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27th Annual SCUTREA conference proceedings 1997

Crossing borders, breaking boundaries : Research in the education of adults

Shadows in the swamp: dialogues in reflective practice

Cheryl Hunt, University of Sheffield, UK

The title of this paper derives from Schön's (1983) evocative image of 'the swampy lowlands' of professional practice where theories-in-use are not always clearly articulated. Drawing on personal experience of reflection, a continuing dialogue with colleagues and students engaged in reflective practice (RP), and the use of imagery, the paper represents an attempt to articulate not so much the theory as the felt reality of 'doing RP' and of facilitating it. Like much personal reflection, it begins with a story. This one comes from the ancient Sufi tradition and is about one of the many ordinary events in the life of Nasrudin, a so-called wise fool.

One night a stranger comes across Nasrudin on his hands and knees in the road outside his house and asks what he is doing. Nasrudin replies that he is searching for a dropped key. Offering to help, the stranger asks where Nasrudin thinks he may have last had the key. Nasrudin points towards his house and says, 'Over there'.
'But why, then', asks the puzzled stranger, 'are you searching for it out here?'
'Obviously', replies Nasrudin, exasperated by the naivety of the question, 'because this is where the light is!'

Nasrudin's wisdom shows in his recognition of how much easier it is to find things where the light is. Yet he is foolish in failing to acknowledge that the light does not always shine where the thing one is searching for may actually lie.

In attempting not only to define but to facilitate RP for experienced professionals who are undertaking Masters degrees as part-time students, I often feel sympathetic to Nasrudin's plight. I have frequently turned to the light of existing academic literature to reveal The key that will allow me to understand for myself and explain to my students exactly what RP is.

Sometimes I find a key: something someone has written gives me a name for a process I have lived through and hence brings a sort of order to what was experienced as chaotic (Hunt, Edwards, McKay and Taylor 1994); or it confirms that a struggle I have undertaken has validity and meaning because the writer has endured a similar struggle and drawn conclusions which resonate with my own (Hunt 1996a); or it simply provides me with a new perspective from which to review, extend my understanding of, and perhaps re-interpret the processes of RP (Hunt 1997).

Often, though, I realise I am the only person who already owns the key to understanding why I have initially interpreted and reacted to a situation in my professional practice in a particular way - but in order to find it I will have to look in the shadows in my own mind.

From my attempts to understand and 'do' RP, therefore, I recognise that I have a value position; I also find the use of metaphors helpful in conceptualising mental processes. Using the latter to state the former, my belief is that RP requires a willingness to cross and re-cross consciously the borders in one's mind between the light of what is already known and the shadows where ideas, thoughts and connections lie hidden or, at best, only dimly perceived.

Like Atkins and Murphy (1993, 1191), I acknowledge a difference between analysis and reflection whereby analysis may be more objective but 'Reflection ... must involve the self and must lead to a changed perspective'. However, I also acknowledge that the extent to which each individual wishes, or even feels it appropriate, either to involve the self or to enter and explore the shadowed territory of the mind probably depends upon her/his particular orientation to RP (Wellington and Austin 1996).

The next section draws heavily on my own perceptions of the nature of the shadowed territory of the mind not because I want to persuade you that this territory as a whole conforms to my personal map of what seems to lie there, but because I believe that the processes of mapping and orienteering are fundamental to RP itself.


For me, to do RP is to be willing to state, 'This is how and where I am now and this is the particular map I'm using on which to identify my position'; to site oneself in a place where, implicitly or explicitly, others (including those who are met only through the medium of their writing) may be able to point to hitherto unexplored pathways that will lead to a different position or even to recommend the use of a different kind of map.

How societies and organisations, as well as individuals, acquire their particular mind-maps of the way the world is and of their place and function within it has fascinated me for some time, not least because of the apparent effect of such maps on attitudes and behaviour patterns (Hunt 1993).

To take a simple example of the latter, if a map indicates that one is in a particular kind of environment (hostile, mechanical, caring, non- confrontational, or whatever) and one's daily experiences repeatedly confirm this, the stronger one's belief is likely to become that the map provides accurate representation of the world in which one lives and, in turn, the more one's attitudes/ behaviours will themselves help to consolidate this picture (Wilson 1990).

Many therapeutic processes are designed to challenge and change acquired mind-maps that help to reinforce responses which, while seeming appropriate to the individual, appear dysfunctional to others who map and live in the world differently. RP can sometimes lead the practitioner down a similar route, signposted by the question, 'Why is this how and where I am now?'

There are two issues here: first, challenge and change can have a profoundly disorientating effect on the individual; second, there seems to be an assumption that the collective rather than the individual map is somehow better or more real. An anecdote may be helpful in adding a little substance to the first of these statements before I comment on the more general implications of both in the context of RP.

Several years ago, having been Christmas shopping in London's Oxford Street, I came out of Selfridges department store and headed towards Marble Arch, a couple of minutes walk away, where I had arranged to meet a friend. After five minutes of pushing through the crowds, not only had the station not come into view but I saw a bus for Marble Arch coming towards me! My mounting anxiety about being late was suddenly compounded by the realisation that I had been walking in completely the opposite direction to what I had supposed. It was a trivial enough event but its immediate consequence was dramatic: Mentally, my internal map of where I was flipped through a 180 degree turn and, in that moment, I felt physically nauseous and dizzy.

