“Critical Reflection – reflecting on learning to be reflective” Social Work Journal Club Chat 10/10/13 8pm BST

2 10 2013

This is the article chosen for this week’s chat. It’s “Critical Reflection – reflecting on learning to be reflective” by Helen Hickson and was published in “Reflective Practice” Vol 12 No 6 Dec 2011.  My thoughts are shorter than usual, partly because I hope more people will go to source and read the article itself – it does a far better job of explaining than me summarising – but also because I’ve been extraordinarily busy this week!  It is quite different from a lot of research papers in that it is written from a very personal perspective. As Hickson  opens

This paper is a personal reflection of my experience as a social worker engaged in postgraduate study in critical reflection

While being about reflection, it is also a reflection and hope it will open the door for us to discuss how and why we reflect and how we develop reflective skills in practice and in study.  Hickson starts by exploring what ‘reflection’ actually is which is a good question. Mostly, she notes in the introduction, it is a concept without a firm definition and can mean different things to different people. It would be hard to find someone who doesn’t claim to be a ‘reflective practitioner’ but that can look very different. She says

With the diversity of definitions and frameworks for reflection and reflective practice, one thing on which writers agree is that there are common themes and no singular ‘right way’ to go about reflective practice. There is also agreement about the value in reflective practice; however, writers from various disciplines see reflective practice in different ways and use a range of terms to describe methods and techniques. These different ways of understanding reflective practice and the context in which it is experienced result in a high degree of complexity in understanding reflection conceptually, theoretically and in practice.

So whatever ‘reflection’ looks like, it’s a good thing – and that moves far beyond the social work and social care framework – in most roles, paid or unpaid, a period of reflection can be useful – so what is it about social work and reflective practice that is different? Or is there anything?

Dickson then introduces the ‘critical’ part of reflection and perhaps that’s where more structure comes in.  In social work there are theoretical frameworks built around reflection – but, she asks, is ‘critical reflection’ a social work theory? It is more than ‘thinking about things’ or ‘thinking about how you would do things differently’. It is a  pillar of professional competence but does that make it a theoretical framework or a method of practice – perhaps a little of both.

Dickson goes on to consider ‘reflection in action’ and ‘reflection on action’ where the former is contemporaneous while the latter takes place after the experience. It would be interesting to consider how we apply these two in a work setting and if we are able to.  Moving to look at ‘critical reflection’ specifically she says

Mezirow (1990) contemplated reflective practice and identified that there was more to reflection than simply thinking about experiences, suggesting that critical reflection involves a critique on the assumptions on which our beliefs and values have developed

And now we can see how we move from a basic reflection to a deeper, perhaps more fundamental processing of our own assumptions and attitudes and work on trying to figure out where they are and where we are in the work we do with people. Critical reflection involves seeing our actions, attitudes, assumptions and beliefs through a prism of theories, knowledge and power. Within a context rather than in isolation and perhaps that’s the difference between reflection and critical reflection.

Dickson breaks down the process of her reflecting on her own practice. I’d recommend going to the piece directly as it’s not something that can easily be summarised. Perhaps when we do discuss the article we can look at how useful it is to read about someone else learning to reflect and whether that’s a useful learning tool.  She refers to her reflective diary – I know I’ve seen students do this. As  a practice educator, I gave my student periods of time to ‘reflect’ but I’m not sure that it was the best way of achieving the outcomes.  Like Dickson, I found that I didn’t really ‘get’ reflection until after I qualified – and for quite a few years after I qualified. Some skills were useful but they are skills which provide a platform.

Reflection doesn’t relate solely to social work of course, so I hope others from other disciplines (and none) will join in too to discuss the paper, reflection, critical reflection and the learning of it together.

Some questions to consider

What is reflection

How is reflection useful to you

Is critical reflection a theoretical framework or a practice tool?

How have your attitudes to critical reflection changed through practice/study?

Is there anything unique about social work and critical reflection?

Reflection in action/reflection on action – how do you do this?

How has critical reflection changed your attitude to your job?

Can reflection skills be taught?

How do you break down the reflection process?




One response

2 10 2013

I think critical reflection is about taking the beliefs and assumptions, which you are normally certain about, and adopting an attitude of uncertainty towards them.

The next step is to try your hardest to find evidence, whether that be your own experience or things you have read about, which contradicts those beliefs and assumptions. The idea I guess, is that a dialectic occurs, whereby you modify your beliefs and assumptions, or make them more nuanced and subtle in a way that is consistent with any contradictory data.

Wrapped around this process should be an awareness that most of our beliefs and assumptions are to some extent delusional, in that they are there to protect ourselves from unpalatable truths about ourselves or the society, which we live in. Critical reflection then requires an admission of our weaknesses, limitations, imperfections, selfishness, fears and sometimes our sense of powerlessness and helplessness. As such, critical thinking can only take place inside a supportive environment, where one can trust that others will not take advantage of us or reject us for a show of weakness and imperfection.

I think the question for anyone working in social worker, is to what extent they feel personally prepared to engage in critical reflection, and to what extent their environment supports that preparedness. If one is not prepared, and the environment is not supportive, questions need to be raised about one can do to move into a more supportive environment, and the type of personal change one needs to make to become critically reflective.

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