Reflecting on reflective practice: “A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.”

“A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.”

Photo from: http://www.walkingforum.co.uk/index.php?topic=2750.0

This is a blog about reflective practice, which like Western civilisation, I think would be a very good thing.

I’m quoting Gandhi, who was asked what he thought of Western civilisation, as he stepped off the boat at Southampton wrapped in a sheet, having been a lawyer in South Africa. He replied: “I think it would be a very good idea.”

I’m suggesting that a lot of what passes for reflective practice is nothing of the sort, and yet it so easily could be.

Playworkers make notes in diaries, they keep records. They take photos, to attempt to present their work to others.  Some keep journals, some turn their journals into whole books, like m’esteemed colleague Eduardo Nuttall. Some write whole books, based on the work of a lifetime, or at least a significant chunk of it,  stuffed with observation and reflection – I’m thinking of  luminaries like Perry Else and Saint Bob himself (no offence). Some blog, like moi, and Joel, and Lily and many others. Some don’t do any of that, but they do think, and ponder, and talk about stuff down the pub or over a grotty cup of bad teabag tea in a hut.

But those honourable exceptions aside, often what passes for ‘reflective practice’ is nothing more than a few scrappy notes in an ‘incident book’ or an ‘office diary’, grudgingly scribbled as you rush to go home. Why do we need to write stuff up, we mutter. What’s the point?

Easy for me to criticise, but what am I doing about it?

Good and fair question. I’m currently developing  what I hope will be a new and improved approach to playwork reflective practice. I have started by distinguishing three aspects of the thing I’m pointing at –  avoiding using the term ‘reflective’ or ‘practice’ to avoid association with existing approaches, recognising that this may result in the usage of clumsy neologism, for which I apologise.

These three aspects are:

documentation – the recording of numbers and names and other details, as required by Caesar. “Render unto Caesar that which is Ceasar’s” said a Jewish prophet, and in our context that means: keep the records that your employer requires, for the good reasons that they require it. Chief among those reasons is, most likely, the keeping of funders happy.

promotion – the gathering of photos, and stories, etcetera, for reasons often confused with the above, to wit: to be able – at AGM or conference, or on telly or radio, or in print, be it press, or exhibition – to tell people what you do and why you do it and why it is deserving of their support, financing or involvement, be that as volunteer, worker or committee member or officer.

journaling – the writing of a personal and private journal of your personal reflective practice.  By which I mean recording some of what you observed and thinking about it, and writing down some of your thoughts, and relating them to your work, presumably with the intention of improvement – the making something better. I’m referring to a thing my erstwhile chums in management consultancy call ‘change management’.

(I’m not interested in ‘change management’, I’m interested in ‘improvement management’, which is, admittedly, a subset of change management, but is much harder. Given that change is happening all the time, the real trick is to detect and amplify the beneficial things, while avoiding the bad things and hoping they’ll go away. I say this because if we focus on the bad things, everybody gets upset and the good things get neglected – better to focus on making the already good a little bit better, which is nice and not too challenging for any of us, is it not?)

Anyway, a personal and private journal. Can’t be done in the office dairy because you can’t be yourself in the glare of your office spotlight. What will they think if I write that? I can’t write that, so I don’t, and so I don’t think about it either, which means that I’m self-censoring.  Not a good start. How can I reflect on the unthought and unwritten? Reflection is personal – what do I think about what happened? Not what do the Playwork Principles tell us to think (our very own PCness), nor what my boss wants me to think or do, nor what my mates or colleagues think, or want me to think. And, if it is personal it must be private, initially at least. I can always edit juicy bits for public consumption as part of our promotion or as an extension documentation later.

Hope all that helps. I’ll be piloting this approach soon, and I’ll let you know how it goes, if you’re interested.

This particular peak

Onwards and upwards to the top of this particular peak, which is the consideration of these words:

“A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.”

We don’t know who said this, the only reference we have is ‘Zen saying’.

