An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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An introduction to social work

2.4 Bringing your learning together in reflective practice

Consolidating your learning

In this section you are going to bring together the knowledge and skills you have gained so far and consider what is meant by ‘reflective practice’. You have been introduced to different ways of understanding the role of a social worker and the lives of the people social workers work with. You should have started to recognise the different aspects of what it means to become a good social worker. These include skills, values, ethics and knowledge.

Figure 8 The elements of good social work practice

You started by looking at the importance of historical and biographical perspectives in understanding service users’ life experiences and the context in which polices are formed and services delivered to help them. You have now considered your own identity and value base, and been introduced to a wider knowledge base, including theories and research into human behaviour and attachments. You have recognised that people receiving services may have a very different perspective from your own. You have also by now considered some of the skills needed to be able to acknowledge this and be empathetic to each service user’s situation.

However, social work is a practical business about engaging and supporting real people. Reflection is the process of learning that supports the integration of these different forms of knowledge and understanding into the direct work that is done with service users. In the rest of this section, you will explore what reflection means and how you can begin to develop this approach to your studies.

Reflection as a process of integration

There are many academic disciplines and sources of knowledge that influence social work practice, and these include sociology, psychology, social policy, law and research. These can be combined with practice experience, the skills of fellow practitioners and the knowledge of service users to make a potent learning experience , without which professional practice might be less informed.

Connecting academic learning with practice requires the ability to draw upon knowledge and use it to think about and write in a ‘reflective way’, and to make sense of practice.

However, reflection requires not only the intellectual application of ideas, but also an understanding of this process of learning through experience and self-awareness. Reflective practice includes an appreciation of, and sensitivity to, your own skills and values, and an awareness of your own impact on others in relationship-based forms of work.

This approach to reflection has been the focus of writers such as Donald Schön (1983) and David Kolb (1985). These theorists have been interested in the ways in which adults learn, and especially in the different ways that professionals learn and develop their practice. Kolb went on to develop a cycle of learning, as illustrated in Figure 9 below.

Figure 9 Kolb’s ‘cycle of learning’

The cycle of learning begins with the learner having a concrete, or specific, experience in practice, which prompts ‘reflective observations’ within the learner. These observations then lead the learner to draw out ‘generalisations and abstract conceptualisations’, which may then be applied to a similar experience, prompting ‘application of ideas and active experimentation’. Thus, the learner does not respond mechanically, simply by following rules or procedures, but learns by reflecting on practice and modifying or developing it in the process.

Cycle of learning

Here is an example of how each of the element in Kolb’s cycle of learning was used to reflect on an experience of some voluntary work undertaken by a male practitioner. Read his concrete experience extract below and then think about what you would draw from this at each stage of the cycle of learning before reading what the practitioner in question took from the experience.

Concrete experience

About Susan

I was asked by the voluntary agency I worked for to go and speak to Susan, about coming to use our lunch club for older people. The social worker had said that they had already talked about it, and Susan was expecting someone to come and make the arrangements. I had written to make the appointment but when I arrived Susan did not appear to be expecting me. However she asked me in and I attempted to explain where I was from, and the referral from the social worker.

The room she invited me into appeared to be set up as a bedsit. It was very untidy and a bit smelly and was not helped by the fact that Susan had five or more cats wandering in and out. As is always the way, the cats were particularly keen to come and greet me, bring on my allergic asthmatic reaction and generally ignore my attempts to politely shun them. Susan was very deaf and it was difficult make myself understood. But it was clear she was not aware of the offer of the lunch club and didn’t think she would want to bother. Somebody from the council had been to speak to her a while ago but she wasn’t sure what that was about. She thinks they came because of her GP and they were going to get her something to do with the toilet downstairs.

I thanked Susan for her time and left saying I would get back to the social worker who had made the referral.

Observation and reflection

What observations and reflections would you take away from this experience?

  1. I came away worried about Susan’s situation. I wasn’t sure we communicated clearly because of her deafness. I don’t think she always heard what I was saying and so nodded or agreed to placate me.

  2. I felt, with my general physical discomfort in the room, I hadn’t been very clear or assertive in my communication. I would just be another person wandering through her home.

  3. It was easy to think of her as confused because of this, but I wasn’t sure if this was just because she hadn’t got the full picture.

  4. Her situation wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t know if the social worker had made a proper assessment and had weighed up the balance of risk and choice.

  5. I felt bad about doubting the thoroughness of the judgement of another professional about this situation and felt I should just know my place in the professional and service hierarchy – i.e. an unqualified worker in a voluntary agency.

Formation of abstract concepts and generalisations

What abstract concepts and generalisations might you take from this experience?

  1. Service users sometimes have different priorities from those of agencies and their workers. It is important to be alert to this.

  2. If someone is hearing-impaired then workers need to do everything they can to augment their communication and ensure they have been understood. For instance, the worker should sit in a good light so the person can see their face, be prepared with paper and pen to write down key messages, ask specific or closed questions to check they have been understood.

