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Martin Challis
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august 2007

The Fireman, The Witness And The Cloud Of Unknowing

A Discussion On Critical Reflective Practice



Malcolm Gladwell in his acclaimed book "Blink" [1] discusses the phenomenon of 'thin slicing'; an intuitive process of knowing involved in decision making. 'Thin slicing' is described as an individual's capacity to take in large amounts of information from various sources, when making fundamental and critical decisions. This all happens in a matter of milliseconds. He cites a story relayed to him by a researcher Gary Klein, concerning a fireman who saved many lives by making a split decision that he put down to ESP. Klein could not agree with the fireman's explanation and asked many probing questions to gain deeper insight.

The story goes that on this particular day the team of firefighters attended a house fire located seemingly in the kitchen. On entering the house and locating the fire in the kitchen the fireman proceeded to use the water hose to extinguish the flame: noting happened. They tried again and the same thing occurred. This was unusual, as a kitchen fire should normally abate using this method. In a split second the fireman in question called his team out of the house and within seconds the floor collapsed. The source of the fire had been in the basement not in the kitchen as assumed. The remarkable event of saving his colleague's lives was attributed to ESP. After extensive questioning, Klein discovered the fireman had 'thin sliced' more than he was aware of at the time. He had noticed the fire was unusually quiet; the floor was hotter than it should have been and had not responded to water in the usual manner. Without being aware of this at the time he had made an intuitive decision based on the tacit knowledge he had gained from years of experience. Until he had undergone a process of reflective and critical questioning he was not aware of his 'theories in use' [2].

This fireman was not a reflective practitioner and had not enjoyed the benefit of deepening his practice through self-motivated reflective practice. His espoused theory is that he used ESP. His Theory in use turns out to be something quite different. The question also arises: does his ability to practice his craft improve or deepen by becoming more cognisant of his 'theories in use'? I cannot answer this question for him but it does motivate me to ask the question for myself.

Following the Rabbit

I have grown increasingly aware of the creative potentials that exist for me by paying closer attention to my practice. Attention guided through the use of structured and critical reflection and attention to the emerging ideas of practice. Using this process it has been possible to deepen understanding, gain insight and follow the creative rabbit down the burrow-hole of practitioner led inquiry to investigate and explore the potential of ideas and insights emerging from practice.

On this journey I have learned to appreciate the value of reflection as a means of exposing "theory's in use" as opposed to "theories espoused" [2]. By exposing I mean that as inherent and tacit knowledge surfaces from time to time, relative to the nature and context of practice through structured and critical reflection, it is possible to discover the theory that is currently in use and by doing so: deepen practice, deepen theory and also further evolve as a practitioner. As McCarthy and Hatcher [3] so eloquently state, "…good practice is supported by reflection, and reflection, of course, becomes theory." The "Of course" part is so easily stated and yet not so easily appreciated.

For me there was a point in time where I did begin to appreciate that a truly reflective practitioner using tools and approaches of structured and critical reflection has the capacity to deepen understanding and catch ideas that hitherto might have gone un-noticed.

The essential difference between the fireman and myself would seem to be that; I have a desire to deepen and evolve my practice and develop through a structured process as a practitioner. The fireman is satisfied with his accomplishments whether he puts them down to ESP or not. On the other hand I am not satisfied without the rigour and challenge of asking the questions of self and practice that may hopefully lead to deeper satisfactions of refinement, discovery and creativity. To achieve this I have chosen the path of practice led inquiry using reflective practice as the fundamental research methodology.

The vocabularies of practice that have emerged are informed by, and intrinsically linked to each project undertaken. Projects such as: Raw Theatre [4], Scenestation [5] and Three Chairs [6].  As I consider these vocabularies I sense they are informed by the qualities, aspirations and epistemological standpoint of the Reflective Practitioner and the processes and practices of Critical Reflective Practice (CRP).

The qualities that have become evident to me add to the qualities of the reflective practitioner that Schon [7] for example, refers to as the 10c's of Reflective Practice including such qualities as Care, Commitment and Compassion. Through my vocabularies of practice I deem an essential quality and perhaps primary quality to be the preparedness for Unknowingness.

