Two Dimensions of Practice

Based on a paper given at the University of Humberside (now University of Lincoln) in 1992

People from politicians to managers seem to have great faith in training, and even sometimes in education. We are told that it is a panacea: it will improve competitiveness, it will go a long way to reducing unemployment, it will improve health and safety, and it will even stop child abuse. It has become very big business, but despite the investment of time and money, it seems sometimes to yield rather poor dividends.

Possible reasons for that will be found throughout this site, but I want to start with a model of working practice, rather than of training as such. The argument is simple: there are some aspects of practice which can readily be improved by training, and there are some which can not: those need different kinds of intervention, and although you could perhaps dilute the notion of “training” until it covers all of them, that would be a semantic trick, not a reflection of the real world. Moreover, working with these different forms of practice places different demands on the teacher.

This model of practice suggests that it can be rated on two dimensions, which are independent of each other, yielding four categories. The first dimension assesses the extent to which practice accords with the values or perhaps the preferences of the practitioner: the second is about understanding the rationale of practice and its effects.

Willing and Unwilling Practice

Most practice in most occupations is undertaken fairly willingly. That is not to assert that most of us enjoy what we do, but that we have a fairly clear idea of what we ought to be doing, and we act in accordance with that idea. In contrast, there are occasions on which we are forced to act in ways at variance with what we have learned is best practice, which we shall refer to here as practising “unwillingly”.

The reasons for unwilling practice are many, and for present purposes it makes little difference what they are. Lack of resources and unreasonable demands are probably two of the most common. As a teacher, I may want to spend time getting to know the individual needs of every person in my class, but the number of students and the constraints of time may well mean that I have to treat them as if they were all the same. As a doctor, I may want to talk to my patients and find out what is behind the complaints which keep them coming back for more sleeping tablets, tranquillisers or anti-depressants, but the waiting-room is full again, and so I just write a repeat prescription. As a manager, I may believe it important to consult with my staff about impending changes, and involve them in decision-making, but I am under pressure to get things done and so I just issue directives. All of us are familiar with these everyday compromises.

A variant of unwilling practice may also stem from lack of time to think, where the practitioner “knows better”, but regresses to survival-oriented practice by “reflex”: the earlier learning is so firmly established that when there is no time to reflect, it surfaces although it may be instantly regretted. At a trivial level, I have tried to train myself not to cross my hands on the steering wheel while driving. I am fully persuaded that this is desirable for better control. I remember to do it when I am concentrating and approaching a corner in a planned fashion, but the moment I am distracted or have to swerve in an emergency I cross my hands again.

Witting and Unwitting Practice

“Witting” is not a word we use very often, although “unwitting” is fairly common. Just like other words which we only encounter in the negative — such as "kempt", "couth" "ept" and "ert" — it is easy to deduce its meaning. Witting practice is knowing practice, when you understand why you are doing something and what its likely consequences will be. Unwitting practice is when you simply go through the motions or obey orders without full understanding of the whys and wherefores.

Four kinds of Practice

Put these two dimensions together, and we have four kinds of practice:

It should be pointed out that these are kinds of practice rather than kinds of work; that is, they relate to the ways in which particular individuals do parts of their jobs at different times. Any given task or procedure might be carried out in any of the four forms, so it does not make sense to attempt to use these categories for the purpose of job analysis, although it may make sense to use them for appraisal.

Intentional (Witting and Willing) Practice

Most training programmes operate on the assumption that this is the only kind of practice there is. The practitioner is doing what she set out to do (willing), and in full knowledge both of the reasons for doing so, and what is likely to follow from the action. She can therefore be held fully accountable for that practice. If management wishes to modify it, all they have to do is to issue a new set of regulations, brief or train her to use them, and other things being equal, practice will change. All this is patently obvious, but it needs to be spelt out a little to provide the background for the other categories. Moreover, it is much less ubiquitous than outsiders are inclined to think.

