A new step in my learning trajectory

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Every so often in this blog I have marked a ‘key event’ in the flux of events unfolding through time that collectively make up my learning/development journey.  These transition points have often marked a change in the type of posts I write and why I am writing them.  This is one of those posts…as I am about to embark on a new phase of ‘temporary purposeful activity’ in my learning.

Just after Christmas I made the decision to apply to do a Professional Doctorate in Public Health with University of Lancaster.  And in the last couple of weeks I have been offered a place and accepted it.  It starts with a residential week in June (with some pre and post work) then in September it gets going again.  As a professional doctorate it is ‘distance learning’ and designed to be done alongside having a job.  In essence the first two years are ‘taught’ with a curriculum covering public health theory/policy/practice and research skills/methods then from year three you start a work-based research project leading to a 35,000 word Thesis.  Gulp.

So why?  what motivated me to do this?  what is my purpose?

I can think of three inter-related reasons underpinning my motivation.

Firstly, I wanted to apply my previous academic studies in systems thinking in practice to the public health* domain of practice.  I felt that my history, experience and current ‘qualifications’ gave me something to offer the public health world because…

Systems science has been of increasing interest to public health researchers – for example, Green (2006) highlights that public health is now turning to systems science, as it did sociology 40 years ago, to help understand the nature of the factors that influence wellbeing and health. But, systems is not only useful to helping understand wellbeing and health, it also brings new insights into how to work to bring about the ‘concerted efforts of society’. Given my work coordinating partnership working for wellbeing and health, it is this aspect that I am most interested in. A recent WHO publication highlights the need for a new approach to governance for wellbeing and health (Kickbusch & Gleicher 2012) – one that takes a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach. These forms of governance need to enable a greater diversity of perspectives, of both ‘experts’ and ‘lay’ people, to be brought into use to understand a situation of concern. As systems thinking approaches help to surface different perspectives and reconcile power and boundary issues (Reynolds & Holwell 2010) they have been identified as powerful techniques to support public health work (Midgley 2006). The soft or systemic tradition of systems thinking also draws attention to the importance of social learning as part of systemic change. Social learning – which involves the learning of individuals or groups through social interaction – cannot be pre-determined but can be ‘designed for’ in the ways in which policy and governance processes unfold. All these ideas challenge traditional concepts of ‘leadership’, ‘management’, ‘capacity building’ and the role of government.

(adapted from my application)

Secondly, I wanted to formalise, and extend, the knowledge of public health that I have gained through my work-based experience.  It seems like I have been ‘doing health’ for years – dementia, carers, drugs – and now the whole sweep of wellbeing and health. As part of my job involves coordinating Newcastle’s participation as a Designated City in the WHO European Healthy City Movement, I have had the opportunity to be exposed to, and learn from, some of the foremost public health thinking, for example on the social determinants of health, health inequity, the importance of an asset-based approach and governance for wellbeing and health.  Yet, in spite of all that experience, I haven’t really sat down to consolidate what it is I ‘know’ about health or test some of what I think I ‘know’ and what values etc underpin this.  As well as this being a fascinating learning adventure, I think part of it is also about some ‘external recognition’ – at the moment others do not necessarily see me as a formal part of the public health profession – maybe this’ll help.

My third motivation is extending the research knowledge and skills that I developed in my MSc – basically all T847 (the research project) and D843 (Discourse Analysis) have achieved is a whetting of my appetite.  I am still so curious about research and how a research ‘attitude’ can enhance my practice – especially action research.  Action research has some lineages in common with the academic discipline of Systems (e.g. influences of Schon, Argyris, and Lewin) which has led to me being particularly interested in exploring how action research, systems thinking and social learning can mutually reinforce each other.

So blog-wise there will be more on wellbeing and health; more on research perspectives; more on how to bring about the ‘concerted efforts of society’.  More angst and more joy.

*By the way – in case you’re wondering – what is public health?  In 1920, C.E.A. Winslow provided the following definition of public health practice, it is cited everywhere and is a good basis to start from – though as with a lot of disciplines it is a contentious and evolving field:

Public health is the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting physical health and efficiency through organized community efforts for the sanitation of the environment, the control of community infections, the education of the individual in principles of personal hygiene, the organization of medical and nursing services for the early diagnosis and preventive treatment of disease, and the development of social machinery which will ensure to every individual in the community a standard of living adequate for the maintenance of health.


Green, L.W., 2006. Public Health asks of Systems Science: To advance our evidence-based practice, can you help us get more practice-based evidence? American Journal of Public Health, 96(3), p.406.

Kickbusch, I. & Gleicher, D., 2012. Governance for health in the 21st century, Geneva: World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe. Available at: http://www.euro.who.int/en/what-we-publish/abstracts/governance-for-health-in-the-21st-century [Accessed January 22, 2013].

Midgley, G., 2006. Systemic Intervention for Public Health. American Journal of Public Health, 96(3), pp.466–472.

Reynolds, M. & Holwell, S., 2010. Chapter 1: Introducing systems approaches. In Reynolds, M. and Holwell, S. (Editors), Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A practical guide. Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications, pp. 1–23.

Winslow, C.E.A., 1920  The Untitled Fields of Public Health. Science 51 (1306): 23–33.


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