What is praxis?

Recently I was attacked for being “out of touch with the real world” with the person going on to say that “many academics have a profound inability to communicate with the less ‘enlightened.’” It seems to me that the attack was at least partly based on a perception that academics live in a world of theory and are out of touch with practice and the “real world.” People, including academics and practitioners, often see a clear distinction between theory and practice with a perception that academics put theory on a pedestal and see it as “real” knowledge (see also Smith, 2011). While this separation is frequently challenged (e.g., Parton, 2000; Upton, 1999; Zuber-Skerritt, 2001), too often there is still a wide gulf between theory and practice. (For example, some approaches to evidence-based practice help reinforce this gulf.)

One approach to theory and practice that challenges this separation, is praxis.

The separation of theory and practice can be linked back to Aristotle (384–322 BCE) who differentiated between theoria (thinking or contemplation), poiesis (making or production) and praxis (doing or activity) (Smith, 2011). Praxis was not mindless activity, but “deliberative, responsible, human‐moral action” which involved “the process of wise judgement” (Connor, 2004, p. 56). Smith (2011) suggests that, for Aristotle, praxis was “guided by a moral disposition to act truly and rightly; a concern to further human wellbeing and the good life” (para. 8).

When praxis is used in the modern context of education, nursing, family or youth work  and other human services, it is generally based on how Paulo Freire understood praxis in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (Freire, 1972) and other writing (e.g., Freire, 1994) which, in turn, was built on a Marxist philosophy of praxis (White, 2007). (For more on praxis in Marxism, see this article by Doug Enaa Greene (2017)).

Freire (1972, p. 52) described praxis as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it”. He argued that it was not enough for people to study the world, they also had a responsibility to act to create a more just world. For Freire, praxis was “a central defining feature of human life and a necessary condition of freedom” and he argued that “human nature is expressed through intentional, reflective, meaningful activity situated within dynamic historical and cultural contexts that shape and set limits on that activity” (Glass, 2001, p.16).

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The challenge of how to describe program participants

Quill and chalk
(Photo: Chris Wightman)

At the moment I’m helping to writeup some research we’ve done with participants from Uni4You, a program at Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle (UON). Uni4You supports students who often have a lived experience of educational disadvantage, financial difficulties, caring responsibilities, childhood trauma, domestic violence, and/or health issues. They are often the first in their families, and their neighbourhoods, to enrol in higher education. The project works with people in their local communities and at local UON campuses, as they make informed decisions about lifelong-learning, journey through an enabling program at UON, and transition to an undergraduate program. The project includes information sessions; workshops exploring attitudes and aspirations towards lifelong learning; preparation for study sessions; peer-learning support groups; and scaffolded psycho-social support.

But in the writeup, we’re struggling with how to describe the participants in the program. According to the Australian Government, the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP), which funds Uni4You, aims to “improve access to undergraduate courses for people from low SES backgrounds and improve their retention and completion rates” (Commonwealth of Australia, 2012, Section 1.40.1).

In HEPPP, there is a focus on six “equity groups”:

  1. Indigenous Australians
  2. People from low SES backgrounds
  3. People from non-English speaking backgrounds or culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
  4. People from regional and remote areas
  5. People with a disability
  6. Women in non-traditional subject areas (ACIL Allen Consulting, 2017, p. 39)

Terms such as “disadvantaged,” “marginalised,” “low SES,” “poor” or “vulnerable” are used frequently in literature talking about the people who are the target of HEPPP programs.

In the conversations we had with Uni4You participants as part of the research, however, none of the participants described themselves in these terms, although some community practitioners (who were also interviewed) did. For example:

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Evidence-Informed Practice and the Integration of Research, Policy, Teaching and Practice in Family Services

Deb Hartman and I have just had an article on evidence-informed practice and the integration of research, policy, teaching and practice in family services published by developing practice. The following is the last version we sent them. The citation and published version (but you need to pay for it or have a subscription) is:

Stuart, G., & Hartman, D. (2019). Evidence-informed practice and the integration of research, policy, teaching and practice in family services. Developing Practice: The Child, Youth and Family Work Journal, (53), 34-53. https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=972739968885256;res=IELHSS

