Reflective Thinking in Small Groups

Working in groups requires making decisions together. For many people, this is a frustrating experience. However, there are strategies available that can help guide a group through the decision-making experience.

One method that may help small groups to make decisions is the reflective-thinking approach. This approach was developed by John Dewey and has been in use almost 100 years.

This post will explain the reflective-thinking approach. This approach has five steps…

  1. Define the problem
  2. Analyze the problem
  3. Develop criteria for solving the problem
  4. Develop potential solutions
  5. Select the most appropriate solution

Define the Problem

A group needs to know what problem they are trying to solve. One of the best ways to define the problem is to phrase it as a question. For example, if the problem is students struggling in English class, one way to word this problem as a question would be…

What should we do to help students with their English class?

There are several traits of a clearly worded problem. One, it is clear and specific. In the example above it is clear the English performance is a problem. Two, the phrasing of the question should be open-ended which allows for many different answers. Three, the question should only ask one question. This increase the answer-ability of the question and allows the group to focus.

Analyze the Problem

Before developing solutions, it is imperative that the group analyze the problem. This involves assessing the severity of the problem and the causes of the problem. Determining severity helps to understand who is affected and how any while determining causes can naturally lead to solutions in the next step of this process.

Returning to our English example, it may be that only 5th graders are struggling with English and that most of the 5th graders are ESL students. Therefore, the severity of the problem is 5th graders and the cause is their non-native background. This step also contributes to a deeper focus on the problem.

Develop Criteria for Solving the Problem

Before actually solving the problem, it is important to determine what characteristics and traits the solution should have. This is called criteria development. A criteria is a standard for what the solution to the problem should achieve.

Returning to the English problem, below is a criteria for solving this problem

  1. The solution should be minimal
  2. The solution  should be implemented immediately
  3. The solution should specifically target improving reading comprehension
  4. The solution should involve minimal training of the 5th grade teachers

The criteria helps with focus. It prevents people from generating ideas that are way off track.

Develop Solutions

In this step, the group develops as many solutions as widely and creative as possible. The ideas are recorded. Even though a criteria has been developed, it is not consulted at this stage but is used in the final step.

Select the Solution

All solutions that were developed are now judged by the criteria that was developed previously. Each idea is compared to the group criteria. Each solution that meets the criteria is set aside to discuss further.

Once all acceptable solutions have been chosen it is now necessary to pick the one most acceptable to the group. The first desire should be for consensus, which means everyone accepts the solution. If consensus is not possible, the next option is to vote. Voting benefits the majority while often irritating the minority. This is one reason why voting is the second option.


The reflective-thinking method is an excellent way to efficiently solve problems in a group. This method provides a group with an ability to focus and not get lost when making decisions.

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