One of the reasons that I was keen to study my PGCert in Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance is the feeling that it will give new ‘legitimacy’ to my role. On days when I don’t know the answers and am feeling the pressure, I would have the reassurance of a qualification to prove my value as a ‘professional’.

The Reflective Practitioner

As part of my PGCert reading I came across The Reflective Practitioner by Donald A. Schon. It was published in 1991, far before the net-connected world of democratised information, collaborative content, and crowd-sourced enquiries. Yet it argues for a change in the ‘mystification’ of what it means to be a professional in a way that I think has fundamentally helped me in the way I work and view my role….

The initial thesis is that there is, at the heart of any ‘professional role’ (major or minor) a long-established paradigm: the authoritative professional, and the grateful client.  The former has knowledge which has been instilled through academic rigour, and it is simply his job to apply it to the situations given. The latter trusts implicitly in this knowledge.  Schon argues that where we find stresses and tensions in our modern roles, it is where this paradigm is being dismantled: where we are asked to work outside of our knowledge, where there is uncertainty around our role, when we are challenged, when our values are tested.

He argues that the idea of ‘professional’ as ‘unchallenged expert’ is dissipating, and this will bring benefits to both our ‘clients’ and ourselves.  In careers most professionals already seem to be moving towards becoming a ‘reflective practitioner’ rather than an expert, but it’s nice to see this shift in role written down:

Expert Reflective practitioner
I am presumed to know, and must claim to do so, regardless of my own uncertainty. I am presumed to know, but I am not the only one in the situation to have relevant and important knowledge. My uncertainties may be a source of learning for me and them.
Keep my distance from the client, and hold on to the expert’s role. Give the client a sense of my expertise, but convey a feeling of warmth and sympathy as a “sweetener”. Seek out connections to the client’s thoughts and feelings. Allow his respect for my knowledge to emerge from his discovery of it in the situation.
Look for deference and status in the client’s response to my professional persona. Look for the sense of freedom and of real connection to the client, as a consequence of no longer needing to maintain a professional facade.

D.A. Schon, The Reflective Practitioner, p.300

Ideas around a ‘professional facade’ resonated with me (more on that in a later post once I’ve thought it through, I think), but largely I think we’re there. But are our clients?  Schon creates a similar chart for them:

Traditional [client] contract Reflective [client] contract
I put myself into the professional’s hands and, in doing this, I gain a sense of security based on faith. I join with the professional in making sense of my case, and in doing this I gain a sense of increased involvement and action.
I have the comfort of being in good hands. I need only comply with his advice and all will be well. I can exercise some control over the situation. I am not wholly dependent on information and action that only I can undertake.
I am pleased to be served by the best person available. I am pleased to be able to test my judgements about his competence. I enjoy the excitement of discovery about his knowledge, about the phenomena of his practice, and about myself.

…On the left hand side of the page there is the comfort and the danger of being treated like a child. On the right there is the gratification, and the anxiety, of becoming an active participant in a process of shared inquiry. (Ibid, p.302)

The ‘comfort’ in one and the ‘anxiety in the other are what has really drawn my attention. This really seems to reflect accurately my experience of the expectations and experiences of clients.

I wonder then, what we can do to help? I suspect that the first thing might be to look at how we present ourselves as careers practitioners. Although I think most of us work in a reflective way, I’m not sure that always matches with how we’re presented, and how we present ourselves. If we’re shift the professional-client paradigm for the benefit of all concerned, we need to lead the way. I’d like, in the next few years, to have a profile on our careers service page which doesn’t distance ‘clients’ but encourages them to contact me through Twitter, which is more informal in tone, which has videos of me showing how I go about researching typical questions, and encouragement to share their ideas and findings.

Schon ends with a powerful assertion that ‘… the professional cannot legitimately claim to be expert, but only to be especially well prepared to reflect-in-action’ (Ibid, p.345). Now, doesn’t that take the pressure off?