There is an increasing emphasis on evidence-based programs and practice in the professions of family work, child protection, social work and related fields (Gray, Joy, Plath, & Webb, 2015; McArthur & Winkworth, 2013; Plath, 2017; Shlonsky & Ballan, 2011; Toumbourou et al., 2017; Walsh, Rolls Reutz, & Williams, 2015). In Australia, government funding for family and community services is increasingly dependent on the implementation of evidence-based or evidence-informed practice  and evidence-based programs both nationally (Department of Families, 2012; Department of Social Services, 2014; Robinson & Esler, 2016) and at state level (Western Australian Department for Child Protection and Family Support, 2016; NSW Family and Community Services, 2016; State of Victoria‚ Department of Health and Human Services, 2016). Yet “evidence” is a contested term and there are a range of definitions and conceptualisations of evidence in family services.

This paper describes and analyses lessons from a project funded by the Department of Social Service Children and Families Expert Panel to support nine rural family services in NSW to build their capacity to implement evidence-based programs and practices. As academics who focus on family and community practice, we also wanted to explore strategies for creating dialogue and a deeper understanding between research, teaching, policy and practice. Drawing on discussions from a community of practice the formed part of the project we discuss how the practitioners used research evidence, their experience of evidence-based programs, their use of the experience and insights of themselves and other practitioners (practitioner wisdom) and, briefly, the importance they placed on the experience and insight from families, before exploring implications for evidence-informed practice, evidence-based programs, and integrating research evidence, practitioner wisdom and family experience and insights.

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Name.Narrate.Navigate: a program for young people who use violence in their families

(Photos by Name.Narrate.Navigate participants, used with permission)

Name.Narrate.Navigate (NNN) is a program exploring trauma-informed, culturally-sensitive responses to family and domestic violence by young people. NNN, works with young people who have committed family and domestic violence; are identified at risk of coming into contact with the justice system for the same; or who live in family and community contexts with high rates of family and domestic violence. The program also works to upskill practitioners in a range of sectors to work with these young people in ways that address the spectrum of violence, abuse and trauma from victimisation through perpetration.

The following is an overview of NNN written by (Tamara Blakemore, Lousie Rak, Joel McGregor and me).

NNN grew from previous research 1, 2 involving interviews with 38 practitioners working with young people in the Hunter region of New South Wales (NSW) to explore their perceptions of youth crime, educational engagement, the relationship between educational engagement and involvement in crime, and challenges and opportunities for practice. Some of the findings relevant to the establishment of NNN include:

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Promoting Nonviolent Relationships: Alternatives to Violence Project Workshops with Parents

These slides are a presentation Gener Lapina and I did at the Rethinking Peace, Conflict and Governance conference in Paramatta (12-14 February 2020). It was part of a session called “Alternatives to Violence, Psychosocial Transformation and Peacebuilding.”

Some of the slides might not make a lot of sense without the narration, but we wrote a more detailed paper a little while ago which went into greater detail about the issues raised in this presentation. The paper, The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution, is available here.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. What are Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops?
  2. The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution
  3. Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), social capital & people from refugee backgrounds
  4. An interactive exercise exploring parenting styles
  5. What are authoritarian, permissive, uninvolved and authoritative parenting styles?
  6. Power and strengths-based practice

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

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Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), social capital & people from refugee backgrounds

The slides and following post is a presentation I did at the Rethinking Peace, Conflict and Governance conference in Paramatta (12-14 February 2020). It was part of a session called “Alternatives to Violence, Psychosocial Transformation and Peacebuilding.”

This final presentation is about an evaluation exploring the impact on social capital of Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops with people from refugee backgrounds.

The workshops and associated evaluation involved a partnership between STARTTS (Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors) and AVP in Sydney. (See the end of the post for the evaluation team.)

Before discussing the research, I want to make a few general comments about AVP and research. AVP has a history of participant feedback (e.g., there is usually verbal feedback after each session so that the workshop can be modified depending on the participants) but there has been little formal research or evaluation done. Some facilitators feel that the experiential nature of the workshops does not sit comfortable with research trying to identify what the outcomes of workshops are. It is up to participants what they get out of a workshop.

But recently there has been a growing sense that AVP needs need to have a greater focus on research and evaluation, and I am one of the co-convenors of the AVP International research team.

