O’Hehir University – Learning and Living with my Contradictions as a Dental Hygienist

I was never really academic at school, much to my fathers consternation. He was an Edwardianist, distant, expecting and stoic. I was very average at most things but enjoyed Art and Sport finding most core subjects totally dull and uninspiring. My school reports pay historic lip service to that. However, where I enjoyed or understood something I began to learn, with a passion and a hunger, as I still do today. I could smell the sweat,  carbon and oil in the pictures I drew for Mrs Edwards and she in turn gave me freedom to learn. Teach and preach at me meaninglessly and I will rebel, give me the meaning and method to learn on my own, in my own time and I will thrive and take up the mantle. interestingly I also find this particularly true with languages as when I lived in Germany or holidayed abroad, learning was alive and my very reality, it was all around me. This typifies another learning environment, my workplace.

“Mark appears to spend most of his time on the Eastern Front in the Spring of 1943”.

Mrs Edwards, Marks Art Teacher 4th Year, The Winston Churchill School



Russell, Ackoff and Greenberg (2008) point out in their book, Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track , that our education system is seriously flawed  focusing on teaching rather than learning. “Why should children or adults be asked to do something computers and related equipment can do much better than they can?” Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught.  Most of what is taught in classroom settings is forgotten, and much or what is remembered is irrelevant.

Carl Rogers (1969) famously described in Freedom to Learn learning as “insatiable curiosity.” He divides it significantly into two types, a meaningless “from the neck up” involving no “feelings or personal meanings” with no relevance for the “whole person.” and contrasting this with so-called “experimental learning”, one which brings personal significance and meaning which can proceed rapidly. Such significant learning he defines further as having self initiation and a sense of discovery and being pervasive changing “behaviour, the attitudes, and perhaps even the personality of the learner.” Controversially Rogers continues by conjecting that all teachers and educators would prefer to facilitate such experimental and meaningful learning rather than a nonsensical syllabus.

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth learning can be taught.” Oscar Wilde

Donald Schon (1963, 1967, 1973) linked the experience of living in a situation of an increasing change with the need for learning. He stated that “we must become adept at learning” and “be able not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are ‘learning systems’, that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation.” A  learning society culture  has now been created as “education systems were no longer able to respond to the demands made upon them” ( Hutchins, 1968). Bring on the concept of lifelong learning.

Experimental Learning

There are many different ways of learning; teaching is only one of them. We learn a great deal on our own, in independent study or play. We learn a great deal interacting with others informally too, sharing what we are learning with others and vice versa. We learn a great deal by doing, through trial and error. Raj Ratten (2002) states that all dental professionals should pursue “personal and professional growth” and “acquire and refine skills.” He continues with a Criteria for Successful Learning which is “led by the learner”, is “problem centred”  and demonstrates “active participation and the use of their own resources.”

Gray et al (2004) indicate, referring to Kolb and Fry’s Learning Cycle (1975),  that learning “begins with an experience.” It involves observations and reflections which generate concepts which are then tested in practice. Honey and Mumford (1992) define individual learner styles as either activist, reflector, theorist or pragmatist in nature with  experiences followed by reviewing, concluding and planning. It can be seen by both models that learning is reflective in nature too. They continue by attempting to define the meaningfulness of learning by making a distinction between it being deep or surface in nature. Some learners describe learning as “an increase in knowledge, memorisation  and increasing ability to apply knowledge.” Others think learning is “an increase in understanding, the seeing of things in different ways or change as a person.” One way of developing a practical, meaningful and deeper understanding of learning in the workplace is the egalitarian and democratic endeavour of action research.

Action Research

Action research is a value driven, powerful, collaborative and liberating form of enquiry based learning which begins simply with a question. Do I need to improve my practice? If so, how? It is inclusive in nature, there for everyone. McNiff and Whitehead (2011) plan a process that involves observation, reflection, acting, evaluating and modifying before moving on being framed as an action-reflection cycle.

action-reflectionThe critical aspect of action research is that of the individual “I” being at the centre of the process, the “first person”. This puts you, your questions and experiences within your workplace into the centre of learning. It brings your thoughts, reflections, theories and actions into a living form. Your theories are not taken just from others, be they your peers or academics but also what is happening to you and is termed “living theory.” Thus we, as Dental Care Professionals can claim to be;

“Practitioner Researchers, First Person Living Theorists”

who “improve their understanding, develop their learning and influence others’ learning.”

Action researchers;

  • Identify a research issue
  • Identify research aims
  • Design a research plan
  • Gather data
  • Establish a criteria and standards for judgement
  • Generate evidence
  • Make a claim to knowledge
  • Submit the claim to critique
  • Explain significance of work
  • Disseminate findings
  • Link new and old knowledge

McNiff and Whitehead, Action Research (2011, p.26)

My living contradiction – a reflection

There were many times when I  felt out of step with the direction of many a practice. I was a professionally conflicted  for years, as Whitehead (2006) relates “that you see yourself as a living contradiction, holding educational values whilst at the same time negating them” (http://www.actionresearch.net/writings/china/mllet10908.htm). I aimlessly attended annual symposia never seriously paying attention to or gaining from them. This typified my approach to learning at the time, a dull and meaningless process directed at me. I now have a super system driving and facilitating my desire to learn and earn. I am into my first action research project through the O’Hehir University that introspectively looks to improve my delivery of oral health in my workplace. It is simple in its construction, collaborative with my practices, the dental industry and patients ultimately benefiting the improvement of my practice. The experimental initial project undertaken earlier was supported by a dental supplies company and looked at implementing air polishing to improve my practice (https://mihygienist.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/experimental-learning-within-the-workplace-ems-air-flow-handy/).

I am of the conclusion that traditional education partially qualified and equipped me personally and professionally. I am also still developing in both. I now believe I am a different living contradiction. Not one of clinical negation but more of being opposed to the culture of passive knowledge gain supported by endless corporate opportunists exploiting the crazy regulatory fixation in our professional environment and thus sadly in our workplace too. Attending meetings that don’t reflect our learning needs, mollified by free lunches or so-called “high profile” speakers might tick the boxes but no more than that. Action research is our future and I intend to do as much, if not all, of my future CPD cycle in that method.

Visual References








  1. Mark,
    A superb, lucid and extremely self-aware piece. I claim the introducing of you to action research but claim nothing for what you’ve done having picked up the ball and run with it as if you have a stolen video under your arm!! 😎

    You have influenced my learning journey with this post. We are, in fact, by this piece:

    “Collaborative Practitioner Researchers, First Person Living Theorists”

    whether all parties realise it or not!

  2. Pingback: Action Research Project – Simple Dental Health Improvement | toothsmart

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.