Gillian Ferguson explores the significance of the varying and complex dynamics when issues arise within practice learning.

Gillian Ferguson

Revisiting Explosive Metaphors and Practice Learning Relationships

In 2017 Tayforth Practice Learning Partnership produced a discussion paper on how explosive metaphors can help us understand the dynamics of practice learning in Social Work Education (Ferguson, 2017). The concept of the placement "Bomb-o-meter" (Ferguson, 2014) has been used for several years in the tuition for the PDA Practice Learning Award (Social Services) in Tayforth to support critical reflection on how we develop effective learning relationships, and to consider where the energy needs to be focussed within the multiple, dynamic and complex web of relationships. ThursdayThunking revisits these ideas this week and our previous paper can be found in ScOPTbox.


Context of Social Work Practice Learning in Scotland

ScOPT members are all aware of the context of Social Work Practice Learning in Scotland. The Practice Learning landscape for Social Work Education in Scotland remains rich with debate and dilemma about how we can best equip students for the tasks ahead. The issue of statutory and voluntary sector learning opportunities is one area of regular debate and dilemma. I suggested a perspective in our 2017 paper that it is the elements within practice learning which combine to offer a quality experience where the student is immersed in Social Work, including understanding and developing ability to undertake statutory tasks which matters. Irrespective of where Social Workers choose to work beyond their qualifying stage, we need to ensure that would be able to enact the legal authority associated with the professional role as part of our practice learning opportunities.

Our debates are characterised by regular cyclical reasoning about the quality of practice learning, students’ readiness to practice and the respective role and responsibility of the academy and the practice agency for this. There are a broad range of stakeholders involved in aspects of the placement process and the anticipated outcomes of effective practice learning.


Figure 1: Stakeholders in Practice Learning


Understanding and Improving Practice Learning Relationships

Practice Educators, Academics, Personal Tutors, Link Workers and Students are all involved in Social Work Education and stakeholders in Practice Learning for the same fundamental reasons however in very common conversations it emerges that "it does not feel like it" (Anonymous Student Social Worker, 2014). At the centre of all effective practice learning are dynamic and multiple relationships. The nature of the web of relationships between these stakeholders is complex. These influence the organisation, learning, assessment of students and the longer-term impact and outcomes of the experience on all involved. There is of course a strong shift back to considering relationships to be the central pivot of all care in the broader health and social agendas too, "it’s people who make a difference" (Whitelaw, 2014).


Using Explosive Metaphors

A review of practice learning in one agency detailed in our 2017 paper explored relationships, processes and recommendations for improvement. A focus on one period where ten students had been on recent practice learning opportunities revealed the complexity of these scenarios from several perspectives. When difficulties arise in practice learning this always involves many people, emotions, behaviour and perspectives. In one conversation in the review period a practice educator stated "you can’t expect to throw a bomb like that into the room and not expect it to go off or there to be a load of fallout" following an allegation by a student against them.

The concept of the placement Bomb-o-meter, a rudimentary reflective tool, helped the coordinator in the agency explain and highlight the significance of the varying and complex dynamics when issues arise within practice learning. Different sizes of "bomb" were used to reflect the "size" or extent of impact of the issue for those involved. As a profession which would focus on prevention and resolution of conflict the explosive metaphor and bomb-o-meter may be a strange choice. Subsequent discussions with colleagues from other disciplines and geographic areas reflected on what alternative metaphors could be used. Turbulent weather metaphors may offer a further option which still reveals the intensity and extensive impact of events or experiences.

When things go smoothly within practice learning there are commonly regarded positive outcomes for all stakeholders and in contrast when there are areas of concern of any sort, the impact is not only negative but can be significant and long-lasting. Perceptions of power continue to feature in the practice learning discourse perpetuating assumptions about who is powerful/powerless and this remains an area with diverse perspectives from individual experiences. The impact of failing social work placements for example is acknowledged in Schaub and Dalrymple (2011) in terms of the time, stress, and legacy. The contrasting experience and the idea of the good student is highlighted too in the anecdotal and published research. There is risk however in viewing students or placements within the value-laden ideologies of good and bad in this context. Eno and Kerr (2013) focus on the nuances of this negative assumption, and suggest that "there is such a thing as a good fail". Relationships are central to any positive experiences and outcomes.

