Critical Learning for Social Work Students


Edited by: Sue Jones, Jonathan Parker & Greta Bradley

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    My sincere thanks to Bachelor and Masters of Arts students at Manchester Metropolitan University who are currently undertaking their social work education, and to those who have done so over the past 23 years. You have stimulated my approach to critical aspects of learning about social work and prompted the writing of this book.

    To colleagues in various learning and teaching fields from whom critical debate has both urged me onward and caused me to stop and reflect. Also to Luke Block and Helen Fairlie, from Learning Matters, whose support has been exemplary.

    Not least to my family: Hollin for your technical expertise; Carrick for your thoughtful conversations; and to David for initial proof-reading and rapidly developing culinary expertise.

  • Professional Capabilities Framework

    Professional Capabilities Framework diagram reproduced with permission of The College of Social Work

    Subject Benchmark for Social Work

    Defining Principles

    4.1 As an applied academic subject, social work is characterised by a distinctive focus on practice in complex social situations to promote and protect individual and collective well-being. This underscores the importance of partnerships between HEIs and service providers to ensure the full involvement of practitioners, managers, tutors, service users and carers with students in both academic and practice learning and assessment.

    4.2 At honours level, the study of social work involves the integrated study of subject-specific knowledge, skills and values and the critical application of research knowledge from the social and human sciences, and from social work (and closely related domains) to inform understanding and to underpin action, reflection and evaluation. Honours degree programmes should be designed to help foster this integration of contextual, analytic, critical, explanatory and practical understanding.

    4.3 Contemporary definitions of social work as a degree subject reflect its origins in a range of different academic and practice traditions. The precise nature and scope of the subject is itself a matter for legitimate study and critical debate. Three main issues are relevant to this.

    • Social work is located within different social welfare contexts. Within the UK there are different traditions of social welfare (influenced by legislation, historical development and social attitudes) and these have shaped both social work education and practice in community-based settings including residential, day care and substitute care. In an international context, distinctive national approaches to social welfare policy, provision and practice have greatly influenced the focus and content of social work degree programmes.
    • There are competing views in society at large on the nature of social work and on its place and purpose. Social work practice and education inevitably reflect these differing perspectives on the role of social work in relation to social justice, social care and social order.
    • Social work, both as occupational practice and as an academic subject, evolves, adapts and changes in response to the social, political and economic challenges and demands of contemporary social welfare policy, practice and legislation.

    4.4 Honours graduates in social work should therefore be equipped both to understand, and to work within, this context of contested debate about nature, scope and purpose, and be enabled to analyse, adapt to, manage and eventually to lead the processes of change.

    4.5 The applied nature of social work as an academic subject means that practice is an essential and core element of learning. The following points clarify the use of the term ‘practice’ in the statement.

    • The term ‘practice’ in this statement is used to encompass learning that not only takes place in professional practice placements, but also in a variety of other experiential learning situations. All learning opportunities that bear academic credit must be subject to methods of assessment appropriate to their academic level and be assessed by competent assessors. Where they form part of the curriculum leading to integrated academic and professional awards, practice learning opportunities will also be subject to regulations that further define learning requirements, standards and modes of assessment.
    • In honours degree programmes covered by this statement, practice as an activity refers to experiential, action-based learning. In this sense, practice provides opportunities for students to improve and demonstrate their understanding and competence through the application and testing of knowledge and skills.
    • Practice activity is also a source of transferable learning in its own right. Such learning can transfer both from a practice setting to the ‘classroom’ and vice versa. Thus practice can be as much a source of intellectual and cognitive learning as other modes of study. For this reason, learning through practice attracts full academic credit.
    • Learning in practice can include activities such as observation, shadowing, analysis and research, as well as intervention within social work and related organisations. Practice learning on honours degrees involves active engagement with service users and others in practice settings outside the university and may involve, for example, virtual/simulated practice, observational and research activities.

