15 Reflecting on the Metaphor and Practice of Reflection in Education – by Stacey A. Ritz

Stacey A. Ritz

Human beings tend to think in metaphors and analogies a lot—probably because they provide a convenient and satisfying cognitive strategy for understanding novel situations using things we have already experienced as an anchor point, allowing us to transfer our insights and knowledge from one context to another. As such, the use of metaphors can be an exceedingly useful way of communicating complex ideas and relationships between people, and they can form powerful images in our minds that can stimulate new ideas and ways of thinking.

At the same time, however, we should be cautious about our use of metaphors. Considered from the perspective of discourse analysis, metaphors operate “by applying one taken-for-granted field of knowledge and applying it to another” (Chilton & Schaffner, 2011, p.320). In order for the metaphor to be legible, those on the receiving end must know and share certain values, experiences, and referents, and they must affirm certain perspectives and values that align with it through the similarities that are highlighted, while obscuring or ignoring other elements that don’t necessarily fit with the imagery evoked. For example, in immunology it is common to use militaristic imagery and metaphors to explain immune function, with white blood cells likened to soldiers, antibodies to weapons, and microorganisms to enemies. This metaphor can certainly be quite useful in trying to understand certain aspects of immune function, particularly when it comes to host defense; however, if we buy in to the metaphor too completely, it can be a significant misrepresentation of how things actually work (which becomes especially clear when you start to think about all of the ways that we live in harmonious symbiosis with microorganisms). Fairclough (1993) points out that in every instance where we use a metaphor we can ask: why have we chosen this metaphor instead of another? What linkages are being made? What are we emphasizing and what are we obscuring by using this metaphor? And what is the effect of using this metaphor on my thought and my practice?

In university education, the practice of ‘reflection’ has become increasingly prevalent, particularly in the health professions where the concept of ‘reflective practice’ has grown to become common in many health professional curricula (Mann et al., 2007; Schon 1983). In these contexts, it’s often not recognized that the term ‘reflection’ is, in fact, a metaphor, likening the practices of introspection and considering one’s actions carefully to our common everyday experience of literally seeing ourselves reflected back to us by shiny surfaces like mirrors, water, windows, screens, etc. If we recognize that ‘reflection’ is a metaphor in this way, what are the implications for putting reflection in our curricula? What can we learn from subjecting the metaphor of reflection to some analysis and critique in order to better understand the hidden curriculum of reflection in higher education?

Reflection is a particularly visual metaphor that references our common everyday experiences of seeing images of ourselves being, literally, reflected back to us by a shiny surface. Our commonsense interpretation of these is that reflection permits us to see ourselves ‘as we really are’, but the idea that literal reflections give us unmediated, unadulterated views of reality breaks down very quickly once we think more deeply about the range of our actual experiences with reflection. In a ‘perfect’ mirror—one that is absolutely flat and without flaws or irregularities of any kind—we might expect to see ourselves ‘as we really are’; at the same time, we know that such a perfect surface does not exist. Most mirrors are slightly flawed in one way or another, and funhouse mirrors deliberately create undulating shapes to transform our reflections in dramatic ways. The reflections we see on water can be fragmented and deformed depending on the motion of the water. Those we see in windows or screens may be transparent and ghostly, making some features more obvious than others. The light used also influences the character of reflection. Even the most perfect reflective surface does not create a reflection in the absence of light. When we think about the reflections created on windows, much depends on whether the light source is on the same side of the surface as we are. And, of course, a lot depends on where exactly we are located with respect to the surface and the light. We can make use of these properties of the physical production of reflections to visualize things that would be otherwise invisible to us, for example with reflective telescopes and three-way mirrors. Recognizing that ‘reflection’ is a metaphor can help us to think more deeply and critically about what we mean by introspective reflection and what we hope to achieve by using it in education.

