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A Summary of my Understanding of Critical Reflection with Social Work Practice
Reflective social work practice is a key learning and development process in social work courses which enable social work trainees to apply theories and models in critical and challenging situations in practice to enhance professional developments (Scragg and Knott, 2007). Great emphasis is placed on developing skills of critical reflection about, in and on practice and this has developed over many years in social work. Reflecting about, in and on your practice is not only important during practice learning and education to become a social worker, but it is considered a key to continued professional development. Social work is a profession that acknowledges life-long learning as a way of keeping up to date, ensuring that research informs practice and striving continually to improve skills and values for practice (Parker, 2004). Contemporary social work educators and practitioners are increasingly emphasizing the value of reflective practice as a rich source of social work theories and skill development that conceptualize formal learning theory (D’Cruz et al, 2007).
This essay will explore my understanding of reflective social work practice and the application of key theories and models of reflection to promote best social work practice. Schon(1993) considers critical reflective practice to involve thoughtfully considering one’s own experiences in applying knowledge to practice while being coached by professionals in the discipline (Ferraro, 2000). In order to put this into perspective, I will begin this essay by looking at the development and nature of critical reflective practice followed by my understanding of critical reflection and its application within social work. Also I will look at the merits and demerits of critical reflective practice in social work. The next section will involve a critical account of my development of reflective practice in my practice learning opportunity (PLO).
Zhao (2003) defines reflective practice as’an ability to reflect on experiences, to employ conceptual frameworks, and to relate these to similar and dissimilar contexts so as to inform and improve future practice‘.
Kondrat (1992) explained that reflection on practice in social work has been associated with attempts by practitioners to distance themselves from their experiences and thereby achieve a more objective view of their practice (cited in D’Cruz et al 2007). However according to Fook (2002) critical reflection places more emphasis and importance on understanding how a reflective stance uncovers power relations, and how structures of domination are created and maintained (www.courses.hull.ac.uk/modules/MA PLO inductionsession.html) [accessed on 22/09/2009]. Also critical reflection, as an approach to practice and the generation of knowledge, values the practice wisdom of practitioners and seeks to generate theory from practice experience inductively (D’Cruz et al 2007). As a practice skill, critical reflection has been developed as a process that is taught to practitioners and students to enable them to enhance and research their practice (Fook, 1999, 2002).
DEVELOPMENT OF REFLECTIVE PRACTICE
A review of development of reflective practice in contemporary times indicates a substantial knowledge base. The thinking about critical reflection and reflective practice has evolved over many years, through carefully constructed theories, research and application. Dewey (1938) suggested that people only begin to reflect when they identify an issue as a problem to be overcome and recognize that this can create an air of uncertainty about the outcome (Parker, 2004). Schon (1987) is widely credited with the extensive development of reflective practice and thereby increasing the popularity of reflective practice in social work practice. His work was built on the ideas proposed by John Dewey, where he describes the process of change and understanding in professional learning and development from a ‘technical- rational’ approach to an approach based on reflection-in-action’ (www.learningmatters.co.uk/sampleChapters/) [accessed 20/09/2009]. He asks social work practitioners to engage in a ‘reflective conversation’ where they could blend theoretical knowledge with their own personal experience to gain a greater understanding of a specific situation.
Schön is of the notion that real life practice situations could be messy, involve uncertainty, and may challenge our preconceptions and beliefs. It is clear that Schön’s idea of a reflective practitioner requires honesty and openness to engage in a critical ‘reflective conversation’ to improve social work practice. However, he admits that this level of openness may occasionally be problematic if students are required to share their reflections with supervisors or fellow students due to power imbalances within the practice (www.learningmatters.co.uk/sampleChapters) [accessed 20/09/2009]. Schön (1984) and Kolb (1983) separate works have given critical reflective practice the credibility in contemporary social work practice, where they have employed basic principle of reflecting on experience to improve action and professional practice (Saltiel 2006). In recent years the concepts of reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action have become widely influential, in professional education and training where a wide range of teaching methods have been developed to encouraged students to reflect on their practice and integrate theory with action ( Saltiel, 2006). Schon (1983) realising the risk reflection-in-action could create in the future as it become habitual and routinised, advocated for a much more formalised methods of reflection known as reflection-on-action. This is a reflection after an event has occurred by revisiting previous judgements in a more analytical way designed to make tacit knowledge explicit (Taylor, 2006).
WHY CRITICAL REFLECTION FOR LEARNING IN SOIAL WORK PRACTICE?
Reflective practice is split into two interrelated components, practice and reflection, which are clearly not just as simple as doing and thinking. Practice, is an event which is usually, but not always, observable, which Michael Eraut (1994) calls ‘practice performance’. It includes cognitive and affective aspects as well as the behavioural. On the hand reflection, implies a number of processes which are largely linked to the practice event (www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/000000468.htm) [accessed 19/09/2009].
Calderhead (1989) defined reflection broadly; ‘as an acquisition of attitudes and skills in thinking. It is a process of becoming aware of the influence of societal and ideological assumptions, especially ethical and moral beliefs, behind professional practice’. The two components are clearly not discrete since good practice will, for example, consist of the practitioner eliciting the client’s or service user’s reflections on the practice.
The various processes of reflection as outlined particularly by Schon (1987) can be summarised as the analysis, synthesis, evaluation and feeling. However, critical reflection transforms practice by challenging existing social, political and cultural conditions (Clift et al., 1990). It involves ethical and moral criticism and judgements (www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/000000468.htm) [accessed 19/09/2009].