    4.6 Social work is a moral activity that requires practitioners to recognise the dignity of the individual, but also to make and implement difficult decisions (including restriction of liberty) in human situations that involve the potential for benefit or harm. Honours degree programmes in social work therefore involve the study, application of, and critical reflection upon, ethical principles and dilemmas. As reflected by the four care councils’ codes of practice, this involves showing respect for persons, honouring the diverse and distinctive organisations and communities that make up contemporary society, promoting social justice and combating processes that lead to discrimination, marginalisation and social exclusion. This means that honours undergraduates must learn to:

    • recognise and work with the powerful links between intrapersonal and interpersonal factors and the wider social, legal, economic, political and cultural context of people's lives
    • understand the impact of injustice, social inequalities and oppressive social relations
    • challenge constructively individual, institutional and structural discrimination
    • practise in ways that maximise safety and effectiveness in situations of uncertainty and incomplete information
    • help people to gain, regain or maintain control of their own affairs, insofar as this is compatible with their own or others’ safety, well-being and rights
    • work in partnership with service users and carers and other professionals to foster dignity, choice and independence, and effect change.

    4.7 The expectation that social workers will be able to act effectively in such complex circumstances requires that honours degree programmes in social work should be designed to help students learn to become accountable, reflective, critical and evaluative. This involves learning to:

    • think critically about the complex social, legal, economic, political and cultural contexts in which social work practice is located
    • work in a transparent and responsible way, balancing autonomy with complex, multiple and sometimes contradictory accountabilities (for example, to different service users, employing agencies, professional bodies and the wider society)
    • exercise authority within complex frameworks of accountability and ethical and legal boundaries
    • acquire and apply the habits of critical reflection, self-evaluation and consultation, and make appropriate use of research in decision-making about practice and in the evaluation of outcomes.
    Subject Knowledge, Understanding and Skills
    Subject Knowledge and Understanding

    5.1 During their degree studies in social work, honours graduates should acquire, critically evaluate, apply and integrate knowledge and understanding in the following five core areas of study.

    5.1.1Social work services, service users and carers, which include:

    • the social processes (associated with, for example, poverty, migration, unemployment, poor health, disablement, lack of education and other sources of disadvantage) that lead to marginalisation, isolation and exclusion, and their impact on the demand for social work services
    • explanations of the links between definitional processes contributing to social differences (for example, social class, gender, ethnic differences, age, sexuality and religious belief) to the problems of inequality and differential need faced by service users
    • the nature of social work services in a diverse society (with particular reference to concepts such as prejudice, interpersonal, institutional and structural discrimination, empowerment and anti-discriminatory practices)
    • the nature and validity of different definitions of, and explanations for, the characteristics and circumstances of service users and the services required by them, drawing on knowledge from research, practice experience, and from service users and carers
    • the focus on outcomes, such as promoting the well-being of young people and their families, and promoting dignity, choice and independence for adults receiving services
    • the relationship between agency policies, legal requirements and professional boundaries in shaping the nature of services provided in interdisciplinary contexts and the issues associated with working across professional boundaries and within different disciplinary groups.

    5.1.2The service delivery context, which includes:

    • the location of contemporary social work within historical, comparative and global perspectives, including European and international contexts
    • the changing demography and cultures of communities in which social workers will be practising
    • the complex relationships between public, social and political philosophies, policies and priorities and the organisation and practice of social work, including the contested nature of these
    • the issues and trends in modern public and social policy and their relationship to contemporary practice and service delivery in social work
    • the significance of legislative and legal frameworks and service delivery standards (including the nature of legal authority, the application of legislation in practice, statutory accountability and tensions between statute, policy and practice)
    • the current range and appropriateness of statutory, voluntary and private agencies providing community-based, day-care, residential and other services and the organisational systems inherent within these
    • the significance of interrelationships with other related services, including housing, health, income maintenance and criminal justice (where not an integral social service)
    • the contribution of different approaches to management, leadership and quality in public and independent human services
    • the development of personalised services, individual budgets and direct payments
    • the implications of modern information and communications technology (ICT) for both the provision and receipt of services.

