When reflection goes AWOL

<Image http://www.flickr.com/photos/eryda23/284475315/ by eryda23>

I was talking with a colleague the other day about the difficulties of integrating reflection as practice into education. We know being reflective generally makes for a good practitioner, but it's difficult to force people to be reflective. Schon's observations could be result of correlation, not causality, ie good practitioners tend to be reflective, but making someone reflective won't necessarily make them a good practitioner.

Anyway, there was much furore at the time about bankers and their bonuses. In much of the discussion that followed and particularly the types of statements that came from bankers and their bosses, it struck me that reflection is almost the key attribute they lack. Schon makes the distinction between reflection in action – they obviously failed to exhibit this when creating a global pyramid selling scheme, and reflection on action – they have failed to exhibit this since the downfall and the suggestion that massive bonuses are necessary to their function is an example of this.

I think it is this latter failure, that to truly accept and reflect on how badly things went wrong, and thus make the requisite adjustments that is truly terrifying. Bankers often project this attitude that the rest of us are over-reacting, and no major changes are required, just some tinkering. They are akin to a serial murderer who has been caught because they were speeding, but still protests they weren't really going over the speed limit.

'The reflective banker' has become an oxymoron, and it seems to me one of the challenges that society faces (since, let's face it the financial industry won't do it), is how to inject reflection as common practice into the banking industry, both at the individual and institutional level. A reflective banker/bank would continually ask:

i) Is what I am doing harmful for society?

ii) Am I being paid too much? (because contrary to belief it is possible to be paid too much, because it leads to next point)

iii) Is this mode of operation unsustainable?

If the answer to any of these questions is 'yes' (or even 'maybe') then big sirens should automatically sound in every household in the country.

One of the problems with extreme financial success is that it creates a bubble – we see it with footballer's also. Only those within the bubble are perceived as truly understanding what is going on (they are holders of some truth) and thus communication only happens within the bubble. And reflection is akin to criticism which is a potential bubble-burster, and thus is explicitly (through reward structures and punishment for speaking out) and implicitly (through social norms) outlawed. If truth is the first casualty of war, then reflection is the first casualty of runaway financial success.

As I started out saying it's difficult to force people to be reflective and when you do it quickly boils down to fake-reflection and game-playing. But you can provide a context within which it is encouraged. This can be through interaction with people outside of the bubble (even the dopiest celebrity is forced to reflect on their shallowness when they visit poor nations for charity), through answering criticism fairly (people who say 'I never read the papers' should be made to), and perhaps, just maybe, through education.

If various governments really want to prevent another financial crisis (which is inevitable given the paucity of real solutions to the last one), then making reflection a virtue in the sector would be a good place to start.


  1. AJ Cann says:

    I think your analogy confuses reflection with ethics. I suspect all “good” i.e. effective bankers are reflective, but whether they choose to do “good” as society would see it is another matter. Prisoners dilemma (again). Both sides have to benefit.

  2. Mariano says:

    I think you outline some causes yourself.
    Bankers are the ultimate product of capitalism, a system that promotes individualist, greedy, behaviours, and does not care about communities.
    I think bankers reflect from an egotistic, self-centred viewpoint, e.g. “How I am doing [economically] in comparison with X?”, no from a societal viewpoint, e.g. “am I doing good to society or not?
    The banker’s aim is the individual bonus, not the community benefit.
    Surely bankers’ genuine reflections happen but those reflections are not externalised – made public, because the goal of that reflection is just to improve the private benefit, not the public interest.

  3. Martin says:

    @AJ – no, I don’t think so. Particularly with respect to my question i) – this crisis has taught us that we are not separate from bankers nor them from us. To be a good, ie effective banker you must work with an overall objective of sustainability in mind. I didn’t argue that they should necessarily benefit society, I don’t expect them all to be altruistic, but if their practice _damages_ society then ultimately that will damage them too. So even from a selfish point of view, it is in their long-term interest not to harm society. ‘First do no harm’ would be a good motto for bankers as well as doctors. And I think they can’t have been reflective not to have seen that their practice was ultimately unsustainable – they were therefore not effective practitioners, regardless of a moral perspective.
    @Mariano – that is probably true, but even selfish behaviours can have altruistic or positive effects, so the function of the banking _system_ if not the bankers is to harness this effectively. In terms of reflection, it may not matter whether they are selfish or not, the point is they were bad practitioners, except in a very short-term sense.

  4. Hello
    Did you see “The Love of Money” on BBC? It seems that Greenspan thought it would be self-regulating.. that it would be intuitive not to take risks which would cause all of finacedom to collapse. But then the workings got so complex that people could easily reach a state of denial about their own place in events. How can an individual reflect on events at that scale. It has to be publicly to be useful I’d guess.
    Yesterday I was doing so student appraisal. Two of the students commented that they thought they might ‘think too much about things’. These were two of the best students in the year. They hadn’t realised that this ability to reflect might be the cause of their success, and was a good thing. So I think you may well be right about the relationship between being a good practitioner and reflection.

  5. Do the people who don’t reflect about their teaching reflect about other things e.g. how to do good research? I’m just curious as to whether it’s a subconscious decision as to how direct to their attention or a more general lack of reflection.

  6. I think the problem with the analogy is that it conflates two meanings of the word ‘reflective’: the commonsense one and Schon’s technical one. What Schon was really after was to use reflective practice as a way of bridging the gap between the kinds knowledge academics have and professionals have:
    “What is the kind of knowing in which competent practitioners engage? How is professional knowing like and unlike the kinds of knowledge presented in academic textbooks, scientific papers, and learned journals? In what sense, if any, is there intellectual rigor in professional practice?”
    Having the kind of ‘reflection-in-action’ knowledge Schon described doesn’t necessarily mean better practice just like an academic applying rigour to her scholarship may be profoundly wrong. And a closer examination will reveal that in fact many of these failed bankers were reflective practitioners who were being reinforced by the people with academic knowledge. (See Tett’s ‘Fool’s Gold’ for examples).
    Perhaps, this quote of Schon’s could apply:
    “Many practiontioners, locked into a view of themselves as technical experts, find nothing in the world of practice to occasion reflection. They have become too skillful at techniques of selective inattention, junk categories, and situational control, techniques which they use to preserve the constancy of their knowledge-in-practice.” But again the questions you propose they should have been asking of themselves don’t appear to resolve this particular problem.

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