Reflective Practice

Malcolm Macmillan, Distance Learning Co-ordinator at Robert Gordon University guides us through the concept of Reflective Practice…

“…we must find ways of connecting our knowledge and understanding of society, policy and people with the actions we will take as social workers. If we are to practise from this knowledge and theory, we must have ways of thinking which turn thinking into practice action. Reflection is a way of doing this.”
(Payne, M. (2002). P123)

Reflective Practice is a process through which practitioners consider their work practice with a view to improve that practice in a manner that will benefit the service user. The improvements may also benefit the practitioner and the professional body as methods of working are made more effective. Through such reflection individual practitioners allow for Continual Professional Development as practitioners further their Post Qualifying training recognising the need for enhancing the knowledge and competencies attained through accredited awards.

There are many perspectives on Reflective Practice but the work of Donald Allan Schön (1930 – 1997) has greatly influenced the area of Reflective Practice. The concepts of “Reflection-in-Action” and “Reflection-on-Action” (Schön, D. (1983)) describe the process of reflection in situ and after the event or specific piece of practice consecutively.

To further explain the process of “Reflection-in-Action” read the following case study:“A care worker was walking along the road with Jamie. Jamie required some assistance with balance whilst walking therefore took an arm of the care worker. As they walked the care worker noticed a man walking with a dog on a lead. From knowledge from past experience and reports from colleagues regarding Jamie the care worker knew this would cause Jamie a lot of distress. This is where the “Reflection-in-Action” process is put into practice. Jamie saw the dog and became agitated so the care worker took up a position between Jamie and the dog. Through gaining eye-contact and talking to Jamie the care worker diverted attention and offered support through holding out a hand, which Jamie took. Consequently, the hand of the care worker had the skin broken as Jamie gripped tightly.”

It is important to recognise that the two processes are not unrelated as even the process of reflection-in-action will be influenced by some retrospective thinking on a prior event. Such thinking would involve a critical evaluation of the practice carried out and an assessment as to the effectiveness of that piece of work and how such evaluation can effect the enhancing of future practice. Therefore, we find ourselves using the process of “Reflection-on-Action” (Schön, D. [1983]).{mospagebreak}

Reflection is the bringing together of various elements that inform and/or enhance our knowledge and understanding and ultimately our practice. The elements impacting upon such come from various sources. Theoretical influences from training inform us of up to date research into specific practice based on subject specific issues as well as tried and tested methods of practice. Another very important influence is the information gained from the service user. The service user’s experience of receiving a service from the practitioner will enable the practitioner to glean knowledge that they would otherwise never have access to. Being on the receiving end of a service has many connotations for the service user. Even the balance of power in that some service users have a specific need identified. The approach adopted can enhance the empowerment of the service user or diminish their self esteem. There are some needs that are more socially acceptable; therefore, accountability for such is not laid upon the service user. The stigma associated with specific needs carry implications for the service user and an understanding of their experience would add to the meeting of their needs or the needs of others in similar circumstances.

The experience of the practitioner is in itself a key component in the reflective process.

There are many encounters in the experience of the social worker that encourage the drawing on past experiences to enable the management of situations. The following case study is an example of “Reflection-on-Action” (Schön, D. [1983]):

“One social care worker was working with a service user who was having some difficulty coping with the daily events within the care establishment. He appeared to be stuck within his mind and required help to shift from the difficulty he was having. In the same way he could not remove himself from the room that he was situated and was, as a result of his shouting, causing great distress to others who were quite vulnerable. The social care worker decided that the individual would follow the bag that holds items that were important to him, that day. The social care worker picked it up and asked the service user to come with the bag. The service user, in turn, picked the social care worker up and shook them. In the situation, the social care worker promptly put the bag down and this eased the stress for the service user.”

As part of the “Reflection-on-Action” process the social care worker discussed the issue with colleagues and supervisors, staff in the residential unit the service user lived in to ascertain a more empowering way to assist the service user in such circumstances. After this the social care worker wrote a report for the service user’s file that described the situation and discussed possible methods of intervention.

Gillian Ruch discusses “the uniqueness of each situation encountered” in order to identify the complexities of reflective practice (Ruch, G., (2002), P202). As a result of the “uniqueness of each situation” we are not able to predict the exact nature of encounters. However, through the informing nature of theory, professional and personal experience, the experience of service users and the knowledge and experience passed on by colleagues and/or supervisors we enter the situation equipped with foreknowledge of possible outcomes resulting from the critical evaluation of all such influences. The revisiting of such encounters is an example of Schön’s “Reflection-on-Action” (Schön, 1983). It is nevertheless important to recognise that these are only assumptions, however reliably proven in the past, and external forces impacting upon the situation will affect how the situation plays out. The external forces impacting upon any given situation can vary. From an incident occurring in the service users life that you have no control over thus affecting the service user’s interactions, to something within our own experience affecting our interactions and responses to encounters. In considering this as we reflect upon any event we are left with a level of ignorance in the preparation for further encounters. In recognition of this, when we consider the previous case study, following incidents of this nature would have to be approached in an empowering manner, for the service user, through encouraging him to control his possessions and listening to him.
Ruth Goatly, (1999), discussed the model of Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985) stating that “This model highlights that experiences in learning combine behaviour, ideas and feelings and all of these aspects need to be examined in the process of reflection”.{mospagebreak}

It is from the examination of such aspects that we gain a more holistic view of the circumstances surrounding an encounter. During the encounter we are not able to be devoid of feelings built on our own experiences and furthermore we will have ideas or perceptions as to the source of the behaviour the individual is displaying. There is, of course, the issue of our behaviour and its contribution to the encounter.

Whatever perspective we adopt the ultimate outcome for the reflective practitioner is the enhancement of the service they provide. This is a skill that has to be practiced and continually evolved as the nature of social work presents diverse facets.

“The complex and uncertain nature of social work, with its ethical base, legal accountability, responsibility for complex decision-making and risk assessment…requires social workers to engage in ongoing development, personal and professional, if they are to survive, respond effectively to users and clients, and manage the uncertainty which is endemic to the profession.”
(Lishman, J. as cited in Adams, R., Dominelli, L. and Payne, M. (2002). P96)

Sources and suggested reading

  • Ruch, G,. (2002). From Triangle to spiral: reflective practice in social work education, practice and research. Social Work Education, Vol. No 2, p199-216
  • Schon, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, New York, Basic Books.
  • Goatly, Ruth. (1999). Developing Skills of Reflection. Department of Health and Social Care. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire.
  • Boud, D., Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (1985). The Reflective Process in Context. London: Kogan Page.
  • Lishman, J. Personal and Professional Development & Payne, M. Social Work Theories and Reflective Practice in Adams, R., Dominelli, L. and Payne, M. (2002). Social Work. Themes, Issues and Critical Debates. Hampshire: Palgrave in association with The Open University. Second Edition