That is: to be prepared to not know in order to know; in itself part of a deeper knowing.


To discover a 'theory in use' and 'emergent knowledge' the practitioner must posses a commitment for true exploration. To achieve this, the mind must let go of having to 'know' what comes next. To know or pre-determine what comes next will not lead to a discovery, rather, it points to a known destination.

To contemplate the nature of the unknown leads me to contemplate the nature of the infinite, which naturally challenges my rational mind.  Do I need to do this consciously and constantly in order to move beyond limitations of habit, end-gaining and cyclical thinking?

My mind tends to feel secure by identifying through the constructs of: definition, boundary, rules, guidelines, expectations, beliefs and systems.  It is a huge challenge to work with the concept of 'not knowing' or 'not holding' on to pre-determined ideas.  I feel the strong desire to want to get it right, to know the correct way, to identify the result and arrive at the 'product'.

Kim Nataraja commenting on the book [8], The Cloud of Unknowing, speaks of the limitlessness of the universal God and the impossible task of the human mind to encapsulate an understanding of God in any rational or logical sense. The only way of touching the limitlessness of God is to experience contemplation without ego. For this experience to occur she says, the contemplator must first switch off the left part of the brain and move to the right. Carl Jung, according to Nataraja, also speaks of moving from the rational knowledge of the mind to the intuitive knowledge of the heart in order to know God more deeply.

This is the only way that the intuitive knowledge of the heart will reveal itself. The only way to 'know' God is to unknow. First to move into the cloud of forgetting before moving to the cloud of unknowing. All personal thoughts are Ego thoughts and the contemplator must leave self behind in order to experience this stage. She says: "humans are so caught up in their thoughts they cannot see beyond to the reality of God. Our brains are much too limited to know God."

Nataraja explains that for the contemplator to achieve a deep state of knowing; the process first involves moving the attention from the left-brain to the right brain. The left-brain is concerned with thoughts and images derived from a state of ego as the self. When the contemplator brings their focus to the right brain, attention on a deeper state of being and flow [9] is achieved. Attention on love for example, allows the contemplator to move ever deeper into the unknown in order to experience a deep state of intuitive knowing.

While this process may be dismissed as esoteric it may also be viewed as supporting the notion of suspension [10] as the first step towards redefinition and the process of new awareness. In Scharma's U Theory the practitioner must enter a state of suspension or unknowingness in order to begin the process toward new knowledge or new knowing. In order to gain deeper insight into self and practice the practitioner must be prepared to examine the patterns and the 'sets' of mind.

Attention to practice - using the tools of the reflective practitioner [11] - capturing emergent knowledge: fundamentally supports the initial leap into 'unknowingness'.  From this however emerges a possible conundrum for Reflective Practice. In reminding us of the human mind's capacity to recall images and memories from the right side of the brain, Malcolm Gladwell [1] cites the work of Jonathan W. Schooler – Schooler's work demonstrates that by being asked to explain or describe particular insights, the subject's insight is itself impaired. This is referred to as 'overshadowing'.


This phenomenon of 'overshadowing' is explained by Schooler to occur in such experiments where a subject is asked to first recall the face of someone they have met briefly beforehand, standing in a line-up: the success rate is relatively high. However after being asked to describe the features of another person they have briefly met; the success rate of identifying the subject in the line up is markedly lower. As we think in words with the left-brain and images in the right, by using the left-brain the subject of the experiment has diminished the ability to recall images. Schooler says: "It's the same kind of paralysis though analysis you find in sports contexts. When you start becoming reflective about the process, it undermines your ability. You lose the flow. There are certain kinds of fluid, intuitive, nonverbal kinds of experience that are vulnerable to the process."

Interestingly when a subject is asked to explain how they performed a logical rational process using the left-brain, their capacity to perform the task is either undiminished or in some cases improved. Schooler says that insight is not a light that snaps on in the mind; it is more like a candle easily snuffed out.


