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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Preparing Reflective Practitioners

by Zeena Zakharia, University of Massachusetts, USA

Contributions to the INEE Online Discussion Forum on Teaching Education in Emergencies have addressed important aspects of preparing students to work in this field, including engagement with theory, research, tools, standards, case studies, internships, field work, and team projects and consultations. This post builds on these aspects of knowledge and skill building by focusing on a central dimension of this teaching: preparing reflective practitioners.*

What is a reflective practitioner?

Reflective practitioners have the skills and capacities, or habits of mind, to continually reflect on their experiences and observations in order to inform or refine future actions or theories through a process of continuous learning. The term, associated with the work of Donald Schön and elaborated by others, involves giving critical attention to the theories, beliefs, and values that inform practice. This reflective and reflexive process in turn provides new insights to inform changes in practice. According to Schön (1983: 68):

The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation.

The surprise, puzzlement, or confusion referred to by Schön can take place through intellectual, personal, and professional engagements. Preparing reflective practitioners involves developing these capacities within the classroom, such that students are able to carry these practices into their work in the world.

Why is it important to prepare reflective practitioners when there is no time for reflection within the urgent context of education in emergencies?

Anyone who has worked in an emergency context will tell you that there is no time for reflection in the midst of crisis. What room does reflection have in education in emergencies?

Effective practice in emergencies requires habits of mind that allow for reflection-in-action, or the capacity to think on one’s feet, and reflection-on-action, or the practice of thinking through what happened. No matter how well prepared they are, new and surprising situations will arise. Practitioners need to be flexible, responsive, and to learn quickly on the job, especially in rapidly evolving situations. Understanding power dynamics, including the politics of one’s own position or how it is perceived, as well as the positioning of various organizations and their governments and employees is key to this process.

Well-developed capacities allow reflective practitioners to draw on diverse sources of knowledge and experience to inform actions in unexpected and unfolding situations, as new and unfamiliar information or circumstances are being learned. The reflective practitioner is able to draw on prior understandings and to effectively respond to the immediacy of the situation. As circumstance allows, reflective practitioners take pause as a matter of habit, to reflect on actions and gain new insights from experience. This is particularly critical in a field with tremendous uncertainty and where social, political, economic, and historical context matters and impacts the ways in which emergencies are experienced by different populations within and across borders.

What does preparing reflective practitioners in Education in Emergencies entail?

Preparing reflective practitioners involves the development of particular forms of knowledge that emerge from personal reflection, observation, and experience, and provides opportunities for students to connect this to other forms of knowledge. This entails developing skills and capacities for critical reflection, or habits of mind, that will support ongoing reflection and learning. This teaching and learning process values students’ prior knowledge, including that knowledge gained from personal or professional experience and observation, and seeks, through a process of critical reflection and reflexivity, to connect this form of knowledge to “academic” forms of knowledge gained through reading, research, and engagement with theory. Preparing reflective practitioners also entails providing students with opportunities to develop their capacities, or habits of mind, to engage in ongoing reflection in and on action as they move forward in their work in the world. It entails creating opportunities for students to critically examine their intentions, beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices.

What are some concrete strategies that instructors can use in their classrooms to prepare students as reflective practitioners?

A number of strategies and activities may be used to support the preparation of reflective practitioners for education in emergencies. These techniques provide opportunities for students to look to their experience in order to (1) deepen or extend understanding of theory; (2) look for discrepant evidence; (3) identify or develop implicit theories, hypotheses or theories of change. At the same time, it is critical for students to recognize that their experience does not define the experience of others. Below I share a handful of techniques I have tried in different combinations; not all techniques are possible for all coursework.

