1 Describing and reflecting
One of the central ideas in work with young people is that of reflective practice. We try to reflect on our practice as teachers, and we want you to reflect on the practice of workers with young people – both your own practice (if this applies to you) and that of others.
In practical terms, you will often be asked in your assignments to describe and to reflect. The most important point to make about this is that ‘describe’ and ‘reflect’ are actually ordinary, everyday words referring to familiar and straightforward processes – they are not specialist or technical terms. Neither is very precise, but they do not need to be. Their basic meanings are captured succinctly by ordinary dictionary definitions (in this case from The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary):
- describe: to set forth in words by reference to characteristics … to represent, picture, portray
- reflect: to turn one’s thoughts (back) on … to ponder, meditate on.
Thus, description answers straightforward factual questions, such as:
- What is it?
- What happens?
- Where and when does it happen?
- How big is it?
- Who is involved?
As an example, here is part of a description of a youth centre in Glamorgan, South Wales:
Cowbridge Youth Centre is a statutory full-time youth provision operated by the local education authority. It is situated in a prosperous medieval market town …
The youth centre is situated off the main street behind the police station in a former magistrates’ court. It is a single-storey building with several rooms for different activities, including a hall for discotheques, band practice, pool, table tennis, etc.
Opposite the centre are public playing fields; the town also has a small leisure centre but it is in a rural location with little public transport at night connecting the outlying villages. Young people rely heavily on transport from parents to attend the youth centre.
The youth centre offers provision for young people aged 11–25 years, but the majority of users are 14–16 year olds.
Reflection is required in response to questions that are less straightforward, involving thinking about reasons, motives, values and judgements, such as:
- What is the purpose of this activity?
- What values and principles are being followed?
- How and why do young people get involved?
- What do they (and the workers) get out of it?
- What seems successful, and less successful, in what is done – and how should we judge?
- What might be done differently?
As an example, here are some reflections on work with young people by Jack Provan, an RAF engineer who works with young people on a voluntary basis, who is also an Open University student. He is reflecting on how different conceptions of rights and responsibilities influence this work.
While studying E131 and E118 over the last few years I have read about and met people who work for a number of projects and organisations who ensure Young People are aware of the rights that they have. These include things like housing and rights to benefits. I was wondering how many projects out there that assist Young People with understanding these rights also help them understand their responsibilities as members of society, and how those responsibilities are defined? …
For instance I was working with a group of young men who were playing football in the park during a break in the day’s programme. The language was pretty bad and we as the workers couldn’t get them to tone it down. There was a gentleman nearby who was playing with his toddler who was fairly disturbed by our group and ended up leaving the area.
On discussion with my Line Manager I put the point across that the group had a right to use the park but also a responsibility to cause as little distress to others when using public spaces. … My Line Manager on the other hand suggested that our group were present first and the gentleman with the toddler chose to stop beside us. The rest of the park was empty so should our group have to modify legal behaviour because of the choice of this one man?
It made me realise just how much my values impact on my practice, which brought me to thinking about how we define responsibilities when we talk to Young People. I obviously feel that the Young People have different responsibilities than my Line Manager does and it made wonder how in the future I can define my practice.
Jack’s reflections arise out of a specific incident in his work with young people. Among other things, it leads him to reflect on the purposes of this work. He recognises that the work is widely seen as being about (informal) education of young people in their rights, and wonders whether it neglects their responsibilities.
It also leads him to reflect on values, thinking about the relationship between values and practice, and about possible tensions between his personal values (concerning how to behave in public and how to treat other people) and the values of the organisation for which he is working. These are personal issues for Jack in his particular work situation, but they have wider relevance and application too.
The example above shows Jack reflecting mainly on his own work but, of course, we can reflect on other people’s work too, as you will be doing in this course.