  3. If you are confident the person has understood, choice and control is an important value base and this needs to be respected, even when people are making choices you don’t think are good ones. The judgement or assessment about risk, or even potentially safeguarding concern needs to be shared and recorded with the social worker involved so that they can ensure they are getting as full a picture as possible about someone’s situation.

Testing implications in new situations

What are the implications for new situations?

  1. I decided to always carry a blank notebook and a clear felt tip pen with me to help communication if it was needed.

  2. I got a card and leaflet from the agency with my name and number printed on it so that the person I visited could always have a record of where I had come from, or show it to other visitors.

  3. I reported and discussed my anxieties with my supervisor. She suggested I phone the social worker and talk to them. I also wrote the social worker a letter to report what I had seen and Susan’s decision not to come to the lunch club.

Developing your own reflective skills

An important aspect of developing your own reflective skills is that you try this for yourself on any aspect of your experiences.

Activity 11 Reflecting on your own practice

Allow 30 minutes

Think of a situation that you found difficult when you first attempted it, such as your first time doing something new, meeting someone who was using the service for the first time, or a situation where you or somebody else became upset in some way. Use the stages in Kolb’s cycle of learning to help you reflect on what happened. Using the questions below, try to recall what emotions, thoughts or reflections the situation prompted in you and what you learned from the experience. How did you deal with a similar situation the next time you encountered it?

  • Describe the concrete experience.
  • What observations and reflections did you take away from the experience?
  • What abstract concepts and generalisations might you formulate?
  • What are the implications for new situations?

Discussion

We hope that by working through this exercise you will have recognised that there is nothing mysterious about Kolb’s cycle of learning.

However, reflection is not only about making connections with knowledge; Boud and Knights (1996) described three phases of thinking things through in reflection as:

  1. returning to an experience

  2. attending to feelings connected to the experience

  3. re-evaluating the experience through recognising its implications and outcomes.

Boud and Knights’ emphasis on feelings is important, as emotional responses can both influence a worker’s ability to make judgements and lead them to intuitive questioning, which can be very valuable in itself. Social work involves more than simply following procedures; social workers have to think things through, apply lessons from past experience and find new ways to deal with new situations.

Being self-aware in reflective practice

Being aware of yourself and conscious of your impact on others is a necessary element of reflective practice and is crucial to the relationships social workers build with the people they work with. Joyce Lishman described social work as:

‘Entering into the lives of people who are in distress, conflict or trouble. To do this requires not only technical competence but also qualities of integrity, genuineness and self-awareness.’

(Lishman, 1994, quoted in Lishman, 2002, p. 95)
Figure 10

Qualities such as ‘integrity, genuineness and self-awareness’ are central to developing empathy and an understanding of social work values. However, although self-awareness is needed in terms of work with service users, it is also a necessary part of taking a professional responsibility for your own learning and development.

In both Scotland and Wales the Care Council’s codes require workers

‘…to be accountable for the quality of their work and take responsibility for maintaining and improving their knowledge and skills’.

(Scottish Social Services Council, 2009; Care Council for Wales, 2002)

Within the domain of critical reflection and knowledge, the College of Social Work (England) also requires its workers to be able to:

‘Apply critical reflection and analysis to inform and provide a rationale for professional decision-making. … They use critical thinking augmented by creativity and curiosity.’

(The College of Social Work, 2012)

This supposes that students and workers are aware, not only of their own practices, but also of their professional development needs. It is perhaps natural to feel able to understand and comment on other people’s motivations, practices and attitudes more easily than our own. It’s also often easier to articulate clearly the strengths and shortfalls of the organisation we work within than to see our role or contribution to its successes and weaknesses. Self-awareness is a form of reflection, in the sense that it encourages us to think about ourselves, what sort of people we are and want to be. The process never stops, of course, for the more self-awareness we acquire, the more we discover the need to develop it further. The complexities of human behaviour and life today also mean that we are constantly learning about both ourselves and other people.

Developing your self-awareness

An important part of developing professional identity is understanding yourself better. Increasing self-awareness allows practitioners to understand what might influence their relationships with service users. It’s important to be aware of what they bring to the relationship themselves – in terms of skills and experiences but also in terms of assumptions and even subconscious reactions.

Activity 12 Awareness of your self

Allow 15 minutes

As you have worked through this course what have the activities revealed about your personal attributes and experiences? How might these have an impact on your relationships (both good and bad), whether you already work with service users or not?Think about these questions and make some notes on what you have learned about yourself and your relationships.

