The reflective zombie: Problematizing the conceptual framework of reflection in medical education: Problematizing the conceptual framework of reflection in medical education

Anne de la Croix, Mario Veen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

77 Citations (Scopus)


Reflection is an ambiguous and profoundly complex human activity. We celebrate the developments in teaching and researching reflection in education, yet have identified flaws in the way reflection has been operationalized: medical education has translated the age-old concept into a teachable and measureable construct. We fear that in this process of operationalization, the philosophical underpinnings of reflection have been discarded. We illustrate this with a thought experiment about a ‘reflective zombie’: students who have been conditioned to follow prescribed thought steps rather than engaging in truly reflective behaviour. In research and assessment of reflection, measuring tools might be unable to distinguish reflective zombies from students who authentically reflect. We argue that the instrumental approach lies at the root of this problem as it limits the rich concept of reflection and illustrate our point by describing problems related to paradigm (we are looking at reflection in the wrong way), methods (we are using the wrong tools), and epistemics (can we even know what we want to know?). We offer three suggestions for implementing reflection into the curriculum and for research into reflection. First, acknowledge the diversity of reflection and let go of the ‘checklist approach’. Second, embrace the personal nature of reflection by stimulating awareness of one’s personal reflection styles as part of the reflective process. Third, shift the focus of research to the practice of reflection. We believe that a strong vision on reflection can lead to a balanced curriculum, setting students up for a lifelong learning as a reflective practitioner.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)394-400
Number of pages7
JournalPerspectives on medical education
Issue number6
Early online date23 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018


  • Assessment
  • Methodology
  • Reflection
  • Theory

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