Patchwork has two main meanings:1 ‘Needlework in which small pieces of cloth in different designs, colours or textures are sewn together’ and ‘A thing composed of many different elements so as to appear variegated.’

I see my practice (and my life) as a particular type of patchwork – a landscape, an ecology of experiences and relationships in different niches. Over time, I travel through this landscape, noticing some aspects but maybe not noticing others as I am influenced by the dominant discourses of my cultural stories.2 Experiences shape the direction of my journey, how I travel and me as a traveller. I draw on what is useful, familiar and relevant: experiences on my own and within my family or community; my values and beliefs; a social construction3 supported by ongoing reflexivity.4 My way of working professionally is therefore coherent with who I am as a person.


Patchwork of Practice is an intervention I have devised to use with my level 6 and 7 diploma and master’s level counselling students, to help them map out their journeys and draw together the elements of their integrative approach. It is made up of a collection of ‘patches’ of professional and personal experiences. Each ‘patch’ expresses an experience, using writing, drawing, poetry or any media a person chooses. Experiences can be current and from the past. These patches are then ‘stitched together’ metaphorically to portray the person’s way of being as a person and practitioner.

We teach theoretical concepts from five counselling approaches, alongside ethics, personal development, skills and a supervised placement towards an integrative way of working. I noticed students struggling when they found that different theoretical concepts had potentially contradictory philosophical roots. I designed Patchwork of Practice to aid the integration process, linking personal and professional ideas as students blend different theoretical concepts in their unique integrative approach.

As counsellors, we are the tools of our trade. In my own practice as a couples counsellor, I integrate different theoretical concepts and skills to help me understand and work with complexities in relationships. Trainee counsellors face a dual search, first to understand themselves and second to understand and apply counselling theories in their work with clients. In common with other learners, they often look for certainty as they develop skills – for a manual or ‘how to’ guide, rather than learning through doing.

I wondered if an emphasis on academia leads students to privilege theoretical knowledge and academic achievement over the development of reflexive, empathic practice and the ability to engage therapeutically with a wide social and cultural range of clients. My aim with Patchwork of Practice was to create a potential bridge between being (a person) and knowing (counselling theory and practice), ‘a more creative, less linear approach to [the] work’.5

Patchwork offers a creative way of learning. This is in contrast to prescriptive academic guidelines, which may be constraining to the students’ unique journeys. It is based on the Patchwork Text:5 an assessment tool devised by Jane Akister and colleagues for a family therapy module for social work students. Akister noticed that while students could recount key systemic ideas, systemic thinking and processes weren’t embedded in their work. She suggested creating patches that are ‘manageable and self-contained and [that] should fit the teaching sequence’. Her approach was to draw up a list of set topics for her students, and then they shared their work in small groups and reflected on the themes that emerged to create a composite, which informed their final assignment.

I was interested in the enjoyment her students reported and what they said about the reduced emphasis on linearity and ‘learning to pass’, as well as the benefits from their group discussions and ‘sparking off each other’s ideas’. I moved the exercise into a more creative arena by doing away with the set topics (and, thus, the tutor’s expectations). Creativity is more than art; it is a process of learning through doing.6 In Tim Ingold’s words, creativity is growth: ‘a creativity that progressively creates personality in community’.

The process of learning about ourselves is an education in the doing,6 much as a walker learns as she or he sees, as the world emerges. This is not an education where a teacher imparts knowledge-as-content or explains a path to the learner where there may be obstacles, or set paths to follow, along which much meaning may be missed. With Patchwork of Practice, the path is learner-led, with the teacher behind. Education and knowledge are whatever emerges. This is a much scarier route, yet one that, if taken, can create growth.

The patchwork process

I ask students to create their patches individually, in timetabled slots of an hour at the end of the day, so they can do the work at home. Creating a patch about every five weeks throughout the course seems to work best.

A patch can be a piece of art, poetry, reflexive writing, an image or any other way of expressing visually what they have noticed and felt. Each patch portrays an aspect of their journey as a student counsellor. It may be some reading, a placement experience, a theoretical idea, a personal reflection, past experiences, family messages, or influences from culture or identity. A patch expresses moments that catch the attention. I also invite the students to write about what the patch means to them.

The following week, students discuss their individual patches in small groups. They stay with these groups over the course, which helps build trust. The responses from their group offer different perspectives or extend the student’s thinking around their patch. In this way, Patchwork of Practice offers both structure and freedom for students to engage in learning through creativity.