More recently, I experienced exactly the same reaction during a fairly acrimonious discussion with a colleague over a professional matter. Just as I had earlier been sure of my position in relation to Selfridges and Marble Arch, I had been convinced from the outset that a course of action I had previously taken, but which was now in dispute, had been ethically correct. Suddenly, my colleague said something that had the same effect as sighting the bus in confirming a vaguely-felt but growing sense of unease.

This time it was not a bus which came into view but the mental image of a headteacher with whom, as a school governor many years before, I had had a similar clash over her 'misinterpretation' of what I had always felt to be an entirely appropriate course of action which I had encouraged other governors to take. Realising that two people in two different settings had now given me feedback which brought my own perspective seriously into question had the same disorientating effect on my mental map of the 'rightness' of our various positions as my 'Selfridges experience' had had on my mental map of where I was in London.

In the jargon of RP, the abrupt linking of all three events through the medium of the physical nausea is probably an uncomfortable example of what Schön (1983) would call 'reflection-in-action'. It may have occurred spontaneously but I suspect it was precipitated by considerable 'reflection-on-action' which I had been undertaking individually and with colleagues as part of our continuing struggle to practise what we preach in facilitating RP for our students.

In any case, the experience of deliberately and systematically crossing the border into the shadowed territory of my mind in earlier reflection-on- action had at least partially prepared me for the fact that, though visiting the terrain might not always be comfortable, the very existence of this largely uncharted land of past experience and thought has a profound effect on what I feel and do and how I locate my professional practice in the present.

Indeed, I have often found the key to the 'Why?' of a present re/action in these shadowlands of the past. It can, literally, be dizzying when this opens up an entirely new and unexpected perspective on something I have done or thought but continuing explorations have assured me that, once the dizziness has passed, my internal map of how and where I now am will have been usefully enlarged. What seems to be vitally important is to be able to create a still point during the undoubtedly disorientating re- mapping period which can follow journeys into the mind's shadows.

Re-crossing the border

In the context and aftermath of the discussion with my colleague, it was necessary to acknowledge to myself, though I did not do so more openly in the discussion itself, the validity of a completely different interpretation of my role in certain events. It was also essential to hold on to the fact that this did not necessarily threaten the integrity either of my original position, taken when the new insights were obviously not available, or of the core 'me' which remains constant through time and changing circumstances.

To some extent, my earlier practice of RP helped me to retain this sense of self whilst the basis of a behaviour pattern which I had not even recognised as a pattern before and which I now know to be deeply-rooted in a partially-genderised view of the world where confrontation and challenge is unacceptable was confronted and challenged. That pattern is now 'in the light' for me, a named feature on the internal map which informs my professional practice.

In such brief description the process sounds simple. The reality was painful and messy. Re-mapping of this nature is rarely an isolated academic exercise: it happens deep in the swampy lowlands of professional practice where yesterday's sense of direction can often be lost in the struggle to survive in the quicksand of today's imperatives.

The unconditional support of a close colleague undoubtedly helped me to remain centred while I adjusted to the new light and shadow patterns in my bit of the swamp. As a tutor on a course where students are required to engage in RP in order to produce an assessed piece of work, it concerns me that we may cause them to enter their own shadowlands without proper preparation and that I and my fellow tutors are neither equipped nor in a position to offer the kind of unconditional support they may then need.

Most of our students are 'distance learners'. Contact is largely through written correspondence and occasional telephone conversations and, at most, three one-day group meetings each year; few students have access to email. Thus, we do not always have the kind of intimate knowledge of students' immediate professional and personal concerns that is more readily available when students attend regular seminars. Our reading of their descriptions of events may not, therefore, be so complete as on a conventional taught course and, in our written 'dialogue at a distance', there is an inevitable delay between presentation of an issue and response to it.

Before commenting further on other related concerns about facilitating RP at a distance, I want to return to something I noted earlier: that RP has some affinity with therapeutic practices which encourage the individual to explore and make connections between past and present experiences, and perhaps redefine them. Drawing on a personal anecdote, I have described something of this process. However, I do not wish to imply that the intentions of RP and therapy are the same.

While engagement in RP can require the practitioner to re-examine and consolidate personal experiences which may well have taken place outside the professional arena, the distinctiveness of RP seems to be that its focus and finishing point remain firmly within that arena. Individual reflection cannot, therefore, be divorced from the constraints of institutional thinking. The concept of RP merges with that of organisational learning (OL) along this rather fuzzy border.

Holding the boundaries

Douglas (1987) once argued that 'How institutions think' not only affects our individual thinking but must lie beyond question because:

all the classifications that we have for thinking with are provided ready- made, along with our social life. ... How can we possibly think of ourselves in society except by using the classifications established in our institutions?

