The Language We Use in Facilitation and Teaching: Reflection and Reflective Practice

There’s all the difference in the world between having something to say, and having to say
—John Dewey

My March of 2013 blog post “The Language We Use in Facilitation: Reflection Vs. Debriefing” explored the importance of the language we use in facilitation. At the time I had been facilitating some workshops for educators in Japan. Working with an interpreter made me cognizant of the jargon in our field and forced me to slow down and carefully think about the words I was using to describe experiential education and the practice of facilitation — specifically reflection vs. debriefing. A conversation about this topic in a facilitators forum online this past week inspired me to revisit that post.

Jennifer Stanchfield's Miniature MetaphorsReflection is key to creating lasting, meaningful lessons. It can be an engaging part of learning and teaching instead of what  is sometimes perceived by learners (and facilitators) as a boring follow up to an engaging experience. I encourage facilitators and educators to think about the language they use around reflection, the timing of reflection, and their attitudes toward reflection. Traditionally, many educators think of reflection as a follow-up to an experience and use the term debrief to describe this post experience wrap up. This word originates from the military. I remember talking to my friend and colleague Dave Lockett, about this subject many years ago. Dave, a former Navy S.E.A.L., shared that he didn’t think “debriefing” fit our field as it implied a top-down military report-out to a commanding officer rather than an educational experience. Dictionary definitions affirm Dave’s observation:

debrief, transitive verb
• To interrogate (as a pilot) usually upon return (as from a mission) in order to obtain useful information
Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary
de·briefed, de·brief·ing, de·briefs
1. To question to obtain knowledge or intelligence gathered especially on a military mission.
2. To instruct (a government agent, for example) not to reveal classified or secret information after employment
has ceased.
American Heritage Dictionary

This word has never resonated for me as an educator for a couple of reasons. It doesn’t sound inviting or engaging; it implies an authoritative approach that is leader-centered and a one-time “report out” to a superior that seems limited in scope and application. It also implies a static moment in time and limited linear model—activity followed by a facilitator-directed debrief, followed by an activity, followed by a debrief, and so on.

Jennifer Stanchfield's Professional DevelopmentI use the terms “reflection”, “processing”, or “reflective practice” to describe an ongoing, engaging and integrative approach to weaving reflection throughout experiences from beginning to end and beyond.  Reflection can begin the moment that learners walk in the door (or maybe before with pre-group journaling or questionnaires). Meaningful reflection can and should be woven throughout the entire experience using a variety of methods including metaphoric objects and images, artwork, writing, social interaction, movement, play, as well as dialogue. In this kind of ongoing practice educators work to engage learners in meaningful reflection about their experiences so the lessons can be teased out and applied to other aspects of their lives. The goal is to help the learner to take ownership of and synthesize the information for themselves and their peers.

Reflective dialogue should not be a report-out to us as the leader, but rather an interactive discussion to help learners find meaning in their experiences so they can carry the learning forward. Many find that with a more participant-centered approach to facilitating reflection, they gain a wealth of information about their group’s progress and ways they can improve their teaching that were missed when they were taking more control of the process.

These recent Inspired Educator Blog posts offer ways to weave reflection throughout experiences to increase relevancy, depth of understanding, and connection to real life and future learning:


Inspired Eductor Blog March 2013

Stanchfield, Jennifer (2014) Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner: Experiential, Brain-Based Activities and Strategies to Engage, Motivate, Build Community and Create Lasting Lessons. Wood N Barnes Publishing Company.

  • Michael Cardus
    Posted at 23:47h, 04 December

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I wonder if even reflection may be too time-bound. Teams may not have sufficient time, or luxury, to have a reflection period. When thinking about learning-while-doing & iterative efforts based upon attractors (what you want to have happen)the reflection may be before – during – and after the action.
    I’ve been trying to decrease the use of language that causes a separation from the work. Just calling what we do learning.

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