    5.1.3Values and ethics, which include:

    • the nature, historical evolution and application of social work values
    • the moral concepts of rights, responsibility, freedom, authority and power inherent in the practice of social workers as moral and statutory agents
    • the complex relationships between justice, care and control in social welfare and the practical and ethical implications of these, including roles as statutory agents and in upholding the law in respect of discrimination
    • aspects of philosophical ethics relevant to the understanding and resolution of value dilemmas and conflicts in both interpersonal and professional contexts
    • the conceptual links between codes defining ethical practice, the regulation of professional conduct and the management of potential conflicts generated by the codes held by different professional groups.

    5.1.4Social work theory, which includes:

    • research-based concepts and critical explanations from social work theory and other disciplines that contribute to the knowledge base of social work, including their distinctive epistemological status and application to practice
    • the relevance of sociological perspectives to understanding societal and structural influences on human behaviour at individual, group and community levels
    • the relevance of psychological, physical and physiological perspectives to understanding personal and social development and functioning
    • social science theories explaining group and organisational behaviour, adaptation and change
    • models and methods of assessment, including factors underpinning the selection and testing of relevant information, the nature of professional judgement and the processes of risk assessment and decision-making
    • approaches and methods of intervention in a range of settings, including factors guiding the choice and evaluation of these
    • user-led perspectives
    • knowledge and critical appraisal of relevant social research and evaluation methodologies, and the evidence base for social work.

    5.1.5The nature of social work practice, which includes:

    • the characteristics of practice in a range of community-based and organisational settings within statutory, voluntary and private sectors, and the factors influencing changes and developments in practice within these contexts
    • the nature and characteristics of skills associated with effective practice, both direct and indirect, with a range of service-users and in a variety of settings
    • the processes that facilitate and support service user choice and independence
    • the factors and processes that facilitate effective interdisciplinary, interprofessional and interagency collaboration and partnership
    • the place of theoretical perspectives and evidence from international research in assessment and decision-making processes in social work practice
    • the integration of theoretical perspectives and evidence from international research into the design and implementation of effective social work intervention, with a wide range of service users, carers and others
    • the processes of reflection and evaluation, including familiarity with the range of approaches for evaluating service and welfare outcomes, and their significance for the development of practice and the practitioner.
    Subject-Specific Skills and Other Skills

    5.2 As an applied subject at honours degree level, social work necessarily involves the development of skills that may be of value in many situations (for example, analytical thinking, building relationships, working as a member of an organisation, intervention, evaluation and reflection). Some of these skills are specific to social work but many are also widely transferable. What helps to define the specific nature of these skills in a social work context are:

    • the context in which they are applied and assessed (e.g., communication skills in practice with people with sensory impairments or assessment skills in an interprofessional setting)
    • the relative weighting given to such skills within social work practice (e.g., the central importance of problem-solving skills within complex human situations)
    • the specific purpose of skill development (e.g., the acquisition of research skills in order to build a repertoire of research-based practice)
    • a requirement to integrate a range of skills (i.e., not simply to demonstrate these in an isolated and incremental manner).

    5.3 All social work honours graduates should show the ability to reflect on and learn from the exercise of their skills. They should understand the significance of the concepts of continuing professional development and lifelong learning, and accept responsibility for their own continuing development.

    5.4 Social work honours graduates should acquire and integrate skills in the following five core areas.

    Problem-Solving Skills

    5.5 These are subdivided into four areas.

    5.5.1Managing problem-solving activities: honours graduates in social work should be able to plan problem-solving activities, i.e. to:

    • think logically, systematically, critically and reflectively
    • apply ethical principles and practices critically in planning problem-solving activities
    • plan a sequence of actions to achieve specified objectives, making use of research, theory and other forms of evidence
    • manage processes of change, drawing on research, theory and other forms of evidence.

    5.5.2 Gathering information: honours graduates in social work should be able to:

    • gather information from a wide range of sources and by a variety of methods, for a range of purposes. These methods should include electronic searches, reviews of relevant literature, policy and procedures, face-to-face interviews, written and telephone contact with individuals and groups
    • take into account differences of viewpoint in gathering information and critically assess the reliability and relevance of the information gathered
    • assimilate and disseminate relevant information in reports and case records.