First, the way we judge and value what we find during introspective reflection is coloured by experience, social norms, and ideology. There was a full-length mirror at my mother-in-law’s house that I loved because it made me look thinner than I really am, but the curve of the mirror producing that effect was so slight that the image didn’t appear to be obviously distorted. It was a strange moment of cognitive dissonance for me because I know full well that my body doesn’t quite look like that, but the image doesn’t give any obvious signs that it is distorted. The fact that I experienced seeing a reflection of myself as thinner than I really am as a positive, desirable thing is germane here. In a different social context, being thinner may have no emotional or value-laden content, or I might experience it as a negative thing to be thinner. In my culture, however, my emotional response to the reflection is heavily influenced by the fact that current social norms have idealized certain body types for women. Other culturally- and socially-produced experiences will also influence our reflective practice—a person who has developed an awareness of their social privilege will probably generate very different kinds of reflections on and interpretations of their own actions than will someone who denies or is unaware of their privilege. Thus, the kinds of reflections produced by deliberate introspection will depend largely on the qualities of our ‘internal’ cognitive reflective surfaces—what we value, prioritize, are interested in, have experienced previously, or recognize as relevant.

Second, the metaphor of reflection directs our attention to the fact that we will only see that which we have shone a light on. People are often loathe to ‘shine lights’ into the dark corners of their psyches, and they fail to contemplate or even acknowledge the existence of parts of themselves they find most challenging—often the things they would benefit most from reflecting on. Thus, one’s reflective practice is only as good as one’s willingness to confront and contend with potentially objectionable truths about one’s self.

Third, ‘reflection’ reminds us that when we hold our tools in the right way, at the right angle, and with the right lighting, we are able to see things that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see and enhance or even transform our self-images. I’m reminded of the way that some second-wave feminists encouraged women to use a mirror to inspect their vulvas as a way of demystifying a part of their bodies many women had never seen before, pushing back against the culturally inculcated sense of shame associated with women’s genitalia. However, this moment of transformation is only possible if the configuration of the elements is right—if not, we may not see anything even if all of the components are there.

In considering reflection in the context of education, I’m particularly concerned about how the hidden curriculum of assessment will influence how reflection is undertaken by students, its contents, and how it is valued. When reflections are mandated in response to specific prompts, this will have significant implications for the content, form, and structure of the reflection produced, constraining the reflection to that domain which the authority figure has prescribed. When such reflections are to be evaluated, a set of power dynamics are created in which students are more likely to express views they believe to coincide with the expectations of the evaluator—a quasi-capitalist exchange in which students are ‘paid’ in marks for delivering the ‘right’ answers. When their reflections are mandated by an authority figure and subject to evaluation, we must be alert to the likelihood that what they provide is more a representation of what they perceive as being acceptable to express and conforming with what they understand the expectations of that authority figure to be than it is an authentic representation of themselves. As Bleakley puts it, reflection in this context functions as a “paradoxical discipline, a technology of the self in which…there are certain things that may be said and those that may not be said” (2000, p.14). Given the power relations here, there will be considerable incentives for students to reproduce the content and values they understand to be expected of them.

This is a particularly challenging nexus for educators who see value in reflection and in cultivating the capacity for authentic, critical introspection in students. When we require reflection as part of our curricula, and particularly when we evaluate it, it becomes difficult to know whether a student is authentically engaged with the process or simply constructing a simulacrum of genuine reflection to satisfy our requirements. Ultimately, though, perhaps it’s a moot point—if a student knows enough to be able to produce a ‘fake’ reflection, then at least they have gone through a process of considering carefully what such a reflection ‘ought’ to look like, which is probably of value in and of itself.



Bleakley, A. (2000). Writing with invisible ink: Narrative, confessionalism, and reflective practice. Reflective Practice 1: 11–24.

Chilton, P., & Schaffner, C. (2011). Discourse and politics. In: T.A. van Dijk (Ed.) Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction (p. 303-330). London, UK: Sage.

Fairclough, N.  (1993). Discourse and Social Change (1st edition). Cambridge: Polity.

Mann, K., Gordon, J., & MacLeod, A.  (2007). Reflection and reflective practice in health professions education: a systematic review. Advances in Health Sciences Education 14: 595–621.

Schon, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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