The students use Patchwork as an aid for personal development, to explore early influences on who they are as people, to express emotion, as self-care and in developing their personal integrative approach. Their process seems to evolve over time. It is necessary to know who you are, your way of being, before you can link to theory and describe your counselling approach. The combination of individual and group activities offers opportunity for reflection both while creating the patch and when looking back on the process with the benefit of other perspectives.

The intervention has proved successful in more ways than I anticipated. The comments below from some of my students illustrate the benefits for their personal development, self-care and integration.

‘Patchwork has helped me most with my personal development on the course. It has been important because the personal development group didn’t work well for me, and Patchwork filled the gap,’ said one.

‘At the beginning of Patchwork, I was working more on emotions and finding out who I was. Towards the end, it was more about theory and integration,’ another said. ‘They have joined together really. The more I can know myself, then the more I am available and present with clients.’

For another, Patchwork encouraged creativity: ‘I noticed my journal writing was more focused on negativity, whereas in Patches there was a creative and healing process; creativity has become a part of my self-care.’

One drew a picture of an angry wolf face and reflected: ‘Exploration in the Patchwork group helped me see the significance of it. It was the first time I had done something positive with anger; [my] past coping strategies have been destructive or painful.’

Another was able to see a clear change in the way her sewing Patchwork project developed over the two-year course: ‘In first year, I did Patchwork as a sewing project. Each individual patch represented different aspects and hadn’t seemed connected. At the end of the first year I wanted a free sewing patch – like free writing – whatever came to hand and what felt comfortable. Until I put them together, I didn’t realise how much growth there had been; I’d moved from straight lines and perfectionism to relaxed embroidery. I realised how much freer I’d become in my thoughts.’

Patchwork and self-reflexivity

I use Patchwork of Practice in my own doctoral research in systemic practice. My research explores and evaluates how I use the intervention with students to inform my teaching and as a reflexive tool. I understand reflexivity as the critical reflection and exploration of self, as individuals and in relationships, especially in practice. It raises awareness of the myriad influences on how I perceive a moment and act upon it.7 As Gillie Bolton points out, reflexivity involves three oxymorons:8 unquestioning questioning, certain uncertainty and serious playfulness. It is as though I am trying on new glasses that open my eyes to a familiar view and enable me to explore it as a foreigner, rather than taking it for granted. The exploration then informs my choice of how to go on; my practice develops through a spiral of reflexive learning.9

I have created patches on key moments from my past, such as the death of my father, and the present, during my research journey. My patches include reflexive writing, photographs, poems and drawings and evoke emotion both in their creation and when reading back. Those set in the past allow me to relive and evaluate that time and space in my landscape. I was taken aback by the spontaneity of emotion the activity prompted and a sense of re-experiencing moments. I understood myself differently and made fresh links between past and present. In the box to the left is an example from my Patchwork of Practice and my accompanying reflection.

Patchwork of Practice may not be for everybody but I have found it challenges habitual ways of reflecting, creates opportunity for creativity and opens up a new way of learning about who we are as counsellors or teachers and what influences us.

Do give it a try and see what you learn. I would love to hear how you get on.

A sample patch from my own work

The elements, seasons and being alive

Running out in the rain getting soaked through
Wash away my pain and look at life anew
Notice new blossom and bulbs coming up
Wait for the sunshine and heat to pick up
Then back to school and see all my friends
Warm winter foods and frosts that never end
Then, suddenly, light mornings
Coming home and playing out
Another spring is dawning
This is what life is about

Reflection and reflexivity

This patch announces spirituality. I experience a need to feel at one with the elements when sad or stressed. I would go for a walk in a storm and know there is a greater force than man or society. This would feel healing and energising. Nature is part of the wider ecology and part of a spiritual sensing. The miracle of growing your own food, the rhythm of the seasons and weather, the beauty in meadows, trees, stream, pond, sea and sky. This is available to connect with and part of life, growing up, experiencing developmental change, loss and renewal. This has endured throughout my life. Emotions: joy, security, wildness and healing. Beliefs: spirituality linked to nature and environment. The importance of connection with nature for wellbeing. The infinity and awesomeness of the natural world.

Beverley Meakin is a senior lecturer at Staffordshire University and a relationship counsellor and supervisor in private practice. She is studying on the Professional Doctorate in Systemic Practice at the University of Bedfordshire. 


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