Those who lead – people, educational or research programmes, engagement activities or even entire organisations in Higher Education, like every other sector globally, are now confronting the challenges of how to move forward in a world where everything we do has the potential for radical change. However, despite common references to a ‘new normal,’ realistically all we can plan for is a ‘next normal.’ 

Every day, forecasts and predictions from popular media and the HE press bounce across the spectrum of opportunity and doom; news trickles and cascades like a leaky and unpredictable faucet that dispenses cold water one day and hot the next. However, albeit not without pain, we in higher education have all somehow managed to get through the first months of lockdown, remote working and a comprehensive move to online education. What’s next and how do we determine what to tackle first of the many never before encountered questions remaining?

Although definitions vary and models differ, those who work with students appreciate and teach reflective practice as a key element for lifelong learning. Educators have also broadened the spectrum of how to ‘do’ reflection, incorporating a wide range of tools and techniques that embrace the value of inclusive learning approaches and help reframe thinking; the art of the possible. However, the reality is that many of us, particularly now when we factor in unexpected COVID-19 responsibilities, do not undertake much, if any, reflective practice.

The problem is that the global boat called ‘normal’ in which we’ve been cruising the seas has struck a leak and is filling quickly with water. Our survival is at stake. We know we need to bail – and quickly (the urgent / the reactive) but we also need to scan the horizon to chart a safe course to shore while simultaneously determining how to fix the leak (the important/the proactive). Bailing requires repetition and physical effort; scanning the horizon and plotting a course requires mental agility; patching the hole in the boat requires ingenuity. To manage anything other than bailing what we need to develop are the skills of reflection at speed. We need to slow down the moment, we need to think about what is working and what isn’t. Taking a pause, even a momentary one, to step back from bailing and notice changing conditions will help us to see how quickly the boat is filling and, if we stop bailing, how much time we have to examine and repair the hole while continuing to chart a course forward.

And once our boat is repaired sufficiently to get to our next temporary haven, we can’t leave it at that. Reflective practice is a skill that must be developed like any other and applied before, during and after action. To tackle the next normal and the next normal after that, we need to develop our creative, cognitive, adaptive and emotional capabilities.  Reflective practice is a conscious effort that prioritises time to think; not something to push out to an imaginary future when the seas have calmed. Intentional reflective practice now, at speed where necessary, will enable us to tackle whatever comes next with a deeper sense of personal and organisational resilience. Reflective practice can calm our anxious minds and give us hope – and now is when we need hope most.

Cindy Vallance is Assistant Director of Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery at AdvanceHE

Photo by Simon Matzinger from Pexels