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Head, Heart, Hands: A mini-framework for praxis

On Saturday, my students and I borrowed a framework for considering our work with ideas, ourselves, or clients, whether clinically or at the macro level. We were discussing an article differentiating Espoused Theory from Theory-in-Use. The notion here is also core to the commonly discussed, though less commonly understood, concept of “praxis” or reflection-in-action.

Espoused theory is what we say we do. For example, in my teaching, I say I practice invitation. Theory-in-Use is what we’re actually doing, in any given moment, during our practice. It’s quite typical these do not align. In my youth work, I frequently see programs that say things like “we are youth-led!” and then, in practice, ask young people to make trivial decisions and adults to create the overall program and agenda. I suspect that our Espoused Theory in this case is much easier to say than to put into practice – perhaps because we don’t have good role models (or any role models) and perhaps because it is very, very difficult for adults to give up authority to young people.

The thing with a frame like Espoused vs. Theory-in-Use is that the terms themselves are so technical sounding that they are hard for many to work with. I like Head, Heart, and Hands much better because we have intuitive ideas in our embodied lives that reflect each of these. We have a keen sense of when we’ve gotten there – and when we haven’t. At least with Head and Heart.

This is what my students and I experienced. We did some practice interviews in a fishbowl and attempted to move between these different “registers” of work. Our topic was a bit clunky, “constructive criticism.” Here’s what the registers sounded like:

Head (What we think): What is good constructive criticism for you? When have you received good constructive criticism?

Responses to these questions about constructive criticism, even if personal, were theoretical – an espoused theory of what we thought constructive criticism is or could be, or even what it could be for us personally.

Heart (How we feel): Our insights into moving into Heart were that there are two clear ways in (we couldn’t think of more). First, to ask someone to bring a feeling into the present in their body. For example, What’s that feel like in your body right now (do you feel it somewhere in particular)? What’s it like to be you, in this moment?

Heart can also be evoked from the past, through story rather than description: Would you tell me a story of a time you experienced constructive criticism in a way that was meaningful to you? What was it like to be in your body in that moment?

Hands (What we do). The hardest to get into. We tried over and over and usually ended up back in Head. For example, to follow up on that Heart question above, we tried: What made the constructive criticism you received in that story work? The truth is… we are not very good at moving to Hands! Which is why “praxis” and evolving Theory-in-Use are much easier said than done.

To move to Hands, we discovered that we needed to move our conversation into the present. Can we try practicing that constructive criticism right now, with some constructive criticism I’d like to share with you? I’ll do my best to take into account what you’ve said (Head) about what works for you and how that made you feel (Heart).

Hands work is always Situated Learning – otherwise it is actually Head or Heart. We’ve gotta practice. We can move to Head / Heart to see if we’ve got it right. E.g., “how are you feeling right now after we tried that?” (Heart), or “What worked / didn’t work in what we just did for you?” Then we could try jumping back into practice, those ideas taken into account. The tighter we can weave these, the more likely we are to improve.

Moving Between: The moving between these different registers is, I’d posit, where much of the transferable learning happens. When we can do something differently, then bring it back to Head and conceptualize what we’re doing differently; when we can take a concept, move it into our bodies, and then move it into immediate practice. Whether working with ourselves, other individuals, or groups, a key practice is being able to help others learn by shifting between these registers. It will, for many of us raised in Western universalist notions of “right answers” be very easy to get into Head, and much harder to do the others. So getting good at moving Espoused Theory to Theory-in-Use means getting good at pushing into Heart and Hands space.

Perhaps this is a theory of learning for social work and practice-based professions – that our learning, whether in practice, supervision, or the classroom, is rooted in the movement between (conscious or not) these three spaces. James Zull in discussing neuroscience and learning connects motivation (I’d say a “heart” connection) to effective learning. Experiential learning theories and practices often aim to move from Heart/Hands to Head, but rarely capture all three effectively (at least in my experience). Case studies help us work through Head by applying theories to real scenarios. Role plays might help us move into Heart and Hands. Learning circle practices, and Theater/Somatic Movement can move us into Heart.

Regardless, what I love about the Head/Heart/Hands framework is that many of us have a deep-rooted sense of what constitutes these categories. We might not be able to say or do it right away, but if you give us examples, as we did by practicing on Saturday in my class, we can classify which area it fits in pretty well.

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