Discussion

You might be surprised to learn how many different activities in this block are related to personal awareness. For example, you considered how you define your identity in different settings. You also considered some stereotypes that you might hold. It’s important to acknowledge such reactions, so that you can deal with them. Similarly, everyone has their own blind spots and automatic reactions. If you are aware of these, you can deal with them and take this into account in your social work relationships. You have to be prepared to consciously put your prejudices aside. Rather than just reacting automatically, you need to examine the reasons behind your reactions. Consider, for instance, the practitioner who reported that he has problems with people who smell. Once he acknowledged this prejudice, he was able to take it into account and adjust his reactions accordingly.

In addition, you have considered your personal values. Again, it is important to be aware of your own values so that you can see where they differ from those of other people.

Supervision as a tool for self-awareness

Whilst trying to maintain critical awareness is one way of developing your reflective skills and practice, supervision is another very important way of doing so. Social workers normally have supervision built into their professional practice, and would consider it central to their development as skilled and reflective practitioners.

Lishman (2002) lists six points that should form the basis of all supervision for students and staff:

  1. It should focus on learning.

  2. It should be provided on a regular and reliable basis.

  3. It should involve mutual trust and an awareness of issues of authority and responsibility.

  4. It should provide support and opportunities to express feelings and to go ‘below the surface’ in the analysis of problems and situations.

  5. It should address those particular issues which you identify as problematic, including dealing with pain, anxiety, confusion, violence and stress.

  6. It should be anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory in its content and its process.

She concludes that ‘supervision is time for exploration, reflection, learning and problem-solving’ (Lishman, 2002, p. 107).

Supervision was given prominence and recognition in the Munro review of children’s social care services in England in 2011:

‘Analytic skills can be enhanced by formal teaching and reading. Intuitive skills are essentially derived from experience. Experience on its own, however, is not enough. It needs to be allied to reflection – time and attention given to mulling over the experience and learning from it. This is often best achieved in conversation with others, in supervision, for example, or in discussions with colleagues.’

(Munro, 2011, p. 87)

Her words serve as a reminder that reflection helps you to deal better with complicated situations that cannot be resolved simply by following rules or guidelines.

Reflective writing

You have now considered reflection as a way of thinking and learning. Now we move on to think about reflective writing. Many of the expectations of reflective writing will be very similar to the kinds of writing you may already be used to, such as the requirement to acknowledge your sources by using references and using clear language that is easily understood by your reader. There are also, however, important differences which you will also need to think about, should you go on to study for the social work degree.

  1. The questions may not require an ‘essay’ answer and may therefore need a different approach and structure from the conventional one of introduction, main paragraphs and conclusion.

  2. While most professional writing (e.g. reports, records) are written in the third person, reflective writing requires that you write about your own experience and consequently the use of the first person (‘I’) is encouraged.

  3. While you are still expected to use your reading or ‘theory’, this will need to be linked to your discussion of your own experiences and also what you have learned from these experiences.

If you already have experience of writing in higher education, reflective writing may feel odd at first. One social work student who was already a graduate commented that while her experience was that academic writing ‘is looking at writing in the third person’, reflective writing is about something different:

‘Well, you write that to your Auntie Jane, you don’t write it for a course, I’ve never written it for a course ... In this course you are going to be asked to write about yourself big style. You have got to be king. You have got to be in the centre.’

(Social work student)

Although reflective writing is not exactly like writing a letter to ‘Auntie Jane’ or a personal blog, this student was picking up correctly that reflective writing has something in common with writing a diary or journal (or blog) and that most academic writing does not encourage you to write about yourself and your own experiences.

Activity 13 Reflective writing

Allow 30 minutes

Spend 15 minutes writing as freely as you can about your thoughts on your learning so far. This writing is only for you to see, so don’t worry too much about how you organise your ideas or even about your language (words used, sentence construction, spelling, grammar, punctuation etc.). Just write from your own thoughts.

After writing for about 15 minutes, put your writing away somewhere safe.

Later on, perhaps the next day, come back and re-read your writing. Note down your answers to the following questions:

  • Did you enjoy writing in this way, or did it feel difficult?

  • Did you feel able to forget about traditional expectations of ‘good’ writing and just let your thoughts flow?

Discussion

Some people find this type of writing hugely enjoyable, as a way to put their feelings and thoughts on paper and even to develop creative ideas. For others this is an awkward and artificial task, particularly for people who would not commonly talk about themselves reflectively, never mind commit their thoughts about themselves to paper in this way. Some people also feel very inhibited by the thought of someone reading and judging their writing, which can get in the way of expressing themselves. Free writing can be a good way to overcome feeling anxious about expressing yourself. Free writing also has a lot in common with reflective writing, as the focus is on you, the writer, your thoughts and experiences as told in the first person. If you found this activity difficult in any way you might like to keep practising this free writing exercise. Remember, you can pick any topic, based on work or personal experiences.

Key points

  • Reflection can enhance social work practice.

  • Reflection involves drawing together your experiences, study and feelings to help you evaluate practice and think about intervention and outcomes.

  • Supervision plays an important role in supporting reflection.

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