Internationally, there has been an increasing emphasis on evidence-informed practice, evidence-based practice and evidence-based programs, particularly in human services. Generally, evidence-based programs need to be standardised and systematised (so they can be replicated) and rigorously evaluated. By rigorously evaluated, registers of evidence-based programs generally mean evaluations that are higher up the hierarchy of evidence (Figure 1), with randomised controlled trials being the “Gold Standard” and little consideration being given to qualitative research.

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Uni4You: A case study of a community-based University widening participation program promoting lifelong learning

(Photo: Pixabay)

I’ve been part of a project exploring the experience of participants in Uni4You, a pre-access and widening participation strategy that supports students who often have a lived experience of educational disadvantage (including domestic violence and mental health issues) and are often the first in their families, and their neighbourhoods, to enrol in higher education. The research was  a project of the Excellence in Teaching for Equity in Higher Education program delivered by the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education

The following is a summary of the project that has been published by the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education. (The published version is available here.) It was primarily written by Michele Oshan, Kerrell Bourne, and myself. The full reference details are at the end of the post.

Project Summary

Uni4You is an innovative, pre-access and widening participation strategy based at the Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle (UON). Since 2013, Uni4You has supported students who often have a lived experience of educational disadvantage and are often the first in their families, and their neighbourhoods, to enrol in higher education. The project works with people in their local communities and at local UON campuses, as they make informed decisions about lifelong-learning, journey through an enabling program at UON, and transition to an undergraduate program. The project includes information sessions; workshops exploring attitudes and aspirations towards lifelong learning; preparation for study sessions; peer-learning support groups; and scaffolded psycho-social support.

The Family Action Centre has a history of making explicit the connections between research, evaluation, teaching and practice—an important foundation of praxis (Burke & Lumb, 2018)—through critical reflection, action research, and transformative practice. As part of this commitment, the research team included both researchers and Uni4You practitioners.

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My current projects (February 2020)

My focus is slowing shifting and, in some ways, I’m returning to my roots in the peace movement. When I started this blog (in early 2011), my focus at the Family Action Centre (FAC) was largely on community engagement. In late 2014, when the FAC offered Australia’s first Graduate Certificate and Master of Family Studies, I began to focus more on working with families: initially engaging families and (because of some funding we received) evidence-based or evidence-informed practice.

Over the last year or so, I have started to focus more on nonviolence and conflict resolution again (which are more closely aligned with my work in the peace movement in the 1980s, with establishing the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) in Newcastle in the 1990s, and with my PhD that explored the nonviolence as a framework for youth workers). My work continues to be built on a foundation of strengths-based practice and (because I try to adopt a bottom-up approach) engagement.

This year I have several main projects:

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Special days and dates for families and communities – 2020

(Image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

There are many international and Australian national days/weeks that focus on issues facing families and communities. The following are some of the more significant ones in 2020. I generally haven’t included the many charity days and days focusing on specific health issues. Please let me know if I have missed any important days.

(While most of the following days are international, ones marked with * are mainly for Australia.)

I have also created a list of days and dates for the environment.

Please note that some of the websites are not updated for 2020 yet.

January  

International Holocaust Remembrance Day — Monday, 27 January 2020

February  

World Day of Social Justice — Thursday, 20 February 2020

International Mother Language Day — Friday, 21 February 2020

March  

International Women’s Day — Sunday, 8 March 2020

Close the Gap Day — Thursday, 19 March 2020*

International Day of Happiness — Friday, 20 March 2020

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Special days and dates for the environment – 2020

Trees burning in a bushfire
Australia started 2020 with terrible bushfires. While this image is from 2013, it is a reminder of how climate change is making environmental disasters more frequent and more intense. (Photo: bertknot)

Here are some significant international and Australian national days/weeks for 2020 that focus on environmental issues.  I’ve also created a list of days and dates focusing on families and communities. Please let me know if I have missed any important ones. (Days marked with * are mainly for Australia.)

Please note that some of the websites are not updated for 2020 yet.

February  

World Wetlands Day — Sunday, 2 February 2020

Business Clean Up Day — Tuesday, 25 February 2020 *

International Polar Bear Day — Thursday, 27 February 2020

Schools Clean Up Day — Friday, 28 February 2020 *

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