Avoiding getting bogged down in the Swampy lowlands

(Image: The wetlands of Sudd in South Sudan.)

Victoria Pendry (@VictoriaPendry1)  is a freelance education consultant based in York specialising in Education and International Development. Most of her work is as the CEO of the The Curriculum Foundation (CF), a not-for-profit, internationally orientated social enterprise working with Governments in Low- and Middle-Income Countries to improve access to, and the quality of education. She is also a researcher forging her way (at 47 years young) through a part-time EdD at UCL where her focus is on teacher education in low resources settings.

‘In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is a swampy lowland where situations are confusing ‘messes’, incapable of technical solution. The difficulty is that the problems of the high ground, however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant to clients or to the larger society, while in the swamp are the problems of greatest human concern.’

(Schön, 1984, p. 42)

Focus has been one of the hardest aspects of both my (interlinked) professional and researcher roles. The education landscape is vast and ever-changing, especially when you work internationally. To have the relative freedom as a consultant to respond to opportunities that wink at you over unexpected horizons is a mixed blessing particularly when this is combined with a newfound access to shiny academic journals, inspirational questioners, and totally unmissable webinars full of new thinking and challenges to previously held assumptions. This combination of opportunity, shifting priorities and the discovering of yet more ‘unknowns’ creates a busy environment which could arguably be described as ‘messy’.

So, I frequently find myself in what Schön describes as ‘swampy lowlands’ where principles of quality education are complex in countries where class sizes regularly exceed 100 mixed-aged students and where characteristics of effective teaching are hard to define when teachers are hardly paid and hardly trained.   It would be easier to step out and stand back seeking quick-fix solutions. But such solutions are often shallow and superficial, lacking in contextual relevance. Consider the teacher for example who is handed a guidebook on Peace Education in English where her 1st language is Dinka, her second language is Arabic and her third is English – and then the materials suggest websites and videos in a land where internet penetration is less than 7% and she can’t afford the data anyway. So I prefer to remain within sea of swampy possibilities, a place of struggle and adventure in order to get to the heart of the matter, driving lasting change for a better world.

Using reflective thinking to help

It was during our first EdD Module on Professionalism with Dr D’Reen Struthers that I considered in more detail the value of reflective thinking as a reflective practitioner to help me continue to juggle all of my roles and responsibilities. (I’m a governor too and a tangled mum of teens). I consider the oppressive ‘circle of certainty’ and swampy lowlands be interlinked due to their focus on the need to look for solutions ‘amongst’ rather than from ‘beyond’. This is also one of the challenges of juggling in-depth research and solution focused consultancy.

Like many practitioners, I also tend to be over-critical of my own professionalism – some would suggest Imposter Syndrome – but my career has featured rapid change through new pastures which have made it entirely necessary for me to be hypersensitive to my environment.

When consumed with the challenge of navigating these lowlands with their supercomplex web of uncertainties within a liquid modernity of increasingly rapid change, D’Reen would remind us of the importance of getting in our helicopters to take a look at our swamp from another perspective from time to time. It’s admittedly difficult to see the new growth and possibilities when you are working within uncertainty and change, so standing back once in a while, is a worthy investment in time.

Operating predominantly within these swampy lowlands as a freelancer and part-time researcher requires one to keep a keen eye on the signs of burnout.  Messy terrain can be suffocating and one can become blind to possibilities ‘just behind’ or ‘just underneath’. To survive and thrive I have found that a commitment to enabling others and regular, purposeful visits to the hard, high ground are essential aspects of my blended researcher/professional journey. One way to do this is by talking and about my research with others.

On this hard, high ground I can pause, take a look at the whole landscape, and look to further horizons which may offer innovation and new learning. This ‘step up and out’ gives me the energy and perspective to dive back into the lowlands where ‘the problems of greatest human concern’are waiting to be solved.

I value the struggle and beauty of the swampy lowlands, but it’s not an easy journey. I’m grateful for the watchful and kind eyes of my EdD and CF community and for the people of South Sudan who constantly inspire me with their resilience and imagination.

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