Survival (Witting and Unwilling) Practice

As in the above cases, here we have a practitioner who knows what he ought to be doing, but finds that he can’t do it. In all the examples (teacher, doctor, manager) cited above, the problem is basically lack of time, but it might equally be not having the right equipment. Try to change the situation with regulations or even by offering further training, and you will get protests: “It’s all very well telling us to spend more time with our students/ patients/ clients/ staff, but if I do, who’s going to...?”

Very often witting and unwilling practice is the product of rough and ready prioritisation which necessitates taking short-cuts. There is a rush order in the machine-shop, so a tool is set up without using the full safety procedure, for example. It can easily become institutionalised: there is a common form of industrial protest known as “working to rule”, in which work is slowed almost to a standstill by an insistence on following all procedures to the letter. The very fact that this slows things down is testimony to required standards being routinely ignored. This raises serious questions about a culture of management accountability which trades on issuing regulations which cannot practicably be applied; but for present purposes the important consideration is that witting and unwilling practice cannot be rectified by issuing more such instructions, or simply by training in isolation.

Instead, there is a prior need to examine the circumstances under which witting and unwilling practice occurs, and to ensure that the opportunities are available for working without short-cuts. Staff need to be convinced that there is a realistic assessment of the situation before training itself is any use at all.

The consequences of such an analysis may be profound for management. They may require a review of staffing levels and pay policy, for example. But there is also an issue for trainers asked to participate in a training effort to rectify such practice. Their efforts may be in vain—which does not augur well for the re-employment of a consultant trainer—but their credibility in the eyes of the recipients of training may also be compromised. It is important to most practitioners that those training them represent both high standards of practice and also close acquaintance with real-world problems. Failure to convince course members of this severely undermines the effectiveness of training practice.

Not all survival practice is related to external pressures, however. Staff in stressful occupations develop defences to enable them to cope with the pressures. The most explicit study of this is Menzies’ classic “Case-study in the Functioning of Social Systems as a Defence against Anxiety” (1967, in Menzies-Lyth, 1988), in which she examined how the structure of nurse training had evolved (up to the time of her study) in order to inculcate values and practices which preserved young and relatively immature entrants from the emotional onslaught of dealing with seriously ill patients. Here, the survival practice had become institutionalised. Practical experience on wards was based on a rapid rotation, for example, so that student nurses would not get to know the patients too well or feel involved with them. Work was organised on the basis of “task-lists”: a nurse would be assigned to do all the bed-pans on the ward, and then perhaps to take round all the mid-morning drinks, ensuring that the contact with any given patient was brief and business-like. The level of dissatisfaction was high, but it was implicitly accepted as being preferable to nurses getting “over-involved”, and potentially burning out. The pattern of nurse training in the UK has changed considerably since the study, but a number of nurse trainers have commented to me that while one set of defences has been stripped away, insufficient attention may be given to other ways of coping with the pressures, which do not go away.

Such survival sub-cultures are not confined to nursing: studies by a school of sociologists known as ethnomethodologists—generally renowned for the obscurity of their writings—have shown similar systems of “typifications” or stereotyping of clients, in a variety of service agencies. They have been studied in the juvenile justice system by Cicourel (1968), in coroner’s services by Garfinkel (1967), in nursing and the police by Sudnow (1965, 1967), in hospital records by Garfinkel (1967), and in social work by Zimmerman (1969). In each case—when you get behind their own pretentious and obfuscatory jargon—they examine how an informal system of categorisation of cases “for all practical purposes” grows out of the practical pressures of doing the job. One effect is to dehumanise the client, but they persist because they help the practitioner.

