When a social work student embarks on practice learning, the requirement to demonstrate their ability to integrate practice and theory may appear at first to be a relatively straightforward question of applying what they have learnt at university to their practice on placement. It can take a while to realise that practice and theory rarely have a neat and tidy relationship. Jean Gordon does some #ThursdayThunking.

‘So, what theory do you think you were drawing on in your work with...?’
Silence falls.

The animated interaction during a supervision session between student and practice educator falters while the student racks their brains for a wise, a well considered, above all, a ‘correct’ answer. But what is the practice educator looking for? Is it possible to light upon the ‘right’ response, a well-turned word or phrase that will sum up all the thoughts that are whirling around the student’s head about THIS child, THIS family, THIS home, THESE relationships? Of course, there are times when the ‘answer’, or at least a partial answer, sits waiting in the wings. In some social work settings particular theoretical approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or motivational interviewing, may predominate. But even here, lighting on a single unifying theoretical understanding or approach that has informed a social worker’s practice with a particular individual or family is rarely possible. The student may want to express a host of interwoven thoughts... about the child’s developmental stage, the poverty experienced by this family, some interesting research they have just read about relationship-based practice, the impact on the family of a recent bereavement...But how to put that all into words, to reduce this host of fragmented thoughts into a coherent answer? It’s not only students who can feel daunted of course. Faced with the ‘theory question’, despite a wealth of practice experience of their own, practice educators may also suddenly start to wonder about their own grasp of theory, to worry whether the student actually knows a great deal more about theory and up to date research than they do.

When a social work student embarks on practice learning, particularly a first placement, the requirement to demonstrate their ability to integrate practice and theory may appear at first to be a relatively straightforward question of applying what they have learnt at university to their practice on placement. However well prepared the student, it can take a while to realise that practice and theory rarely have a neat and tidy relationship. David Howe (2015: vii) has written about the way in which theories have to ‘bend and adapt, twist and turn if they are going to work’ when they bump up against the realities of social work practice. Nor is the relationship between practice and theory a one way street – although we often talk about ‘applying theory to practice’ in a deductive way, practice is simultaneously an inductive process with theoretical understandings emerging from the social worker’s day to day experiences of individuals and families. Intriguingly, although there are volumes of literature about supervision and practice learning, neither students nor practice teachers have ready access to writing about just how social workers actually go about their practice. This ‘curious absence’ of references to day to day practice in the literature (Ferguson, 2011, p.4) leaves students with little on which to model their reflection and discussion about how and why they practice in the way they do.

A significant part of the practice educator’s role is to support students to identify, reflect on and integrate their growing knowledge of social work theory and research with their practice experiences. Supervision discussions typically start from practice as students bring their complex stories of home visits, car journeys, office interviews and team meetings to the supervision session. One of the great arts of the practice educator is that of enabling the student to unpick and make sense of these rich experiences, learning to move between practice and theory in an increasingly confident, critical and iterative way. Students also have to find a language to convey all this complexity in straightforward terms so they can explain to others how and why they practice as they do, not least because social workers regularly have to justify their actions and inactions to decision makers in courts and hearings.

So how do practice educators assist students to make sense of the twists and turns of practice and theory? Although every practice educator will develop their own ways of working with students, and students arrive on placement with different learning needs, practice education research tells us that some key factors are:

  • A supervisory relationship that is open, collaborative, supportive and nurturing (Lefevre, 2005), providing a safe space for theory/practice experimentation, risk-taking and confidence building.
  • Regular opportunities for reflection, analysis, self-critique and feedback through supervision, observation and in the workplace (Brodie and Williams, 2013).
  • Purposeful, structured approaches to learning that provide 'a middle ground between didactic teaching and instruction in supervision on the one hand, and boundary-less reflection on the other' (Davys and Beddoe, 2009: 932). Some examples of creative tools and approaches for theory/practice integration are listed below – all are available on ScOPTBox.
  • Access to experienced practitioners’ accounts of how they move between practice and theory. These may come from practice educators and workplace colleagues but there is also a steadily growing literature that provides narratives of ‘live’ social work practice from the perspective of social workers themselves. These stories portray the messiness and complexity of real world social work, and the many creative, theory-informed ways that practitioners engage with these realities.