So how do I treasure and nurture this candle so easily extinguished? I accept that it is possible that reflection may lead to a nullifying of insight. I don't accept that all reflection nullifies insight. And so I ask: is there a way to practice reflection where such loss of insight does not occur? The answer for me lies in the appreciation of the nature of reflective practice as a way of noticing and attending to the object of my inquiry. I approach it with due diligence but not with force. I am gentle in the art of attending to practice.  I set up ways of noticing my noticing. Like Guy Claxton [12] who refers to the intuitive processes of knowing being distinct from forceful deliberate actions of the mind to solve problems, as it works in a logical and linear fashion; I understand the need to go gently.

Coupled with the sensitivity to the nature of reflective practice is an appreciation for the need to be systematic and structured. This is not a contradiction in terms if practiced attentively. For example: looking at the structure of the Raw Theatre Project [4], I note the clear steps taken to arrive at a stage of completion.

1.  Idea

2.  Gathering of thoughts, people, resources, initial discussions

3.  Testing, recording, trialling.

4.  Reflection, notation, annotation.

5.  Re-application, testing, analysis.

6.  Crisis, discussion, decision.

7.  Prototyping

8.  Further reflection and shaping

9.  Final form

Within each step I am using the tools of Reflective practice such as: recording, annotating, journaling and interviewing. As I think of it now the surprises of discovery come when two principal conditions are met. The first might be described as an openness or readiness to receive emergent knowledge, described in terms of holding the space for 'intuitive knowing' to inhabit the site of inquiry; and secondly, through the application of structured and systematic forms of critical reflection.

Reading from notes prepared for an oral presentation earlier this year confirms the marriage of these two principals.

Reflection goes on and on in the cycle of trialling and testing. It is clear though there is the 'in the room' type of reflection and then there is the 'out of the room' kind. The out of the room reflection can be a constant (or what feels like a constant thing). I find that I have my attention on the project at hand for long periods of time. This might include watching videotapes of recorded sessions or writing up events but it can also be just sitting in a chair in deep thought, processing events standing in the shower etc. The reflection, notation, annotation stage repeats itself at various intervals and it is definitely my time with my ideas. This is the non-collaborative part. I don't have to hurry or produce anything for anyone when I'm reflecting and attending. 

As I move with unknowingness in order to know, I "let come and let go" [10] measuring each step with attentiveness, reflection and insight. I undertake an action learning cycle working most productively when: I am testing, experiencing, reflecting and hypothesising in and with the joy of learning and discovery. As Zull says; my learning is experiencing and my experiencing is my learning [13]. With this in mind I begin to embrace and value the ingredients for Critical Reflective Practice. Including the essential ingredient of surprise.


The difference between surprise by accident and surprise in Critical Reflective Practice is that the former is an unanticipated event that just happens in a place and time, while the latter is an anticipated event (in the sense of being ready and open) happening in a place and time that is: watched and hoped for. 

If I am walking along the street for example, content and consumed by my own thoughts, anticipating that I might soon be enjoying a cup of coffee at a local café and with the next step I am surprised to meet an old friend, this is unanticipated. 

The second type of surprise, watched and hoped for, is the surprise that is relished in Critical Reflective Practice. Certain conditions, mechanisms and qualities of creative practice need to be established in order for it's capture to be meaningful.


The conditions for Critical Reflective Practice likely to reveal meaning through surprise are those that anticipate the potential for discovery. They do not demand it; rather, they create the optimum climate for discovery to occur. These conditions are supported by the attentiveness of the creative practitioner, as the level of attentiveness to practice is one of the key forms of measurement of Critical Reflective Practice. 


The mechanisms that are applied throughout a creative process are both practical and personnel in nature. Practical in the sense that they work within a structure of one form or another and personal in the sense that there needs to be a 'rightness of fit' for the practitioner. The mechanisms are the tools and processes (see above as examples) of creative practice. They are applied to suit the nature of a creative project. They are 'the how' of Critical Reflective Practice and work with the structure.


A system of approach or structure provides the container in which to hold the liquid of creative emergence. The structure cannot be so rigid that it resists change. It must support a process of divergence and non-linearity. Conversely, it cannot be so flexible and non-directed that the liquid flow of the creative process runs in so many different directions that it is unable to sustain momentum or arrive at a point of collection. 