There may also be more personal factors which lead to the development of survival practice. Transmitting bad news is an aspect of several jobs which is notoriously done badly: but then given the tendency of members of the public to blame the messenger, this is perhaps not surprising. Either fear or a genuine desire not to hurt someone’s feelings can lead to the information being fudged, or to a brusque “hit and run” approach in which the news is blurted out, and then the messenger escapes. Although there used to be a medical tradition of not telling someone that he had cancer, for example, that is fairly long gone, and practitioners talking about how they ought to act are usually fairly clear about it. Nevertheless, in the heat of the moment they may regress and act on the basis of survival rather than good practice. Argyris and Schön (1974) developed the useful distinction between “theories-in-use”, rather than “espoused theories” to discuss this discrepancy, in the context of negotiating skills. More moralistically, and less helpfully, it may be referred to as “hypocrisy”.

This discussion suggests that tutors have an uphill struggle in trying to work with survival practice. Unless they (and the learners’ group) can create an accepting and trustworthy environment, such practice rarely emerges for discussion. Everyone knows what they ought to be saying and doing, but may be very shame-faced about what they actually do say and do. Given that such survival practice is often only a small part of their overall pattern of work, however, it is possible to get through to it with care (and time).

Shallow (Willing and Unwitting) Practice

Shallow practice is not be confused with surface learning (Marton, Hounsell and Entwistle, 1997): it is more analogous to the seed sown on rocky ground in the parable of the Sower (St. Mark 4:16-17). Another term might be "ignorant" practice. There are basically two forms of such practice; where staff are simply unaware of its potentially deleterious (or even beneficial) effects, and where they have just been trained to operate a set of procedures without knowing the reasons, and are thus unequipped to deal with any variations from the norm. Naturally, these forms overlap.

One of the clearest areas in which it is found is that of equal opportunities/inclusivity/diversity... The buzz-words change in the interests not of the students/learners/consumers/whatever, but in order to show that the trainers in these areas are up to speed with the latest fashions (sorry! "insights" or "stategies" in the field]. As I write this, I am preparing to teach part of a course on post-compulsory education, one of the objectives of which specifies an understanding of equal opportunities in adult education. As part of the initial learning contract, students have been asked to rate themselves on their pre-course understanding or competence in relation to these objectives. I have just had tutorials with a series of students who have asked, in one form or another, “what is there to know about equal opportunities?” They protest that they are not prejudiced against anyone and they treat all their students the same, so that must be all there is to it. As they go through the module, they will (or at least should) discover that many of their well-intentioned practices are discriminatory, simply because they are unwitting about their impact on members of minority groups. I recollect the catering lecturer who was nonplussed by the reaction of a Jewish student who objected to preparing chicken Kiev, the IT teacher who could not understand why a visually-impaired student wanted to learn DOS-based rather than Windows packages, the tutor who took it as evidence of lack of motivation that women adult returners to learning were regularly late for his 9.00 am class, as well as the numerous teachers who have identified dyslexia with lack of ability.

Equal opportunities is not the only area of shallow practice, of course. The trainers engaged in the fruitless task of working with the survival-oriented practitioners discussed in the previous section might also be in the same position of ignorance about the consequences of their work. But so, in a much more positive sense, are some of the naive teachers who wonder why their students like them so much, when they are prepared to look over a draft of an assignment: they are surprised to learn that not everyone would be prepared (or have time) to do it. But they are not merely ignorant of common practice, they are blissfully unaware of how much it means to some students that they are prepared to take such an interest.

The other form of practice is exemplified by the shop assistant who asked me for my address when I was making a cash purchase, and then could not explain to me why he needed the information: he protested that no-one had ever asked before, but he would get into trouble if he did not get it. I find myself in the same position in relation to some of the questions on our standard university enrolment form: the name of the school someone attended 20 years ago might be quite irrelevant, but I know that if the box is left blank, a bureaucrat will reject it. But I can’t really be bothered to make a fuss about it or even find out why someone wants to know. These examples overlap with the first category in that they are about seeking irrelevant information and thus constitute an unwitting invasion of privacy, but they are also in the second category because of their "Their’s [sic] not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die" philosophy.