M’esteemed colleague, Mr Joel Seath, has written about being truly present as a playworker. Bearing witness to the play of children, as our great play theorist* Gordon Sturrock, has it.  He doesn’t blog, so you can’t read him online. Joel does blog, here:

http://playworkings.wordpress.com

What do we mean by being present, by witnessing?
Ben Tawil has a wonderful story about not interfering in play:

A teenaged boy is contemplating a leap from a high tower on an adventure playground. Ben, from a distance, is contemplating the situation. If the boy makes the jump, he will massively injure himself, that much is certain.

You’ll have to ask Ben if you need to know what happened. If you have ever been present, witnessing, you’ll know why you don’t need to know what happened. Of course you want to know what happened, as did I. I’ll ask him, and he might give me his version of the tale, which I can share here.

I know I’m being annoying and obscure: I can’t help it. I don’t have the time or patience to write a longer explanation or a shorter one for that matter•. In any case, this Zen stuff is not about Western-style explanation, it is about Eastern-style contemplation.

And contemplation is another word for reflection.

When I hear the word, I reach for my gun

Now pay attention, dear reader••, as I pick up my Zen gun and shoot myself in my metaphorical foot, by essaying that very Western sin – explaining the unexplainable. I may amuse.

So when we say: “A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.” I think we are saying that reflection is impossible if you have not been present, meaning that if you have not been present in the moment, living it, being there, witnessing everything that is going on, around you and inside you, outside of you and inside your head and your heart. Me, I don’t do that often, and I don’t do it often enough, not by a long chalk. I’m just saying that if you weren’t there, you cannot speak of it, can you?

So I offer you this: the key to reflective practice – key in the sense of opening the door –  is being truly present.

And once the door has been opened, you may or may not choose to step through, of course – that’s up to you.  And if you step through, you may fail to wander very far in the garden of reflection, but it’s a start. I’m exploring that garden myself, so I might bump into you there.

So…

Think on, as my dad used to say.

(Which is, of course, just another way of saying do some reflection.)

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Footling footnotes at the foot of the present mountain:

*we have but a few truly great theorists of play: Bob Hughes, Bashō, Gordon Sturrock, Marc Bekoff, to name but a few (boys).**

** oh, and one  token girl: Judith Rich Harris.***

*** oh, alright then, one more girl: Penny Wilson

• A wise man apologised like this for going on at length –  well, I won’t take more time to explain, I’ll just refer you here:

http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/04/28/shorter-letter/

•• reader? I hope for plural.

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3 thoughts on “Reflecting on reflective practice: “A thousand mountain ranges separate the one who reflects from the one who is truly present.”

  1. The past, the present and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.

    🙂 Where did I hear that joke?

    When I’m ‘there’, if I’m there, I find it intense: all sorts of light- and dark-nesses spew up to just the private side of the private/public threshold. Is it even possible to capture moments truly?

  2. Thanks for this Arthur. Its reminded me of my lack of writing. Guilt riddles me every day. At this current time, I’m desperate to reflect, review, improve, publicly. But I’m trying hard to teach others how to reflect, even observe alone. My team will get there soon, they’ve come along way in 6 weeks. The difficulty is for newbies to this role, is to know what your seeing and what to look out for. That’s not something that easily comes to you especially when the role of the playworker is thrown on you without you having any experience of it previously. As I said in previous posts, its not a process of thinking and feeling that’s switched on by a hat. Its a feeling that grows, your awareness of surroundings and play that’s occuring, manifesting around you, are noticed in time, depending on your passion and respect for it. If someone just tells you, this is how you observe, reflect, improve, share, promote… Its not as simple as that. For me to teach others the importance of reflection, I’m currently reflecting on as much as time allows me. 5 minutes a day for 15 people, followed by 15 mins for 3 of us. I will lead by example, nip ‘logistics’ in the bud before it overtakes the gold stuff.

    I will speak to employer about my writing, its such a shame if I cannot share it. Schools+play = some ‘juicy writing’. But I’ll keep notes until discussed and cleared.

    • Well said. Good on you. It will be difficult to negotiate a way of talking about your work that on the one hand allows your voice, and on the other hand protects the interests of your employer, but it is not impossible, and can be achieved with sensitivity and negotiation on both sides. If you don’t already know what happened to Eddie, then you should, it is very relevant. Email me privately to get the full story – or email him. By email I mean email or Facebook private message.

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