Friday, 19 August 2011

On Reflection

Although I haven't posted here for a while, I've found that my use of online social tools is greatly facilitating my reflective practice. Previously I sought to carve out time to record reflections on work I had delivered, arranged meetings with colleagues to reflect on activities we had undertaken together, and shaped supervision time with my line manager to aid reflection. Although much of this reflection involved conversation or dialogue, notes of what I had learned always ended up on pieces of paper in lever arch files, gathering dust. Which feels quite different to the reflection I've engaged in through blogging, forum and groups discussions on sites such as changes network and the Our Society network. By making observations in these spaces which promote dialogue, sometimes over long periods of time, I find it more simple to refer back to my learning and continue learning, as the discussions and work evolve. It feels a lot less static than those sheets of paper filed away until I sort through a folder and rediscover them. 

Paulo Friere
To this end, I've re-named my blog 'Seeking Praxis', in the hope that I'll use it more to reflect, and learn through the process of reflection. The term praxis is, I feel, a complicated one which I don't fully understand. It has been described as a unity of theory and practice. Paulo Freire advocated praxis as being fundamental to understanding and transforming the power relations of everyday life. 

Action Learning Sets have been one way that I have developed some grasp of what praxis is. I was fortunate to have taken part in an Action Learning for Managers Project run by NAVCA (then NACVS) from 2001-2004, giving me the opportunity to be part of a facilitated Action Learning Set. My experience of Action Learning is that it is an very simple but incredibly powerful way of learning. 

An Action Learning Set will often consist of a group of 4-6 people who agree to meet for a full day at a time, usually every 4-6 weeks for a period of 6 to 12 months. During a meeting, each set member has around 45-60 minutes in which the focus is on an issue related to their work. They spend 5-10 minutes 'presenting' the issue, which sounds much more formal than it is - essentially they describe a problem they have identified which they have some control over, and explain this and any relevant wider context to other members of the set. The other set members act as 'supporters'. They may ask questions for clarification, and then move on to asking questions which help the presenter to explore their issues, their feelings, possible actions and so on. The supporters are not there to offer solutions, but one thing I have found really useful in sets beyond the questions is that supporters might reflect back to me that I said a certain word a number of times, or my voice or other body language changed when I talked about a particular part of my issue, or people related to it. Towards the end of the allocated time slot the presenter has space to develop actions. They commit to undertaking them and reporting back to other set members at the next meeting, both on what happened, and what they learned as a result.

Reg Revans
My understanding is that Reg Revans, who pioneered action learning, was happy that the approach be played with. I think what I have described above is pretty much the basic approach. 

Revans strongly held that the key to improving performance lay not with 'experts' but with practitioners themselves. Hence he devised Action Learning as a process whereby the participant studies his own actions and experience in conjunction with others in small groups called action learning sets. (source: Wikipedia)

I have been part of an Action Learning Set which has just finished meeting due to a member moving away. (This is the third time in three sets I've been part of that  someone has moved away, prompting my own reflection on how long people stay in posts in the voluntary sector.) Looking back over notes from our set meetings, I was surprised to discover that we met only 9 times in just over 2 years (with a year long gap in the middle) and that our 5 set members were only all together for one full set meeting and the introductory session. This contrasted with sets I've been part of previously with 4 members in which we met more regularly and pretty much were all able to attend all sessions. Despite the flux in participation and gaps between sessions of my latest set, we've shared some deep learning, become very open with each other and gained hugely from the process.

A member of the set who works in the public sector feels that it has fundamentally changed the way she works and approaches things. Rather than things going round and round in her head, she starts to focus in on the issue and look at what she can do to change things, using action learning type questioning on herself.

At the end of every set meeting we reflect on what we've learned, often focussing on what we've learned about ourselves, the set, and the world. It has been interesting to look back and read the reflections of four people who were new to the process and see that their reflections on the set swiftly shifted from worries about the way that they were supporting, along with fears about presenting and being questioned to expressions of comfort with the interactions, trust, going with the flow and the robustness of the process. It feels as though one thing which has really emerged from this particular set is how the use of the sorts of questions we use in action learning are so useful in our work. Here are a selection of reflections from set members:

"I didn't realise action learning questions are so much use in other contexts"
"it struck me thinking about how this approach could help with my team, it works beyond the set meetings - there arer wider-reaching consequences"
"It's amazing how you can bring any issue and it works"
"I don't know anywhere else that you can achieve so much in such a short space of time"
"The set is a powerful way of unpacking things that are complicated - you can sort out things, and leave with clear thinking and actions instead of the muddle you came in with"

I can hugely recommend action learning. If you can identify a set member with experience of action learning you can probably manage with a self-facilitated set. Then the only cost is time and perhaps the hire of an appropriate room. You will need a space which is comfortable and in which you won't be interrupted. We like to meet away from our own places of work. If you have access to some budget I would recommend identifying and working with an experienced facilitator (there are a number listed on this site), they can really help the set to work in creative ways. One thing to remember in relation to identifying set members is that no-one in the set should have line management responsibilities for any other set member. Other than this, it is fine for set members to all be from the same organisation, although I think there is a lot to be gained from being part of a set with people who work in different sectors, in different sorts of roles, and in different geographical areas. 

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