The implications for training are considerable. There is a danger for example that competence-based training programmes can, themselves unwittingly, promote shallow practice. If each component of the job is divided into competences, and elements, and performance criteria, there is a danger that the sum of the parts will be less than the whole. Each component of the programme needs to be contextualised, so that its relationship to the whole can be seen, and informed decisions can be made about when to apply a particular approach. A number of National Vocational Qualifications (such as those in health and social care) have taken this to heart, with the introduction of core competences which are primarily about the application of appropriate values to the task; but the model does not lend itself readily to such an approach. Similar concerns have been expressed about the ability of a competence-based model to equip practitioners (in all fields) to deal with situations of uncertainty, and hence to provide an adequate basis for training at NVQ Levels 4 and 5.

In practice, of course, almost any kind of curriculum can suffer from the same problems, partly because the assessment of practice has to focus on simplified models of the real world. Even case-studies, valuable though they are, have limitations. Even more intractably, the knowledge base of the subject may be unwitting about some of its consequences. The medical curriculum, for example, has changed in quite important respects in recent years, not only because of the discovery and development of new methods, but because of a recognition that tried and trusted approaches to the treatment of routine conditions either do not work or have side-effects which are worse than the illness. Only recently have environmental concerns been taken on board in the modelling of industrial processes. Here the issues border on the political.

How far does one go in contextualising the curriculum? There is a point at which one goes so far that it is no longer possible to devote sufficient attention to the particular skills or knowledge learners are supposed to be acquiring. (A colleague in Further Education, currently devising a course in servicing electronic goods, complains that so much emphasis is being put on the “customer care” requirements of the course that the technical parts are being squeezed out.) It is also possible to render learners impotent, by engaging with issues over which they have no control. A few teachers would maintain that engineering staff working on a product with military applications need to be aware of who is buying it, but most draw the boundaries much more narrowly, pointing out simply how important engineering tolerances are for the “safe” operation of the product. Despite the ethical and political problems, however, it is reasonable to trace the potential effects of specific bits of practice within the defined boundaries of a system — the political question is about the drawing of those boundaries.

Driven (Unwilling and Unwitting) Practice

This fourth category is the most difficult to describe, although you may recognise it when you see it. It is also the most difficult to address. I call it “driven” because there is a sense of compulsion about it, or at least of not being aware of any alternative. It may well be an expression of a personality trait with which someone is not comfortable, but says, “It’s just me, I’m afraid ...” It may be compulsive talking, it may be impatience, it may be shyness. Try to make the person aware of it, and they may try to change, but fail because it is so much a part of themselves. Very often they have some slight idea of its impact, so it is not totally unwitting, and they may well admit that they “wish I could listen/be so tolerant/let go/be as organised as you,” but never really having had the experience of being other than they are, they remain substantially unaware of what their practice would be like if they were different.

If you are familiar with the personal development literature of the 1960s and 70s, you may have come across the “Johari window”, which like the present model, uses two dimension (in this case “known/unknown to others” and “known/unknown to self”) to yield four quadrants. This Driven practice may well correspond with the “Blind self” (known to others but unknown to self), or the “Unknown self”.

As the “Blind self” notion suggests, it is much easier to see this form of practice in other people than it is in ourselves, but everyone has their areas of it. For myself, I know that one area is a failure to say exactly what I mean (I’m better at writing what I mean than I am at saying it, although you may not believe that!): I set out to say one thing and somehow by the time I have finished I have said something different. I also come across to others as a bit of a “cold fish”. It has taken quite a lot of reflection and feedback to realise these quirks, and I am not comfortable with them, but my insight is impotent. I also know that one of my defence mechanisms when anxious about my teaching is to retreat into the role of academic show-off, and pontificate about a subject at great length. And if I use the word “actually” too much, I do not know what I am talking about ... Ask my colleagues and they will no doubt be able to list other features of which I am as yet unaware.

