productive linkage between academic ways of knowing and professional ways of knowing and the development of students as reflective practitioners are central elements.
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When writing about bridging theory and practice and reflective learning, one needs to establish a framework of thoughts that helps to integrate the different lines of thinking. When focusing on theory and practice, it is necessary to broaden one’s perspective to include both the academic world (which is more theory-driven) and the professional world (more practice-driven). The discussion is often focused on the distinction between academic declarative or propositional knowledge (knowing what) and action-oriented procedural knowledge (knowing how) (Billett, 2009, 2014). Donald A. Schön wrote in the 1980s against the model of technical rationality that both sets a hierarchy of (scientific) knowledge above knowledge in action and divides the development of theories and solutions for problems from practical problem solving (Schön, 1983). But the issue of bridging theory and practice within the academic context is a much older one, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century as Barnett (1990, 1992) shows in his analyses.

When looking at theory and practice in higher education, the concept of reflection becomes central. As Van Manen (1991, p. 98) points out, in educational theory reflection can be understood “as just another word for ‘thinking’.” If one reflects, he or she thinks. Two concepts of learning, closely interlinked with each other, become relevant: the concept of experiential and the concept of reflective learning. Both concepts take experience in its various forms as their central basis (Moon, 1999; 2004).

At the beginning of the 20th century, it was American philosopher and educational scientist John Dewey (1859-1952) who addressed the issue of theory and practice, focusing primarily at that time on education. As the “founding father” of experiential and reflective learning, Dewey laid the foundations for an interconnection of theory and practice that put primary emphasis on critical thinking and reflection that always uses experience as point of departure. For him, an “ounce of experience is better than a ton of theory simply because it is only in experience that any theory has vital and verifiable significance. An experience, a very humble experience, is capable of generating and carrying any amount of theory (…), but a theory apart from an experience cannot be definitely grasped even as theory” (Dewey, 1923, p. 169).

As Dewey explains, experience and reflection are closely connected. Reflection denotes a certain quality of experience as reflective experience. A reflective experience consists of the following elements (Dewey, 1923, p. 176):

Key Terms in this Chapter

Reflection in Action: Reflection during acting, often triggered by a moment of surprise.

Reflective Practitioner: A concept of a professional who critically reflects upon his or her own practice and hence further develops his or her practical theories.

Work Based Learning: A term used to describe the relationship between learning and work. It emerges from the demands of work, rather than from formal educational programs.

Reflective Learning: A process of learning through reflection of experiences.

Critical Reflection: A critical stance taken toward oneself, one’s own assumptions and beliefs.

Reflection on Action: A systematic reflection on a past experience with the aim of developing new strategies of action.

Reflection: A term used for thinking about experience. Reflection can be directed toward past experience, present experience, or anticipating towards the future.

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