its taken me a while to work up the courage for this post. even now im not sure what to write. where do i start? how do i make sense of the mess that was my second all day workshop for ‘reflective practice’ on tuesday?

i know im being hard on myself, but i wouldnt be much of a reflective practitioner if i wasnt, really. but i need to not let it go to me, or undermine my confidence. i need to know what i did wrong, what wasnt my issue, what’s mine to fix, what to keep focused on so i can find a way forward. it’s not that i wasnt prepared. i really was. powerpoints all nicely designed, notes ready to speak to, activities planned, handouts printed, materials ready in my little pack and roll trolley


(who have i become, that i trundle across campus with a pack and roll. seriously?!)

anyway, in the study day, and in the online modules, i talk to students a lot about donald schon’s work on reflective practice. he talks about the professions being divided into the hard high ground of structure, policy, guidelines, rules, processes, science, technical knowledge, the ‘right way’ to do things; versus the ‘swampy low lands’, the messy, unpredictable, day to day, individual, personal experience of actual reality. it really is the essence of reflective practice for me, to get health professionals, who have come to love the hard high ground, to worship it even, to recognise that its the swamp they work in. its people they work with, not Truth. not even science is truth, as much as scientists love to tell you it is. (have you seen the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag on twitter and tumblr? funny, because true).

so reflective practice in health is really about negotiating the high hard ground via the swampy lowlands. we did an exercise in class on tuesday where i got people to pick a side of the room, high ground or the swamp, and then work with each other to tell me what defined each domain and why they were comfortable there. the high hard ground was mostly the younger new graduates, international students. they made a diagram that was very nicely organised mind map with equidistant spokes leading to distinct concepts. the swampy lowlands was inhabited by the practitioners who’d been around for years, mostly older and white, and they drew a mess of words scribbled randomly across a page. couldnt have asked for a better demonstration if i’d tried.

i am usually a swamp dweller. im extremely comfortable with grey areas, with the connection between things, with the messiness of everyday life, the importance of individual experience. i hate systems, rules and regulations. if there was an anarchist candidate in the forthcoming federal election i’d vote for them (but they wouldnt be a very good anarchist if they were running for parliament would they?). but you get my point. smash the system man!

but i find myself, as subject co-ordinator, very much a part of the system. there are in fact rules and regulations i need to follow to deliver the best learning experience to my students. they need me to do that. they dont want someone up the front of the class saying ‘oh just submit whatever you like’. the problem is that reflective practice, as a philosophy, as an activity, is messy. its about feelings. theres no right or wrong way to do it. so how am i meant to assess that? obviously, in order to do that equitably, we have to impose some rules, some minimum expectations, some guidelines. there are assignments and essays. there is research to undertake, words to write, marking criteria.

one of the assignments, as i posted last time, is a concept map. i think this is the moment where it all went pear shaped on tuesday. to do a concept map you need to know a little about the thing you’re ‘mapping’ but too many students turned up having not done the requested preparation. this put me on the back foot straight away. the thing they are meant to map is a practice event. they’re meant to identify all the things they know about that event, and find the links and connections between all those things, in order to identify gaps in what they know, so they can go and do some research. (we like to call this Evidence Based Practice. i use that term loosely). but when you’re not even in the habit of questioning what you know, how do you start to think critically about knowledge itself?

for me, the challenge is how do i teach this thing that is like breathing to me. c. wright mills called it ‘the sociological imagination’, john’s calls it a way of being.


if you’re a critical thinker you’re a critical thinker. i’ve been doing it for so long, i dont even know how i do it anymore. this is the swamp im talking about, the fact that i know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is no such thing as the truth (but how do i know that, i hear you ask!). i said that to the class on tuesday, im aware of the irony of me standing up here talking to you about ‘skills’ of reflective practice, when what i want is for you to BE reflective practice. i want you to realise you know nothing, that even what you think you know is debatable, that you must completely surrender to the great vast unknowing. the look of terror in their eyes! i feel for them, because at the same time i’m asking them to submit skill based assignments that they will either pass or fail.

it was a very surreal day. i lost my shit at the end, and i am disappointed in myself here. one student asked if she could submit a photo of her search strategy (in other words, a screen shot of the database she was searching). i was a little dumbfounded. i kind of snapped at her and said ‘can you just submit what the assignment asks you to submit, its written that way for a reason’. if anyone had said something to me about ‘flipping the classroom’ at that point i would have stabbed them. but even as those words came out of my mouth i realised how patronising and elitist they sounded, how hegemonic and ‘knowledge expert’ i was being.

concept maps, reflective narratives, they’re part of the subject because they challenge the dominant model of thinking and working. i want students to be creative and open and emotional. but i guess i have to teach them the rules before they can break them. it was a very uncomfortable moment and its plagued me ever since. i’m giving myself a  hard time about getting flustered, about running out of time, about overwhelming them with too much information, about how MESSY the whole day felt. but maybe i really did model exactly how messy reflective practice is. how overwhelming and confusing and frustrating the swamp can be. i do know i will do things differently next time, less talking, more doing, less to get through in a day, more just ‘being’.

im deep in the swamp with my research work too. im reading lots of things about the history of psychiatry. again, its a very reflexive thing for me to be doing. i’ve said before sometimes im reading about myself, about the people who’ve cared for me. there are lots of ideas swimming around in my head, and i dont have the blocks of time i need right now to make solid sense of them. the best i can do is scribbled notes on a page


i am off to the war memorial next week to see some old war nurses diaries, and when i come back i can start to pull them together with the theory for a conference presentation in october and then there will be a journal article and fellowship and grant application after that. it doesnt get much more ‘hard high ground’ than that.

i just have to keep working my way through the swamp first!