More than that, I have only the vaguest idea of how my practice would be different if I did not have these failings—or even if they really are failings. How would my students react if I were more approachable? Would my tutorials be different? Would my former counselling practice have been different? I think I was quite effective as a counsellor at an intellectual and decision-making level, but would I have got more emotional responses if my body language had been more relaxed? Would that have been a good thing? Would I have helped some people less than in fact I did? A colleague tells me that I produce polarised reactions in students — some think I am a brilliant teacher (well, he did not actually say “brilliant”), whereas some find me profoundly irritating or downright incomprehensible (including my partner, who was once a student of mine). Few are neutral.

Apart from the understandable reaction of asking who this guy is who has the cheek to pronounce on teaching and learning issues when he is so self-evidently incompetent himself, there is a serious point to all this confession. Training as such is not going to address this kind of practice. The restrictive solution is to say that anyone so flawed should not be in a particular job—they are quite unsuited. Occasionally that may be true, but it applies to all of us. The perfect practitioner, in whatever discipline, has not yet been invented. The enabling solution is the aforementioned process of feedback from others and reflection by yourself, perhaps abetted by such devices as video recordings of yourself in action, and a commitment to work through your limitations (and to capitalise on your strengths, because some of this driven practice may just include your greatest talents).

Training may be ineffective but more important, it may be intrusive and exceed its authority. There is a well-known side-effect of adult education, which has been termed “perspective transformation” (Mezirow, 1978). This occurs when the experience of learning goes beyond an incremental change in a person’s knowledge, skill or understanding, to a wholesale re-ordering of the way they think about themselves and their position in the world. Willy Russell’s play and subsequent film, “Educating Rita”, dramatises this awakening; and Paolo Freire’s objective of “conscientisation” as a product of literacy education is an explicit embrace of it as a desired outcome (Freire, 1972). It is not dependent on success in learning what the teacher set out to teach. I have been confronted on several occasions by students who have claimed that even a vocational day-release programme has, for example, given them the courage to leave their partners. This is embarrassing and even rather frightening for the teacher who is credited with the transformation: but at least it was accidental. It was a side-effect of showing people they could do more than they thought they could, of raising their self-esteem and (waffly jargon) “empowering” them. There is no way in which (at least now), I would presume to set out to interfere to that extent in their private lives. (I say “at least now”, because many years ago I worked on a rather psychodynamically-oriented social work course about which we used to joke that we took the students to pieces and then put them back together again — and last year we had enough parts left over to make two more students!)

The problem is that to address driven practice is to venture into this therapeutic area, and it is difficult to know when one is crossing a very indistinct line. Yes, I want to support a student who is upset by some aspect of the learning. Yes, I want to give feedback on performance so that he can reflect on it and change if he wishes and is able to. Yes, I will try to help someone whose learning is adversely affected by external pressures. But students (and trainees in an occupational context) do not contract for a psychological makeover when they join a course.

When I taught on another social work course a few years ago, the external examiner commented at one point that he was concerned that despite the extent and intensity of emphasis on anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice on the programme, the work he had read indicated that the students were not actually using it in their assignments. I found this disturbing, and tried to think through what was going on, including asking some of the students who had completed the programme (including some of the black students). Their comments indicated that they experienced the teaching as a sort of ritual obeisance to political correctness on the part of the staff. They did not doubt staff sincerity, they just thought it was not much practical use: so they made similarly token references in their assignments, just enough to meet the explicit marking criteria related to anti-discriminatory practice. I was not sure what to make of this. We could reasonably expect that they should combat race, gender and disability discrimination in their practice, and this was explicitly assessed on their practical placements: but could we — should we — legislate for what they should ? Overall, I think not. I think they had got it right and we had got it wrong.

References here

Internal links

Willing and Unwilling Practice Witting and Unwitting PracticeFour kinds of PracticeIntentional PracticeSurvival PracticeShallow PracticeDriven Practice

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Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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