Critical reflection: a celebration and challenge by Jenny Simpson Part of @SWSCmedia #WSWDay Series

Reflection_picOne of the key elements of social work practice is critical reflection.  It is a concept that is drummed into social work students, and which is expected of qualified  practitioners as part of enabling them to articulate their decision-making and interventions, as well as avoid anti-discriminatory and oppressive practice (The College of Social Work, 2012).   It is also a concept that is associated with other notions such as reflective practice, reflexivity, reflecting-in-action; reflecting-on-action (Schonn, 1974, 1983 and 1987) and critical social work.

However, before going further it’s worth reminding ourselves of exactly what we mean by critical reflection and how it differs from the other associated concepts mentioned above.  According to Fook and Askeland (2009 p.289) the concept of critical reflection has a range of meanings and has been written about from a number of professional perspectives.  Moreover, even within the realm of the social work profession the available academic literature has proffered varying opinions regarding the concept and how it should be exercised (see Brookfield, 2009 and Gardner, 2009).  Nevertheless the fact remains this variance in opinion does not necessarily bring social work practitioners any nearer to a concrete definition and understanding of critical reflection and this may be because the concept is both a theoretical approach and process (Fook and Gardner, 2007 as cited in Gardner, 2009).

With regard to the theoretical understanding of critical reflection we know that it’s built on foundations that consists of post modernism, Foucaldian thinking,  social constructionism, critical social theory, Merezirow’s transformative learning and the notion of dominant ideologies (Gardner, 2009; Fook and Askeland, 2009; Brookfield, 2009 and Fisher and Somerton, 2000).  The process of critical reflection is likely to involve the identification of an unsettling or puzzling incident; the acknowledgement of a series of emotions followed by the unearthing of assumptions and values and their subsequent scrutiny (Brookfield, 2009); the recognition of inequalities of power; the development of a new hypothesis and then the testing of it.  In sum, what has been described is a concept that is theoretical and process-driven, which may go some way to explaining the difficulties that surround its enunciation and active expression.

So what position does critical reflection hold in the social work profession? We know that is something that is meant to be done by individual practitioners, but what else is happening?  One can argue that critical reflection now finds itself centre stage with the spotlight being focussed on it.  In other words, because of developments like the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF), ASYE (Assessed and Supported Year in Employment) and the Employers Standards the concept finds itself at the heart of the profession.  Beginning with the Professional Capabilities Framework, this in essence is the developmental pathway of the social work profession and importantly identifies critical reflection as one of the nine requisite inter-dependent domains that evidence practice.  Consequently, throughout the career of a social work practitioner the expectation is that critical reflection should be actively adopted and exercised no matter what the role of the individual.

In relation to the Employer Standards Simpson (2012 p.88) argues that the recommendations made by the Social Work Task Force have led to a set of clear, universal and binding standards which has meant that social work organisations are now being required to make a positive unambiguous commitment to a strong supervision culture (Building a safe, confident future: The final report of the Social Work Task Force, 2009:p35).  With regard to AYSE, guidance published by Skills for Care and The College of Social Work highlight the centrality of critical reflection in the development of professional practice and expertise [see The social work ASYE: A ‘mini’ guide to the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (2012, p.4); Developing your social work practice using the PCF – Integrated Critical analysis and reflective practice (2012) and Assessing social work practice using the PCF – Integrated Critical analysis and reflective practice (2012)].

These major developments it can be claimed leave us in no doubt that critical reflection is a must in terms of individual social work practice.  However, it is not just because of the implementation of social work reform that critical reflection should be carried out.  The profession itself should also be driven to this way of thinking and working due to the period of austerity that the country is currently in the grip of.  Never has it been more important to ensure that the dominant ideologies of the deserving and undeserving poor are challenged, and never has it been more vital to ameliorate the impact of the forthcoming welfare changes to vulnerable service users.

One can argue that the social work profession acts as the buffer between the state and the vulnerable citizen. It is only through exercising critical reflection with its questioning approach and non-assumptive stance that individual social work practitioners will avoid becoming ‘agents of the state’ where the primary focus is to manage the tide of need and ‘gatekeep’ resources.  Brookfield (2009) in his fiery discussion on the promises and contradictions of critical reflection comments that “Critical reflection turns the spotlight onto issues of power and control.  It assumes that the minutiae of practice have embedded within them the struggles between unequal interests and groups that exist in the wider world”.   The widespread permission the social work profession has received to engage in critical reflection although very welcome is not without risk.  If as a member of the profession we acknowledge the power struggles and social injustice that does exist it may mean that we come into direct conflict and contravention with those who manage us.  It is at this point that, we as individual social work practitioners need to honestly ask ourselves, are we truly prepared to critically reflect, and if so, are we willing to live with the consequences of our actions.

Jenny Simpson is a Staff Tutor at the The Open University in the South (@OpenUniversity). Join us @SWSCmedia for a live World Social Work Day Twitter Chat on Tuesday (19 March 2013) 8:00 PM GMT / 4:00 PM DST. Hashtag #SWSCmedia

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