Brodie, I. and Williams, V. (2013) 'Lifting the lid: Perspectives on and activity within student supervision'. Social Work Education, 32(4), pp.506-522. Online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02615479.2012.678826

Davys, A.M. and Beddoe, E. (2009) 'The Reflective Learning Model: Supervision of Social Work Students', Social Work Education, 28(8), pp.919-933. Online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02615470902748662

Ferguson, H. (2011) Child Protection Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Howe, D. (2015) Foreword. In Cooper, B., J. Gordon and A. Rixon (eds.) Best practice with children and families: Critical social work stories, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Lefevre, M. (2005) 'Facilitating practice learning and assessment: The influence of relationship', Social Work Education, 24(5), pp.565–583. Online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02615470500132806


About the author:

Jean Gordon is an Independent Social Worker, Researcher, Educator and Writer. She has been a qualified social worker since 1981, working in a range of different settings, including residential schools, hospitals and community mental health. She is a Mental Health Officer and a Practice Teacher. Jean is based in the Scottish Highlands and works all over Scotland and the rest of the UK.

She is also employed by The Open University where she is involved in a range of activities, including tutoring in the Health and Social Care Faculty in Scotland, critical reading and developing learning materials for the social work programme.

Jean has developed a particular interest in researching and writing about critical best practice in social work. Critical best practice involves moving beyond the traditional ‘deficit approach’ where we focus on what goes wrong in social work – an approach we are all too familiar with in the UK. Instead the focus is on learning from ‘best practice’ – in other words, from social workers’ accounts of what they can and do achieve in their work with service users and carers within the constraints of their everyday practice. Jean has used a critical best practice approach to explore how social workers use knowledge in practice and, with Barry Cooper and Andy Rixon, written with social workers about critical best practice with children and their families.

Jean was instrumental in helping to set up ScOPTbox, our Practice Learning Library.

You can follow Jean on Twitter at jeango60

Tools and frameworks for integrating practice and theory

Beyond anecdote: the quest to codify practice wisdom
Doel, M. (2008) Beyond anecdote: The quest to codify practice wisdom. ScOPTbox Practice Learning Library. [Online]. Available from: https://practicelearning.info/mod/data/view.php?d=4&rid=117

Creative approaches to supporting students with theory and practice
Maclean, S. (2015) Developing creative approaches to supporting students with theory and practice. ScOPTbox Practice Learning Library. [Online]. Available from: https://practicelearning.info/mod/data/view.php?d=4&rid=152

The Practice Pyramid
Gordon, J. and Mackay, G. (2016) ‘The Practice Pyramid: A model for integrating social work values, theory and practice’, The Journal of Practice Teaching and Learning, 14(3), pp.64-80. https://practicelearning.info/mod/data/view.php?d=4&rid=261

Doel, M. and Shardlow, S. (2005) Reflective practice: Signposts. ScOPTbox Practice Learning Library. [Online]. Available from: https://practicelearning.info/mod/data/view.php?d=4&rid=105

The Three Stage Theory Framework
Collingwood, P. (2005) Integrating theory and practice: The three-stage theory framework. ScOPTbox Practice Learning Library. [Online]. Available from: https://practicelearning.info/mod/data/view.php?d=4&rid=114

Social workers writing about practice and theory in their everyday practice

Cooper, B., Gordon, J. and Rixon, A. (2015) Best Practice with Children and Families: Critical social work stories, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Cree, V.E. and Davis, A. (2007) Social Work: Voices from the Inside, Abingdon, Routledge

Jones, K., Cooper, B. and Ferguson, H. (2008) Best Practice in Social Work: Critical perspectives, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Jones, K. and Watson, S. (2013) Best Practice with Older People: Social work stories, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Wilder Craig, R. (2007) ‘A day in the life of a hospital social Worker: Presenting our role through the personal narrative’, Qualitative Social Work 6(4), pp.431–446. Online at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1473325007083355


Next Month...

Richard Ingram discusses relationship based practice, and talks about reinforcing, reigniting and reaffirming motivation.. Keep an eye on www.scopt.co.uk/thunking

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