Becoming a critical social work practitioner
Becoming a critical social work practitioner

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Becoming a critical social work practitioner

1 Understanding critical practice

1.1 Active reading and questioning

Activity 1

2 hours 0 minutes

Being ‘critical’ is a vital concept for both academic study and professional practice in this course. This first activity combines both by asking you to read and actively question, or critique, an academic chapter about ‘critical practice’.

Read the following article: Chapter 1, ‘Introducing critical practice [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’, in The Critical Practitioner in Social Work and Health Care.

Read the chapter as an ‘active reader’. Make a note of anything that you find confusing, incomprehensible, don’t agree with, or would like to explore further. In the next activity you will be comparing your views with those of others.

When reading, look out for terms such as ‘domains’, ‘pillars’ and ‘principles of critical practice’.


During this course, you may find certain aspects of the material presented, or situations in your practice, confusing or difficult. Glaister points out that accepting a degree of uncertainty about any intervention has to be part of the job. Critical practice recognises, accepts, and addresses that uncertainty in order to try to be clearer about what is confusing us, or what we may not know. As critical practitioners we then try to become more knowledgeable so that we can manage that uncertainty.

On first reading this chapter, we found the ‘three domains of critical practice’ in Figure 1.1, and the introduction of the word ‘reflexivity’, a bit confusing. However, as discussion moved on it became clearer that these three domains are key aspects of understanding the complexities of critical practice. If you didn't think much about this when you read the chapter, you may find it helpful to have another look at it. The ‘domains’ is a model that argues for professional practice as a combination of:

  1. your analysis of situations;

  2. your actions as a social worker;

  3. reflexivity as a process that connects your analysis and actions.

The model of ‘domains’ may appear abstract and detached from practice realities. So, Glaister links these complex concepts to ‘three pillars’ of everyday practice. Glaister's ‘pillars’ (forging relationships, empowering others and making a difference) seem important and few would argue with them. But are they the only pillars of practice that could be identified?

We came up with at least three other pillars of practice. You are likely to think of others. Many will interconnect and overlap. Ours were:

  • inter-professional liaison and collaboration

  • being an employee and representative of your organisation

  • enacting a professional code of practice.

Glaister's ‘principles of practice’ are perhaps even more open to question and critical argument. We asked you to take an active and critical approach to these two principles.

In discussion, we felt that the principle of ‘respecting others as equals’ is the kind of social work principle that it is easy to sign up to. However, we asked ourselves a number of critical questions to find out the extent to which we actually agreed with it. For example:

  • Is this principle always possible?

  • Does this include sex offenders and paedophiles?

  • Respect for others should be an essential starting point in our practice interactions – but what are the practice implications of treating others ‘as equals’?

  • Can social workers with professional power ever be ‘equal’ to service users'?

The principle of ‘an open and not-knowing approach’ elicited similar critical questions:

  • Is this principle ever possible?

  • What are the limits to ‘openness’ for social workers in practice?

  • Is there a power imbalance between you, as a professional, and service users that makes openness difficult?

  • Is it realistic (or defensible) to take a ‘not-knowing’ approach or do we all approach every situation with a framework of expectations, or ‘hypotheses’, that filters and tests what we find?

  • Should this really be an ‘incomplete-knowing’ approach?

Reading about and reflecting on these questions is all part of ‘being critical’ in your approach to both academic studies and professional practice.

However, social work is largely made up of ‘talk’ between people; the next activity offers an opportunity to listen to a panel discussion about critical practice.


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