Supporting the conditions of practice, which, the practitioner establishes, along with the mechanisms for practice, are the qualities the practitioner possesses. These qualities are perhaps generic and perhaps unique. For me they are qualities such as: passion, tenacity, enthusiasm, diligence, attentiveness, rigour and commitment.

From the emergent idea that fuels a creative impulse to the divergent process of alternate ideas, right the way through to: the convergence of energy that brings about a result or where a product comes to rest (if only just for a while): comes a level of engagement which involves: struggle, effort, sometimes crisis and rigour. 

As a Critical Reflective Practitioner I have accepted this required level of engagement and appreciate the value and necessity of establishing my vocabularies of practice which manifest through the: conditions I set, the mechanisms I employ and the qualities I inject into my practice.

Therefore: my emerging theories, the conditions, the structure, the mechanisms (tools and processes), and the qualities that I possess and utilise are all inextricably linked and are expressed as my Vocabularies for and of Critical Reflective Practice.


The elements within these emerging vocabularies include: Fluidity, Intuition, Imagination, Patient attentiveness, the art of noticing and noticing the noticing. The forces of the Emergent, the Divergent and the Convergent. Surprise, Exploration and Discovery. Unknowingness. Reflection on and in action. Theory in use. Cycles of exploration, experience, discovery, testing, hypothesising, trialling, re-testing and recording.


The fireman story demonstrates that the performance of expertise and the understanding of expertise are not necessarily the same thing. The story of the witness being asked to explain her intuition demonstrates the dangers of analysis creating paralysis, which has implications that I as a Critical Reflective Practitioners must consider. Kim Nataraja speaking of the cloud of unknowing illustrates the possible connection to the limitlessness of knowledge through the complete suspension of assumption, ego and conditioned thought. The fireman and the witness viewing the line-up it would seem, are not critically reflective while the and the Christian teacher Nataraja, has clearly established a vocabulary for critical reflective practice.


Rather than reach a conclusion, in the spirit of Critical Reflective Practice being open-ended, it seems fitting to pose three questions arising from this paper that I need to consider further:

1.  Are the conditions, mechanisms and qualities of and for the creative practitioner both common and unique?

2.  Is there a right and left-brain conundrum inherent within reflective practice and if so, how is it overcome?

3.  Is the balance between structured and systematic reflection and the gentle art of unknowing and intuitive thought precarious, and if so how can it be traversed?

With that
I go quietly
To cherish the flame
And light if possible
One more corner
In one more room
Where before to me
Were shadows


    1.         Gladwell, M., Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. 1st ed. 2005, New York: Little, Brown and Co. viii, 277 p.
    2.         Schön, D.A., Reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. 2nd
               New ed. 1995, Aldershot, England: Arena. 374.
    3.         McCarthy, P.H., Caroline, Speaking Persuasively, The Essential Guide to giving dynamic presentations and speeches. 1996: Allen & Unwin.
    4.         Challis, M. Towards the Poetics and Processes of Raw Theatre.  2005  [cited; Available from:
    5.         Challis, M. Scenestation.  2006  [cited; Available from:
    6.         Challis, M. Three Chairs.  2007 
    7.         Schon, D.A., Beyond the stable state : public and private learning in a changing society. 1971, London: Maurice Temple Smith. 254.
    8.         National, A.R., The Spirit of Things, in Spiritual Classics - Love and War. 2007.
    9.         Csikszentmihalyi, M., Finding flow : the psychology of engagement with everyday life. 1st ed. MasterMinds. 1997, New York: BasicBooks. ix, 181.
    10.       Senge, P.M. and Society for Organizational Learning., Presence : exploring profound change in people, organizations, and society. 2005, London Boston: Nicholas Brealey. x, 289.
    11.       al, H.e., Reflective Practitioner Reader. 2005.
    12.       Claxton, G., Hare brain, tortoise mind : why intelligence increases when you think less. 1st Ecco ed. 1999, Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press. xi, 259 p.
    13.       Zull, J.E., The art of changing the brain : enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning. 1st ed. 2002, Sterling, Va.: Stylus Pub. xvi, 263.


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About This Article

©2007 Martin Challis
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Martin Challis is an actor and director in Australia. He's also the director of the Studio For Actors and Ensemble Works.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
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Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media

august 2007

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