Why I don’t like Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle in reflective practice

Reflective practice

Reflective practice is a core tenet of many professions. From nursing to teaching – reflective practice is an aspect of qualification, a requirement of professional bodies and an accepted aspect of practice. Reflective practice requires an individual to engage in conscious thought about an experience, event or practice. Such thinking should be critical; considering both what has worked and what has not. The aim of such reflective thinking is to identify what went well so that you can keep doing it – and what hasn’t worked well so you can change it. In short, reflection should be a useful tool for future action. Reflection also requires some form of expression – from writing in a personal diary or keeping notes on your practice to having a conversation with peers or writing a formal essay. Reflection needs communicating – even if it is only for your own use.

Three stages of reflection for reflective practice:
1 - have an experience
2 - think about an experience
3 - put learning into practice

While there are many different academic models of reflection, they usually revolve around three core components: an experience, thinking about an experience and then putting that learning into practice. Popular models include Kolb, Gibbs, Schön, Rolfe et al., ERA and Brookfield. As a learning developer, I see these models used frequently in student work. There is, however, one model I see more than any: Gibbs‘ Reflective Cycle – and I’m sick of it.


Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle

Before I start the critique, I should first say that Gibbs’ model has its uses. The rigid structure serves some students well, setting out how their essays should look. Instead of fretting over planning, this is largely set out in Gibbs’ model.

Another advantage is that it annexes descriptions into a single section. While this can cause other problems, it at least contextualises the role of description in the rest of the piece – it is a small aspect. I also like how Gibbs’ refers to feelings as a distinct aspect. Feelings are often overlooked and their prominence in the Reflective Cycle is helpful at framing reflection as different from normal discursive academic writing.

Describe what happened briefly. Feelings - Describe feelings/emotional response. Evaluation - What was good/bad about response. Analysis - How do you make sense of it? (use research). Conclusions - General conclusions. Specific conclusions - Action Plan What would you do next time?
Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle (Image from University of Hull, 2021)

Criticisms of Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle

Having given Gibbs some form of an introduction, this section briefly lists the issues:

  1. The Reflective Cycle is boring – The six-stage model leaves little breathing room for interpretation or expansion. It produces essays that are samey.
  2. The Reflective Cycle determines paragraphs – Most implementations of Gibbs’ model force students into a single paragraph per stage of the model. This doesn’t scale well as essay lengths increase, leading to too much description and feelings. It also does not provide much freedom on how different elements of a reflection are structured.
  3. The Reflective Cycle can lead to superficial reflections – This is because Gibbs does not require the writer to challenge values or assumptions associated with any of their actions in the experience.
  4. The Reflective Cycle fails to draw connections – Without linking the experience being reflected upon to other events, there is a missed opportunity to demonstrate depth.
  5. The Reflective Cycle focuses too much on the reflector – While reflection is a highly individualistic thing, most approaches to it consider there are others. However, Gibbs fails to move beyond analysis of self. This can make reflections self-serving as opposed to individually useful (and sometimes that means challenging!).
  6. The Reflective Cycle fails to pose probing questions – While deep, probing questions certainly can be associated with some of the aspects of Gibbs’ model, as presented in overview, these are lost. This, again, leads to superficial reflections.
  7. The Reflective Cycle fails to engage critical thinking – While the model has components of evaluation and analysis, these are simply defined. Evaluation and analysis should present an opportunity for critical thinking – but this is largely absent.
  8. The Reflective Cycle fails to contextualise – The distinct sections for description and feelings are set towards the front of an essay. This can makes it difficult to links between different aspects of evaluation and analysis with elements of description.
  9. The Reflective Cycle confuses novices – So many students struggle to differentiate the evaluation and analysis. This can lead to mixed up sections. I also don’t know if the analysis and evaluation are the right way round. Sometimes I’m in favour of swopping – and others in favour of the status quo.

These points demonstrate many of the weaknesses associated with Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle. I often find simpler models more effective as they give more freedom and space for tailoring to the task required.

Other options

When considering Gibbs, it is also useful to consider that other models are available. My favourites right now are:

Rofle

Rolfe et al’s (2001) framework focuses on three questions:

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what?

While this may seem simpler than Gibbs, I feel it allows more flexibility and adaptation. The three questions lead writers to consider a combination of description, links to theory and actions to take forward.

Brookfield

Brookfield’s (2005) four lenses encourage reflectors to consider an event from multiple perspectives

  • Lens of their own autobiography as teachers and learners
  • Lens of students’ eyes
  • Lens of colleagues experiences
  • Lens of educational literature

This directly addresses one of the critiques of Gibbs – that there is no consideration of others in depth.

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