My practice learning experience at Age concern has challenge my knowledge and values in working with my supervisors, colleagues and service users and more importantly my experience acquired from FASU in my PLO1. At Age Concern the environment was quite friendly but intimidating and the workload was demanding as much was expected of me. However, by deploying reflective techniques such as self and peer assessment, reflective conversation, engaging in collaborative discussions with my team members’ and critically reflecting on my practice and professional development I got grip with the practice. I always engage in a ‘reflective conversation’ with my supervisors and peers where I blend my theoretical knowledge acquired from formal learning with my own personal experience to gain a greater understanding of situations.
Schön (1987) is of the view that real life practice situations can be messy, involve uncertainty, and may challenge our preconceptions and beliefs. It is clear from Schön’s idea that a reflective practitioner requires honesty and openness to engage in a critical ‘reflective conversation’. However, this level of openness may occasionally be problematic if students are required to share their reflections with supervisors or fellow students (www.learningmatters.co.uk/sampleChapters/) [accessed 20/09/2009]. Working with service users who are fifty years and above and experiencing social inequalities and deprivation in different circumstances was very challenging. My openness and honest attitude towards my service users helped me to record events in the right perspectives.
Thereafter by critically reflecting on the actions taken during practice transforms my understanding of the theories and models and how to improve my social work practice. According to Fook (2002) critical reflection places emphasis and importance on an understanding of how a reflective stance uncovers power relations, and how structures of domination are created and maintained (www.courses.hull.ac.uk/modules/MA PLO induction session.html) [accessed on 22/09/2009].
My understanding of critical reflection coupled with a supportive learning environment at Age Concern, made me to appreciate better how theoretical knowledge and skills are vital to best social work practice. It seems to me that critical reflective practice offers a highly challenging paradigm of learning. It is more of inductive learning than a deductive learning as the case may be in formal learning contexts such as Higher Education Institutions.
MERITS AND DEMERITS OF CRITICAL REFLECTICE PRACTICE
Under appropriate environmental conditions, critical reflective practice can help individual social workers and students to enhance their personal and professional development in practice. Appropriate conditions include: a supportive environment, social workers’ readiness to undergo self-reflection, individual space for individual workers to undergo critical reflective practice, workers’ own reflective practice and awareness of one’s limits and breaking point (Yip, 2006). A supportive environment does not only imply a supportive organizational context, including colleagues and supervisors but how it encourages empathic rapport that is crucial for constructive self-reflection in reflective practice (Calderhead, 1989). It is obvious that mutual support and open sharing among colleagues is the best breeding ground for constructive critical self-reflection. Notwithstanding the supportive environment, the individual social worker’s open-mindedness is critical for spontaneous and critical self-reflection in reflective practice (Atkins and Murphy, 1993).
Moreover, according to Fisher (1997) critical reflective practice is learning tool for social work students that provide solutions to a wide range of practice theories and models available and enables practitioner-learners to theorise their practice drawing on knowledge embedded in practice. The technique of critically reflecting on previous practice aim to promote the development of practitioners’ abilities to generate understanding of their practice, their theories of action and the values they hold. Another attraction of reflective practice is the hope that it seems to hold out for personal professional development and transfer of learning from one setting to another (Yip, 2006). Martyn (2001) argues that reflection can help people to make sense of the circumstances presented to social workers in complex situations, relating them to agency requirements (Payne, 2001). Critical reflective practice can be a rewarding experience resulting in self-enhancement in both personal and professional development.
Contrarily, unsupportive setting can mostly be destructive to many social work students’ self and professional development. Such unsupportive conditions include an oppressive social environment, highly demanding working environment, social workers’ unresolved past experiences from previous learning placements as well as supervisors- students relationships. An oppressive environment implies a setting where there is an imbalance of power that is oppressive to the individual worker and discouraging professional development (Miehls and Moffatt, 2000). Sometimes it may be a highly critical supervisor, apathetic colleagues, a working team full of oppressive politics and dynamics, or insecurity and uncertainty in the social worker’s employment. In an oppressive environment, social workers may be obliged to disclose their weaknesses and shortcomings or their unpleasant practice experiences to supervisors within the agency; such disclosure may then be used against the worker as an excuse to abuse, to exploit, to undermine and even to dismiss them (Yip, 2006).
Secondly, critical self-reflection in reflective practice demands that social workers subject their inner space and autonomy to self-analysis and self-evaluation (Boyd and Fales, 1983).
Self-observation and self-dialogue also demand reflective distance that originates from the social worker’s own initiative and readiness (Voegelin, 2000 cited in Yip, 2006). However, a demanding workload in terms of a many caseloads, diversity of work, challenging clients may cause exhaustion and stress. This makes critical self-reflection in such settings a real nightmare and may be more of an additional burden rather than to assist the social worker or student.
In conclusion, this essay is an attempt to summarise my understanding of critical reflective social work practice and how it impact on my professional development as a social worker. My practice learning at Age Concern shows that related parties, such as supervisors, agency administrators, social work colleagues or social workers need to create appropriate conditions and relationships for social workers’ in training to develop their skills and knowledge on critical reflective practice. When social work students’ critically reflect on challenging issues in their placement, they develop the requisite skills and knowledge which could impact positively on the lives of service users. In reflective practice, social work students are to be encouraged to undergo self-reflection to develop models and theories that would enhance their social work practice.
On the other hand, related parties should also be careful to avoid inappropriate conditions that may create possible limitations to the professional and self-development of social workers. Moreover, other researches emphasize on how different conditions affect the self-reflection process of social work students in reflective social work practice. In summary under appropriate conditions, social workers’ critical self-reflection can be very constructive, resulting in self-enhancement, leading to improvement in social work practice and enables students to plan and focus on what they need to do to improve social imbalance in society.
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