  1. Providing an explicit conceptual framing. Making explicit the conceptual framing of the course provides students a frame of reference for their learning process and a recognition that other approaches to the field co-exist. From which perspective is the course being taught? Whose voices, actions, and educational initiatives will be made central to course material? What are some of the implicit assumptions or theories underpinning the course?
  2. Including diverse forms of literature, visual, and auditory texts. By providing diverse texts, including academic and other literatures, statistics, and students own texts as sources of knowledge, instructors provide opportunities for students to critically analyze and connect different forms of knowledge and to view their own knowledge as capable of providing significant insights. Preparing reflective practitioners entails engaging them with alternative, often oppositional viewpoints, and discrepant evidence. Two excellent examples are Everjoice Wini’s (2004) “‘If it Doesn’t Fit on the Blue Square, It’s Out!’ Open Letter to My Donor Friend” and Haunani Kay Trask’s (1993) “Coalitions Between Natives and Non-Natives.” These texts address power relations and the difficult work of forming alliances for social change. Students’ reading of these and other texts from less represented points of view often bring about difficult classroom dialogues that are critical to developing the capacities of reflective practitioners.
  3. Making dialogue and modeling central to the learning and teaching process. Establishing a pedagogy that makes dialogue and modeling central principles gives students an opportunity to practice and observe reflective practice. Opportunities to engage in dialogue (a) as a learning community; (b) through engagement with academic texts; (c) through engagement with each other’s texts; and (d) through engagement with other practitioners and scholars, are all techniques for developing habits of critical reflection. Similarly modeling dialogue and reflective practice, as an instructor, and through interaction with other practitioners and scholars allows students to observe and engage with these practices.
  4. Maintaining a double-entry journal. The double entry journal requires students to select and copy out an excerpt of a text (this could be the description of visual or the transcription of auditory text from a film or podcast) that particularly resonated with him or her and to explain why. Students are encouraged to make connections to personal or professional experience or observation and other forms of knowledge, including other coursework. In this way, the double-entry journal extends the assigned texts through elaboration, disagreement, or identification of discrepant evidence, weaving in the reflective and reflexive voice of the student as a valid source of knowledge. The double entry-journal represents one way that students can engage in dialogue with authors through their texts. By sharing the entries with their instructor and other classmates who reflect on their entries, the students also engage in dialogue with a learning community.
  5. Assigning the political autobiography. A more extended and involved dialogic assignment is the writing of a political autobiography in which students critically examine their system of beliefs, values, prejudices, intentions, and what they perceive to be their personal and professional strengths, weaknesses, privileges and roles in their current and future work. As a tool for reflection, the political autobiography asks students to ask difficult questions of themselves to arrive at new insights regarding what they believe about the world and what in their own background or history led them to form these beliefs. The instructor reads a first draft around mid-term and dialogues with each student through the text, posing critical questions to support students in further developing their texts. Students then elaborate a second version. The instructor underscores that this is a work in progress, that there is no finished product. Rather, the political autobiography is a dialogic process.
  6. Using protocols. A number of protocols are available from the National School Reform Faculty for the professional development of reflective practitioners through collaborative learning and critical friends groups. Using different protocols can help to facilitate reflective inquiry and difficult dialogues in the classroom through structured facilitation and collaborative guidance. Using protocols also underscores the principle of a collaborative learning community.
  7. Engaging with reflective practitioners. Providing students with the opportunity to interact with practitioners, researchers, and policy makers who are themselves reflective and reflexive, and who grapple with the complexities and tensions in their work is an important part of modeling reflective practice in the field of education in emergencies. Examples include inviting speakers to class; engaging with their written texts, podcasts, or speeches; or connecting with them with the support of digital technologies.
  8. Mentoring. Mentoring, particularly as students move beyond the bounded site of the classroom, is particularly important in supporting reflective practitioners as they make meaning of their experience in internships, field research, and new and unfamiliar work placements.

As I reflect on these practices, I wonder how others have conceptualized reflective practice and what they are doing to facilitate the preparation of reflective practitioners in the field of education in emergencies.


Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action. Basic Books.

Trask, H. K. (1993). Coalitions between natives and non-natives. In From a native daughter: Colonialism and sovereignty in Hawaii. Maine: Common Courage Press.

Wini, E. (2004). ’If it Doesn’t Fit on the Blue Square, It’s Out!’ Open Letter to My Donor Friend. In L. Groves and R. Hinton (Eds), Inclusive Aid: Changing power and relationships in international development. Routledge.

*This post draws mainly on experience developing and teaching interdisciplinary graduate degree courses to students from various world regions and from various disciplines and fields, in the US and in Austria. I also draw from experience advising and mentoring graduate students conducting masters and doctoral thesis work and working with me in the context of my research and professional practice in the Middle East. As an educator and researcher from outside the US, and from a conflict context, reflecting on my own positionality within the various educational spaces I inhabit is critical to developing my ideas about teaching education in emergencies.


Zeena Zakharia is Assistant Professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She was Gebran G. Tueni Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Middle Eastern Studies Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer of International Educational Development at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her publications examine the interplay of language, conflict, and peacebuilding in education. These interests stem from over a decade of educational leadership in war-affected contexts. She serves as consultant for international, governmental, and civil society organizations on issues related to education, conflict, and peacebuilding.


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