"On reflection, I feel I could have done better..."
As an experienced practice educator, one of the biggest challenges I face relates to supporting students to engage with critical reflection whilst they are in the midst of their placements; this time comes with great opportunity for the students, but is also often filled with high levels of anxiety, feelings of being de-skilled and fear of failure. For an overview of critical reflection in social work, I still rely on Jan Fook (2015); suffice to say here that critical reflection involves honest self-scrutiny of practice as well as unpicking the often hidden beliefs or attitudes underpinning action. Therefore, this can be a deeply uncomfortable experience for even the most seasoned of practitioners, never mind those just at the beginning stages of practice. We should not necessarily be surprised then when students experience real difficulties. This is what I refer to as the pain of supporting critical reflection: it is painful for students, and can also feel painful for practice educators who worry about how to provide support effectively.
How then can practice educators facilitate improved critical reflection in practice learning experiences? Below are some of the strategies that have proven useful to me in the past. I would be interested to hear of strategies used by other practice educators too so feel free to reply to the article.
Acknowledge how hard critical reflection is!
Critical reflection necessitates genuinely honest exploration of oneself. It requires multi-layered analysis to really make sense of a situation; attitudes, reactions and values of individuals, support and/or limitations of agency contexts and wider structural issues as well as theoretical perspectives all need to be blended into deep thinking and decision making about each case or experience. Sometimes, deep thinking leads to an understanding that our reactions and thoughts do not always match the values we claim. This incongruence is painful. Practice educators should always be mindful of this and not inadvertently present critical reflection as easy or straight-forward. Explaining instead that it is a hard process, but can be broken down and practiced, can be reassuring for students.
Start early and engage often...
Rather than seeing critical reflection as a ‘thing’, or a one-off process (a chore?) that has to be tackled to demonstrate competence, it helps to encourage critical reflection as a lifelong habit. Instead of using only one or two supervision sessions, or setting only one written task, I have always found it more helpful to explain to students that along with the application of theory to practice, we are aiming to have elements of critical reflection in all our discussions throughout placement. Modelling good practice is useful here too as well as some self-disclosure about times when critical reflection has led to light-bulb moments for the practice educator. Staying actively alert to potential opportunities-after all the practice educator’s hat is never off-helps avoid a mechanistic approach and keeps discussions relevant, topical and fresh.
But also... some initial distance
Other than the practice educator who announces a surprise ‘informal’ direct observation of practice in the first week of placement, there is probably nothing more frightening to a student than setting up a first supervision session to explore the student’s most deeply held values and attitudes. As fear is definitely not conducive to deep thinking, making use of more detached materials can be an opportune starting point. The online world including social media provides easy access now to a wealth of resources; for example, discussion of social work-related news/ideas from media sources, clips or films on YouTube, or using the now ubiquitous meme, which on the face of it may seem simple and light-hearted, but can actually provoke some challenging thinking about attitudes and values. These then can offer building materials to critical reflection when the student can begin to apply similar thinking to their own practice.
Foster a safe supervisory relationship
Chances are, the most relevant and available spaces for engaging with critical reflection will be in supervision sessions discussing direct practice with those the student works with. Most often the best learning for students about their practice as well as developing a sense of who they want to be as a practitioner, comes from those times when something has gone wrong. In order to secure the greatest benefit from these occasions, students need to feel safe enough to disclose their mistakes, whilst also being clear that such disclosure is in the context of a supportive learning environment. Liz Beddoe’s A-Z of Good Supervision (ThursdayThunking, July 2017) provides food for thought in this respect. I have found that relationship building is time well spent as part of any student induction and pays dividends on the investment later.
Make sure students have all the tools they need
There are a plethora of different critical reflection tools ranging from Critical Incident Analysis (Lister & Crisp 2007) to Rolfe’s Framework for Reflective Practice (Rolfe, Jasper & Freshwater, 2001). In my experience, practice educators often have a favourite tool, the one that really makes sense to them - I know I do! However, it does not always make the best sense to individual students, so why not agree with them an active research task where they can identify and scrutinise various tools to find which work for them. I have included a tool adapted from Rolfe as many of my students have found this useful, though I would also advise a layering of different tools as I discuss below.
As well as specific tools for reflection, there are more basic ‘tools’ students need to have, such as a deep understanding of key underpinning concepts. For example, power is the key concept that moves students on from looking back on practice to critical reflection. Practice educators should not assume students have the same understanding of power as they do, although it is fair to assume the presence of basic building blocks like racism and class. A useful early supervision exercise asks the student to explore power and privilege linked to identity (see here for an example).
Being supported to think about power in a safe general way is a good stepping stone to analysing power in their interactions with those they work with. Students often feel fairly powerless on placement, so this is also helpful way to get them to think more widely and positively. Similarly, if we are expecting students to include analysis of policy/legislative frameworks then checking the students have a working knowledge and supporting them to develop one if not, is a step that works best before using a full critical reflection tool.
I’m not suggesting here that educators dress up like cheerleaders, rather that drawing on ideas from Motivational Interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 2012) can work wonders when a student is stuck or seems ambivalent to the ideas of engaging with critical reflection. A major component of an MI approach would be to elicit change talk from the student. Once able to articulate the importance of critical reflection for them, students are more receptive to andragogic learning, which is something that some students seem to struggle with at least initially. Curious questioning instead of direction is something I have found beneficial. I still remember being told when completing my practice teaching qualification many years ago, to avoid using questions with the word why. Consequently, the first few supervision sessions I had with students were spent with me tying myself in knots trying to find alternative words and students looking at me blankly as they had no idea what I was asking them. These days, I just ask why: Why do you think that might be the case? Why do you think that reaction was different from the one you expected? A tone of curiosity conveys interest, not accusation, and thus reduces possibly defensive reactions. When defensiveness or other forms of resistance become an issue, ‘Rolling with Resistance’ helps us to understand that the student is not being defiant or unmotivated, but is communicating that they either do not agree with us or are finding the discussion overwhelming. Rolling, by either responding neutrally or changing tack, is something I have found usually supports the student to become unstuck.
And the pleasure...?
There is obviously pleasure from the benefits that come with critical reflection. Students become more open practitioners, better decision makers and develop abilities to avoid accidental practice which can stay with them through their whole careers.
However, some of my most satisfying moments in practice education come from watching a student in a supervision session pedal back from one of their own statements following only the slightest of pauses, critically reflect and come to a different conclusion from where they began. The smile on the student’s face following this highlights that critical reflection has ceased to be so painful. There is real pleasure to be gained from that.
Fook, J. (2015) ‘Reflective Practice and Critical Reflection’ in Lishman et al. (eds) Handbook for Practice Learning in Social Work and Social Care: Knowledge and Theory (3rd Edition). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Lister, P. & Crisp, B. (2007) Critical incident analyses: A practice learning tool for students and practitioners, Practice, 19:1, 47-60
Miller, W.R., & Rollnick, S. (2012) Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change (3rd Edition). New York: Guildford Press
Rolfe, G., Jasper, J., and Freshwater, D. (2010) Critical Reflection in Practice, Palgrave Macmillan, London
These are also on ScOPTbox 🙂