The Reflective-Thinking Method for Decision-Making

Learning Objectives

Identify the steps of the reflective-thinking method for decision-making in small groups.

The reflective-thinking method originated with John Dewey, a leading American social philosopher. This method provides a structured way for small groups to approach decision-making and problem-solving, especially as people are increasingly distracted by electronics or overwhelmed by access to complex and endless information. Dewey maintained that people need a scientific method and a “disciplined mind” to both tap into the strength of a group and to come up with logical solutions. The term disciplined mind refers to gaining intellectual control, rather than just being emotionally based. Discipline in this context isn’t seen as restrictive; in fact, Dewey believed that having a disciplined mind offers intellectual freedom. While the reflective-thinking method can be applied to individual decision-making, we’ll apply it here to small group communication.[1] We’ll explore the five steps of the reflective-thinking method below.

  1. Define the problem: It is sometimes tempting for small groups to want to jump into solutions to a problem without taking time to define the problem in clear, specific, and unbiased ways. A problem-solving group might phrase the problem to be solved as a question, use the word should, and allows opportunities for several possible solutions. Imagine you’re working with a team of social workers and foster parents to plan fun and safe holiday activities for children in foster care. As mentioned above, it can be easy to just start talking about possible ideas. Instead, using a disciplined mind to first define the problem will provide both structure and logic to the process. Thus, the team might come up with a question like the following to guide its steps:
    • What steps should our planning team take to prepare and execute an appropriate and fun activity for children in foster care? Notice that this statement is specific and unbiased about the problem to be solved and allows for various possible solutions.
  1. Analyze the problem. Once again, this step preemptively prevents a small group from jumping to solutions. Here, the group needs to explore the problem in depth, which involves gathering material and researching what has been done, if anything, in the past. You need solid evidence, data, and even anecdotal evidence to better analyze what’s going on. The group planning a holiday event for children in foster care might look at what has been done in past years and gather feedback about those events. The group might create and send an online survey to foster parents and ask what types of activities their children are most interested in. The group might consult with a trauma expert about what types of considerations they should take to ensure any activity is safe and inclusive. Finally, the group would likely research its budget, timelines, demographic information of the children, etc.
  2. Establish criteria for solutions: As you problem solve as a group, figure out the standards for possible solutions. Write a list of what you want any possible solution to accomplish as well as anything that might limit the solution. The group planning a holiday event for foster children might establish the following criteria for any possible solutions:
    • The event fits into our budget of $3,000.
    • The event is appropriate for ages 2–18.
    • The event allows children and foster parents to interact with one another.
    • The event feels safe and inclusive for all children.
    • The event is held in convenient locations at appropriate times for younger children.
    • The event is relatively simple.
  1. Generate possible solutions. Now, you can finally start thinking about creating a list of possible solutions. This thinking might involve brainstorming first individually, then collectively as a small group. At this point, you are not as worried about the quality or feasibility of the solutions; instead, this step is about promoting creativity and participation by all members. The list of possible solutions for the group planning holiday events for children in foster care list might look something like:
    • Brunch, Polar Express party, Winter Wonderland theme, gift drive, gingerbread-making activity, hot chocolate bar, lots of lights, live DJ, mariachi band, etc.
  1. Select the best solution. Finally, you work to ascertain the best solution. You evaluate the merits and feasibility of each proposed solution. Use the criteria established in Step 3 to evaluate each possible solution. How do you define best? That definition might be the most feasible, the most effective, the most politically viable, the quickest, etc. The discussion for the event planning team might look something like this:

We kept going back to the simple part, so Polar Express and Winter Wonderland themed events were off the table. We decided the brunch idea best fit the criteria for timing, budget, and location. Then, we remembered the kid-friendly and interactive part, and added an element of a gingerbread-making project for children of all ages. To help children and parents get to know each other in a safe, low-key environment, we decided to have each child or family display their gingerbread houses on tables and let others write positive comments about them.

Once the group decides on its final solution, they can continue further planning, or present their decision (when applicable).

Practice Question


  1. Lucas, Stephen. The Art of Public Speaking. United States, McGraw-Hill Education, 2020.