In my May column I tried to answer the question of why theory is important, and in doing so began to explore the importance of bringing tacit knowledge to an explicit, explainable level. When knowledge becomes explicit it is more accessible to inform practice. Explicit knowledge enables practitioners to deepen their understanding, and to articulate their views more persuasively. This, then, aids in the development of a stronger voice and professional identity for the sector.
Residential child care has been struggling to have a stronger, more informed voice and professional identity for some time now. Each sensational or scandalous story in the media, or each horrible dramatisation of residential care in television or the movies makes this struggle feel close to impossible. Each time a student recounts a story of accepted poor practice or self-serving institutional decision-making at the expense of kids, I wonder how we can possibly move this forward.
Yet there is movement, and I think a good bit of it is forward. Recently Iíve been doing some consultation with residential child care practitioners in a local authority and I had the pleasure of speaking with a couple of them at the SIRCC (Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care) conference last month. While in conversation, I had one of those moments. You know, those moments when something happens that fortifies your connection with why youíre doing what youíre doing and affirms that progress is being made. We were talking about their unit, and how much better things have become. Morale is higher, practice more child-centred and, not surprisingly, the kids are doing better. They did recently go through a rough patch, with some kids going through some pretty harrowing difficulties. Interestingly, however, this time they remained focused, positive and cohesive as a staff group. They also managed to interrupt the pattern of extended sick leave that used to prevail during difficult periods.
So I asked them what they thought is was that had made the difference. They talked about various things, but the one that was identified as most important was the feeling that external management listened and responded to their assessment of what was needed Ė for the kids and for staff. Interestingly, one of two I was speaking with is a former student from our undergraduate course. She is also a unit manager. She is one of those people who has excellent intuitional capacities for the work, and also the ability (derived, in part, from more explicit knowledge) to argue the case for her unit. She has been with the local authority a relatively short time, and I canít help but think this has been one of the keys in unlocking things.
An important element in bringing knowledge to a tacit to an explicit, explicable level is writing. I can remember, when I was a student, Mark Smith spoke about writing as a way to change things. This has stayed with me, and over time I have come to see the many layers of change that writing can bring, both to the individual and to the sector. The act of writing facilitates the process of bringing what is known to a clearer, more explicable level.
Most of us have had the experience of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to write that paper, thinking we understood whatever it was we had set out to write about, only to find we didnít understand it as fully as we thought. Indeed, I have this experience every time I sit down to write this column. I think this is part of what puts some people off writing; the struggle to achieve clarity can make us feel like we donít really know anything. Engaging in this struggle, however, enables clearer, deeper understanding. As a result, the ability to articulate is enhanced.
Itís helpful, then, to consider writing as a form of thinking. Seeing our thoughts in black and white helps us to scrutinise them and aids our ability to develop them further. It also takes us off the hook of feeling that what we write has to come out perfectly the first time. Rather than being the final act of expressing well developed thoughts, ideas or stories, it becomes part of the process. When thought of this way, there can be a better flow of ďthinking on paperĒ, freeing up new ways of looking at things or organising our thoughts. Of course, for most of us revision is a necessary part of this process, cleaning up gaps in our logic or unclear explanations, but this isnít a sign of a bad piece of writing. It is just part of the process. This is good in theory, and truth be told, Iím still struggling with it in practice.
The way we think about residential child care, our practice and even ourselves have been shaped, at least in part, by what has been written about it. The impact of writing is even more significant for those who have had no relevant direct experience of it. Furthermore, we donít have to have read what has been written for it to shape our thinking. For instance, our beliefs about the importance of tailoring services to the individual and about the dangers of institutionalisation have been shaped, in large part, by Goffman's Asylums. This wasnít even written about residential child care, but has had a powerful influence about the way it is seen and understood Ė for better and for worse.
CYC-Net has made a substantial contribution to giving voice to perhaps the largest number of folks involved in, and committed to, residential child care (and other forms of Child and Youth Care). Amongst other reasons for all of their hard work, I suspect Thom and Brian are committed to ensuring that there are voices informing Child and Youth Care practice who know Child and Youth Care practice. This is very important. Residential practitioners have long suffered low status, with little respect accorded to their knowledge and capacities. Their voice in informing the way in which residential child care is thought about has been marginalised. While sometimes an individual piece of writing has a strong and far reaching impact on peopleís thinking, it occurs more often when a critical mass of people write (and read and think and discuss) along a similar line.
Hopefully, the work done by the tutors and students on our course is contributing to a positive, critical mass that aids the development of voice and professional identity for those working in residential child care. For this is key to improving practice and, most importantly, the life chances of the children and young people we serve. The struggle to understand and meaningfully apply learning often feels difficult due to the requirement to write. I wonder what kind of shift there might be if writing was, in addition, seen as an aid to understanding, as well as a vehicle for informing practice and shaping peopleís thinking about residential child care more generally. And, there has never been a more opportune time for practitioners to join in and get their voice heard. Over the coming months, I will be encouraging my students to contribute to this column (as Mark Smith did before me). Contributions may or may not include explicit references to research or theory. More importantly, they will offer a structured, supported opportunity for even more voices to join the Child and Youth Care chorus. They may take one of many forms: a piece entirely written by the student, a jointly written piece, or even a conversation between myself and a student. I expect these student contributions will only appear from time to time, but I do have one lined up for next month. So watch for them in the future, and in the meantime consider sharing some of your own thoughts on paper.