“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

So said Socrates, anyway, and he was a pretty bright chap by all accounts.

Reflective writing is increasingly being used as a form of evidence in many qualifications and as part of professional development programmes. It was central to the assessment of my PCHE qualification, and it’s the main method of assessment for my other half’s CILIP chartership process.

By why? What’s so important about it?

Well professional qualifications are typically about being better at what you do.

Now, if you’re studying mathematics, biology or astrophysics, the object of your learning is external and independent. On the other hand, if you want to be better at teaching or people management, it’s your own behaviour that needs to change.

It’s not enough to know what you should be doing in theory. You also need to know what you’re actually doing so that you can work out how to improve.

Where does writing fit in?

It’s perfectly possible to think about your own behaviour without going near a pen (or computer). Why would you want to write it all down? For me, reflective writing serves several purposes.

First, it makes a permanent record. I can quite easily forget what I was thinking five minutes ago, let alone remember everything I thought last month. But if I write something down it’s a lot harder to lose.

Plus, it can be enlightening and even surprising to look back at a later date at what you thought in the past. It can be particularly useful to see how your thoughts develop over a period of time, particularly if you have an interest in how people learn.

Next, it can act as evidence of your learning. A portfolio which includes reflective writing shows not only that you have the right skills, but also that you’re both willing and able to improve them.

Finally, it externalises your thought processes, placing them in the real world where you can examine them more objectively. It’s far to easy to get wrapped up in those processes if you keep them locked away inside your head.

How can I write reflectively?

As I rapidly discovered when I started, reflective writing doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. Thankfully there are a number of tricks which can help — here are a few that have worked for me:

  1. Use a timer: Set an ordinary kitchen timer for 10 minutes, and write without pausing until it goes off. Don’t worry about staying on topic; just don’t stop writing.

  2. Write a letter: Try imagining that you’re writing a to a friend or family member. You don’t have to ever send it, but writing for someone else can make reflection feel less futile.

  3. Ask a question: If you’re writing about a particular problem, seeing it phrased as a question can help to trigger problem-solving thought processes.

  4. Mix it up: If writing doesn’t do it for you, try talking things through into a dictaphone. If you have a trusted friend or colleague, you could set up a tape recorder (or use a laptop or mobile phone) and record a conversation with them.

  5. Learn more: Gillie Bolton isn’t the only author to write about reflective writing by a long way, but I found her book Reflective Practice full of useful ideas. I’m also planning to take a look at Donald Schön’s classic work on the subject, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action soon.

But I’m interested: what works for you? Share your tips and tricks in the comments below.

Photo credit: Young Narcissist by Victoria Henderson