The rudimentary "bomb-o–meter" below helped us explain the levels of intensity for any of these practice learning experiences where problems were identified by the practice educator, student or team. Where a big "bomb" is shown there was significant and intense emotional and time investment for all parties involved.

Figure 2: Rudimentary Placement Bomb-o-meter


How did using Explosive Metaphors help us critically reflect?

A reflective conversation between the local authority co-ordinator and a university tutor where the concept of the bomb-o-meter led to an innovative project involving students as educators, teaching new practice educators. The importance of relationships is of course not a new concept however the use of the explosive metaphor helped understand the intensity and scale of the impact on all stakeholders in any scenario. This has remained a critical point of reflection since and is used extensively in teaching about Establishing Effective Practice Learning Relationships within the Professional Development Award in Practice Learning Tayforth Programme.

In our teaching and discussion about relationships in practice learning we have tried to focus on the importance of each perspective in the scenario. The voice of the student for example needs to take a crucial place in conversations to support improvement, involving students as partners in our improvement agenda has been a major innovation in the Tayforth programme. In addition, the place of the service user’s narrative and contribution to learning and assessment needs to remain a high priority in our improvements.


Moving forward

Working effectively to provide effective practice learning opportunities requires careful support which understands the complexity of the relationships and tasks involved. It is insufficient to consider that these are simplistic coordination tasks and processes undertaken by universities or placement providers. Resources across Scotland within organisations has significantly reduced over recent years in relation to practice learning and this remains a challenge. By continually exploring the relations we have as collaborators in practice learning with university staff, students, service users and agency staff, we can however generate new knowledge. We can highlight the ways in which strengthening relationships can support practice learning and prevent "bombs" going off and their subsequent fall-out. We are now moving into a new era with the development of a National Partnership for Social Work Education through the Scottish Government and amidst the research and workstreams associated with the review of Social Work Education in Scotland. We are keen to continue to explore how we can engage stakeholders in strengthening relationships in Practice Learning. Revisiting the function and purpose of Practice Learning in Social Work Education can remind us of our shared vision. Collaborating on improvements can remind us we are there for the same fundamental reasons, albeit with different roles and experiences to bring.

Tayforth Partnership can be contacted care of Gillian Ferguson, Dundee City Council, Dudhope Castle, Dundee or by phone on 01382 307506.


Ferguson, G. (2014) An update on practice learning activity Internal Report to Social Work Directorate, Dundee City Council

Ferguson, G. (2017) Using Explosive Metaphors to Strengthen Social Work Practice Learning, A Discussion Paper, Tayforth Practice Learning Partnership, Dundee City Council

Kerr, J and Eno, S. (2013) That was awful. I’m not ready yet am I? Is there such a thing as a good fail? The Journal of Practice Teaching and Learning, Volume 11, No. 3 Whiting and Birch

Schaub, J and Dalrymple, R. (2011) She didn't seem like a social worker': Practice Educatorsʼ experiences and perceptions of assessing failing social work students on placement SWAP Report

Whitelaw, T. (2014) Dementia Carer Stories presentation to MSC Integrated Service Improvement February 2014, Project Management, University of Edinburgh

About the author:

Gillian Ferguson is a Senior Advisor in Learning and Organisational Development in Dundee City Council and an Associate Lecturer with The Open University. Gillian has worked across diverse settings in many practice, management and learning/development roles and remains closely connected to direct practice. She is Programme Lead for the Professional Development Award in Practice Learning for Tayforth Partnership. Gillian is currently undertaking research on the lived experiences of Social Workers learning in the workplace.

You can follow Gillian on Twitter at @ learnventurer and connect with her on LinkedIn at or by email at


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One Comment

  1. Vivian Fitzsimmons says:

    Interesting update on this and very useful article. In relation to the discussion around power, we took it a bit further here in Falkirk and asked students to become the educators with experienced practice educators and team managers looking at supervision as a whole. This provoked a great deal of discussion and it was interesting to listen to the views of those present. It was at times challenging, particularly when ideas for walk and talk supervision were put forward by the students possibly indicating a new way of doing things and addressing the power balance to some extent.

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