Monday, 6 August 2012

Why practitioners need a better model of reflective practice, and what I'm doing about it.

Working with the detail of a project like a PhD forces you to look at things in detail, which is fair enough. From time to time, though, I find any project requires me to step back from that and ask 'so what'. Not enough people ask 'so what?', in my opinion. A career of community work and work with children keeps me focused on issues of relevance and application.

In my own case, I'm engrossed in the detail of asking questions about how narratives of professional identity relate to the contexts for their 'telling'. In other words, I'm looking at how experiences turn into stories, and how stories are used in action. I'm working with a small sample of leaders of Early Childhood services in the North East of England, thinking about these issues over several extended conversations, involving talk and work with cartoon images. The question applies to this study: so what? Is this another self indulgent PhD?

Asking why on earth this study is important is not a question I can, or should, dodge. Firstly, because I am working with participants in this study, I need to present something that makes sense and is worthwhile. Secondly, because I know the research will have a 'life' post-doc (as I work in a University as an academic), I anticipate a professional as well as an academic audience for different outputs of my research. I've begun to explain my reasoning to supervisors, academic panels, participants and colleagues, but it's good to clarify it here. Who knows, perhaps it will get you thinking about why you are doing what you are doing?

For my own professional audience, those working with young children and their families,  the idea of narrative is at one both familiar - we talk to, and with people, people have things to say; and not so obvious, in that too often the 'talk' is incidental to processes or activities. If pressed, many of us say we value people, and that involves talking to and with people. We also realise, sadly, that we can 'learn' a form of practice that involves telling and not listening, ticking boxes and not understanding. We don't particularly like falling into that sort of practice, but workloads, policy initiatives and management busyness don't help us avoid the pitfall. I know when I've been in that mode, I'm less aware of myself and others, what is important and why. That's key to effective practice.

Thinking about who we are and how we work when we are in this kind of mode seems like navel gazing and unproductive. Sometimes, though, we see that how we are and how we talk is related to what we achieve with others. That's what I'm pointing my own research at, the idea, somewhere down the line, that we can get some insight into how we come to talk and think about ourselves. Do these things matter? I would argue that they do. Do narratives pop out 'of thin air'? I would argue that they do not, but we still don't know enough about that.

In my previous field of work in Children's Services much was (and continues to be) made of the idea of 'reflective practice', but it seems to me that when it comes to thinking about reflective practice, it remains a bit of a 'black box', or something we just don't understand. At best, we work with models and ideas of reflective practice, influenced by Schon (1987, 1991) Argyris (1978, 1993) and others which, whilst good, have been over simplified and fossilised. At any rate, these ideas certainly have not translated themselves into the praxis of many Early Childhood practitioners. I think that this needs to change, because I believe in the power of practice that is purposeful, reflective and confident. I would argue that ultimately, that sort of practice is better for children and their families, which is what matters most. The is the larger context for my study, but ultimately is something that will be addressed most directly post-doc, once I get the 'nuts and bolts' looked at in my PhD.

In my own study, I have realised that, just like good practice with children, some creative  theoretical work is needed. I've looked at what the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur and the pragmatics of GH Mead, Dewey, James et al have to offer as I look at relationships between action and meaning making (in narratives). The first thing that hit me was that, on one level, there are complex and interesting relationships between action and narratives not currently captured by our 'over simplification' of reflective practice in much of the early childhood sector. I'm not satisfied to leave the mechanisms of meaning making under-explored, because I feel we may miss out on some new ways to think about praxis. Praxis, put very simply, addresses the interplay between thinking and doing. This transcends the idea of 'thinking' and 'doing' being separate, and moves towards the idea of deliberative and moral (in the broadest sense) action. This is about engagement with the situation at hand, not habit or procedure. I love this idea, and remain convinced that unpacking and 'making real' the practice of praxis (if we can say that!) has much more to give to those working with young children, which is a profession    where women (and it is mainly women) are not encouraged to think and act in ways that could be called 'wise'. Unfortunately, the current UK discussion of qualifications and skills in early childhood (Tickell, 2012) can leave some practitioners thinking that the 'answer' to being professional is solely about accumulating knowledge, instead of developing praxis or practical wisdom. An alternative, which helps practitioners see how thinking and action are related is needed. As I develop my own research, I feel sure that one key to insight involves understanding the mechanisms of narration, with a view of narrative as something that reflects, reshapes and guides action.