However, her own anthropological studies of the apparently natural analogies with which the classifications of social relations and political hierarchies are often justified pointed the way to much subsequent practical work in which self-designated 'learning organisations' have sought to understand and transform themselves.

Generally prompted by the need to function more effectively in the market place, such work seems itself to be directly analogous with the voyages of medieval seafarers who sailed beyond the boundaries of existing maps which warned 'Here Be Dragons'. They, too, went in search of profit but, in the process, helped to change an entire world-view.

In the manner I have described in relation to individual RP, a planned collective voyage past the dragons of long-standing custom and practice into the shadowlands of an organisation has the potential to change how an organisation thinks of and presents itself, as well as the way in which it encourages and supports its members (Morgan 1993, 1997, and Senge 1990 give examples of this process; Hawkins 1994 summarises key features of OL).

For a lone reflective practitioner in an organisation/institution which does not favour such exploration, having knowledge of 'lands beyond' which no-one wishes even to think about can be a frustrating and alienating experience. As tutors facilitating RP and required to assess a final piece of accredited work in the fairly rigid manner prescribed by our own largely non-reflective institution, we can never become complacent about the effects of encouraging students to 'look over there' into the shadowlands of their own experience where personal or institutional demons may lurk. In the written course materials we have tried to make such issues explicit (Hunt 1996b).

We remain aware, though, that other travellers' tales and warnings rarely mean much until they are matched against personal experience. Issuing a warning may technically absolve us of some responsibility if students do subsequently meet their own demons in the form of significant life/career questions. But, when the resolution of these is likely to go way beyond the confines of the academic programme where, for a limited period, we and our students share a common space out of which the questions have actually been formulated, how should we respond?

We cannot give unconditional support. For example, it is not within our brief nor, for most of us, within our skills repertoire, to provide in- depth counselling. Neither are we contracted, nor all equipped, to operate as organisational consultants. Thus, though we sometimes find ourselves beginning to be carried by a student's anxiety or enthusiasm towards one of these positions, for the most part we feel it important to delineate clearly the boundary of our roles as tutors on an academic programme.

Sometimes it may be appropriate for us to encourage students to seek support from other professionals. However, if their RP takes students off at wide tangents of exploration, we have come to the conclusion that our task is not to follow and protect them but to 'hold the space' from which they started so that they can return to it and effect its eventual closure by completing the written work required for formal course assessment purposes.

Our focus has ultimately to be on the quality of what students produce on their return. We have to ensure that their final submission is well- structured; clearly describes their engagement with RP and identifies key learning/action points; draws on relevant literature and uses it effectively; and provides insight into the development of thinking, feeling and understanding which has emerged from undertaking this work.

Such criteria may seem little different from those used to assess other academic assignments. However, our feedback/assessment has always to be sensitive to the intensely personal and developmental nature of RP and its association with students' professional lives. In registering on a Masters programme and, particularly, in engaging with a module on RP, students often signal their need for a breathing space outside the swamp of their on-going professional practice; for a still point where, if only for a few hours each week, they can pause, adjust their vision to the lights and shadows of continuing experience, and consider alternative directions. In helping to create and then hold that space for them against the ever- insistent pull of the swamp, we have to be very clear about its boundaries.

One, as I have already indicated, is around our role as tutors to ensure that we are not pulled too far away from the anchor point of the programme. In order to keep the programme's space safe for students we also have to work explicitly within boundaries of confidentiality.

Many students have high-status jobs in their own institutions and organisations. In consequence, the extent to which they wish, or feel able, to share their reflections on pressing and frequently volatile professional issues or personal concerns can sometimes be limited by a sense of status incongruence or a formal professional code of ethics. Conversely, for some, the requirement to engage in RP provides the first opportunity in their working life to explore the personal implications of a professional constraint or difficulty and they may commit to paper some intensely personal insights which they later regret having shared.

By using extremes for illustration, I hope I have not implied that RP is always fraught with danger, or requires some dramatic demon-slaying conclusion. In general, like the seafarers' voyages beyond the edge of the map, 'doing RP' is largely about being on a learning journey and employing a variety of techniques to enhance awareness of the journey itself, its documentation, and any new opportunities it presents. Thus, while part of our role as tutors may be to alert students to potential danger zones (and exit routes), perhaps the greater part of it is simply about keeping them awake and open to new ways of learning, teaching and understanding themselves!

Whatever their circumstances, and how and wherever students are enabled to identify the keys to their own learning, understanding and improved professional practice, I believe it is essential to 'do RP' in order to facilitate it. Perhaps, on reflection, I will abandon my attempt to find the key to RP and continue to search instead for the still points among the shifting shadows of experience in my own professional swamp.


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Hunt C (1993) Metaphors and their implications for adult and community education. In N Miller and D Jones (eds) Research: reflecting practice. Papers from the 23rd Annual Conference, SCUTREA, 23-25

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Wilson R A (1990) Prometheus rising. Arizona, Falcon Press


My thanks are due to Alison McKay, Hazel Hampton and Bill Taylor for their unfailing emotional support and intellectual stimulation, and to all students and staff who have contributed to the development of the Becoming a Reflective Practitioner module.