Department of Social Policy and Social Work
What is reflective practice?
Overheads from Yelloly – the contrasting views of social work practice……..
If good competent social work practice is about applying rules and following a
script then we do not need reflective practitioners. However, professional
competence (Key Roles) is arguably about:
being critically aware of what we are being asked to do (by our agency and
by government policy)
being critically aware of the social context within which people live their
lives – and how lives are constrained or encouraged by that context
being curious and analytical about what the behaviours and actions of the
people that we are providing a service to
being analytical and ethical about the ways in which we provide
services/interventions in order to ensure they are of maximum
effectiveness (using ethical measures)
For this, social workers need to be reflective. If we are thought-ful (i.e. using
careful and long consideration) about what we do rather than thought-less
then we are employing reflective processes.
Reflectivity is a crucial attribute for social workers whether they are working in
complex child protection situations, helping an older person manage the
transition into residential accommodation, carrying out an assessment for
compulsory admission to psychiatric hospital or offering bereavement
counselling to a learning disabled adult. The potential to be oppressive,
discriminatory or ineffective when working with human beings is always
present and is especially important to be alert to when one is in a position of
power over the other, as in SW.
By drawing Knowledge, Skills and Values in combination (as we have been
working on this morning), this add up to more than the sum of their parts:
‘Learning is not about experiencing every possible contingency but
about making links and connections from one by creating a greater
whole out of the sum of its parts (Doel and Shardlow 1998)
Overhead: Acquiring Skills.
So why do so many social workers claim ‘theory-less’ practice?
Social work is a fascinating activity but one in which a good deal of
ambivalence abounds about the content of the work itself – in part reflecting
the ambivalence ‘out there’. In recent years, this has been compounded by
debates about the need for social work and whether it has any validity as a
profession in its own right. At the same time, however, the ESRC has
M/SW Course Matters/Enabling Practice/Actual final versions/Day 4 What is Reflective Practice? 1
recognised SW as an independent discipline with its own theory and research
base (perhaps reflecting a difference in what is happening in the academic
and practice worlds). And in other parts of the world (e.g. SW), SW is on the
Whatever the reason, if SWs deny that they use ideas and explanations and
values in what they do (theories) then they are not in a position to question, or
have questioned, their actions to ensure that they are appropriate and
constructive. Being explicit about our theories of understanding and our
theories of intervention enables us to be accountable to both our funders and,
more importantly, our service users.
Combining this with our work this morning about how we acquire reflective
competence, there are different sources of learning (Carr, 1986):
1. the ‘applied science’ approach – knowledge comes from social
science research and theory
2. the ‘common sense’ approach – knowledge comes from practice
3. the ‘practical’ approach – knowledge comes from a combination of
(1) and (2) plus a professional values base
4. the ‘critical’ approach – knowledge comes from (3) plus an
awareness of the influence of the historical cultural context and the
current dominant ideology
Thus SWs use a variety of formal, informal and idiosyncratic sources of
information in developing their practice –
overhead on personal/cultural/structural
overhead on Using Theory & Research in Practice
It has usefully been said that:
‘Professionals do not solve problems…..they manage messes’ (Ackoff)
In any helping situation, SWs’ knowledge and skills are only useful to the
extent that they contribute to understanding of what is going on sufficiently to
enable them to at least participate in managing the mess. Schon has
suggested that we formulate ideas (consciously and unconsciously) about
‘how things usually are…’ and from that we consider the unique
situation of the individual situation that we are faced with in the here
and now – ‘to find the familiar in the unique and the unique in the
He refers to
o ‘reflection on action’ – reflecting back on what has happened to
try and make sense of it in order to either discharge our feelings
about it and move on and/or in order to decide our future course of
action in relation to it, and
o ‘reflection in action’ - describing the way in which reflective
practitioners are engaged in thinking critically while in the situation
itself – thinking on their feet.
Both require what he calls:
M/SW Course Matters/Enabling Practice/Actual final versions/Day 4 What is Reflective Practice? 2
1. ‘puzzlement’, being curious about what you and they are doing and
why, and what effect it is likely to have.
2. ‘imagination’ – a facility of the mind that enables ideas to flow and
find the familiar in the unique and v.v.
3. ‘discipline’ – an attitude of mind that is curious, rigorous and non-
complacent (sceptical) (Schon, 1983).
Although experienced SWs may sometimes struggle to articulate what they
have done and why, they can usually identify some of this process and
explanation when given time to reflect. As PTs, they need to develop such
self awareness so that they can facilitate the learning process in their
Reflective practice is therefore thoughtful practice with the practitioner asking
themselves the following sorts of questions:
What actually happened?
Why do I think it happened in this way and at this time?
Can I distinguish between the surrounding thoughts, feelings and events
and the relationship between them? (mine and others)?
What other explanations might there be?
Looking back, what is my reaction to what happened?
How does that differ from how I reacted at the time?
What would I do differently another time?
What will I do next?
What have I learnt and how, if at all, has this changed my ideas?
In other words:
What did I do what I did?
Why did I do it?
Would I do it again?
‘If we do not recognize that frameworks of ideas and values are influencing
how we act and interact, we are not in a position to question those ideas and
ensure that they are appropriate and constructive’ (Thompson 1995:29)
Reflection is thus about recapturing experience, mulling it over, evaluating it
and working out when and how to use it in the future.
Drawn in part from a handout by Terry Fisher, University of York
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