    5.5.3Analysis and synthesis: honours graduates in social work should be able to analyse and synthesise knowledge gathered for problem-solving purposes, i.e. to:

    • assess human situations, taking into account a variety of factors (including the views of participants, theoretical concepts, research evidence, legislation and organisational policies and procedures)
    • analyse information gathered, weighing competing evidence and modifying their viewpoint in light of new information, then relate this information to a particular task, situation or problem
    • consider specific factors relevant to social work practice (such as risk, rights, cultural differences and linguistic sensitivities, responsibilities to protect vulnerable individuals and legal obligations)
    • assess the merits of contrasting theories, explanations, research, policies and procedures
    • synthesise knowledge and sustain reasoned argument
    • employ a critical understanding of human agency at the macro (societal), mezzo (organisational and community) and micro (inter- and intrapersonal) levels
    • critically analyse and take account of the impact of inequality and discrimination in work with people in particular contexts and problem situations.

    5.5.4Intervention and evaluation: honours graduates in social work should be able to use their knowledge of a range of interventions and evaluation processes selectively to:

    • build and sustain purposeful relationships with people and organisations in community-based, and interprofessional contexts
    • make decisions, set goals and construct specific plans to achieve these, taking into account relevant factors including ethical guidelines
    • negotiate goals and plans with others, analysing and addressing in a creative manner human, organisational and structural impediments to change
    • implement plans through a variety of systematic processes that include working in partnership
    • undertake practice in a manner that promotes the well-being and protects the safety of all parties
    • engage effectively in conflict resolution
    • support service users to take decisions and access services, with the social worker as navigator, advocate and supporter
    • manage the complex dynamics of dependency and, in some settings, provide direct care and personal support in everyday living situations
    • meet deadlines and comply with external definitions of a task
    • plan, implement and critically review processes and outcomes
    • bring work to an effective conclusion, taking into account the implications for all involved
    • monitor situations, review processes and evaluate outcomes
    • use and evaluate methods of intervention critically and reflectively.
    Communication Skills

    5.6 Honours graduates in social work should be able to communicate clearly, accurately and precisely (in an appropriate medium) with individuals and groups in a range of formal and informal situations, i.e. to:

    • make effective contact with individuals and organisations for a range of objectives, by verbal, paper-based and electronic means
    • clarify and negotiate the purpose of such contacts and the boundaries of their involvement
    • listen actively to others, engage appropriately with the life experiences of service users, understand accurately their viewpoint and overcome personal prejudices to respond appropriately to a range of complex personal and interpersonal situations
    • use both verbal and non-verbal cues to guide interpretation
    • identify and use opportunities for purposeful and supportive communication with service users within their everyday living situations
    • follow and develop an argument and evaluate the viewpoints of, and evidence presented by, others
    • write accurately and clearly in styles adapted to the audience, purpose and context of the communication
    • use advocacy skills to promote others’ rights, interests and needs
    • present conclusions verbally and on paper, in a structured form, appropriate to the audience for which these have been prepared
    • make effective preparation for, and lead meetings in a productive way
    • communicate effectively across potential barriers resulting from differences (for example, in culture, language and age).
    Skills in Working with Others

    5.7 Honours graduates in social work should be able to work effectively with others, i.e. to:

    • involve users of social work services in ways that increase their resources, capacity and power to influence factors affecting their lives
    • consult actively with others, including service users and carers, who hold relevant information or expertise
    • act cooperatively with others, liaising and negotiating across differences such as organisational and professional boundaries and differences of identity or language
    • develop effective helping relationships and partnerships with other individuals, groups and organisations that facilitate change
    • act with others to increase social justice by identifying and responding to prejudice, institutional discrimination and structural inequality
    • act within a framework of multiple accountability (for example, to agencies, the public, service users, carers and others)
    • challenge others when necessary, in ways that are most likely to produce positive outcomes.
    Skills in Personal and Professional Development

    5.8 Honours graduates in social work should be able to:

    • advance their own learning and understanding with a degree of independence
    • reflect on and modify their behaviour in the light of experience
    • identify and keep under review their own personal and professional boundaries
    • manage uncertainty, change and stress in work situations
    • handle inter- and intrapersonal conflict constructively
    • understand and manage changing situations and respond in a flexible manner
    • challenge unacceptable practices in a responsible manner
    • take responsibility for their own further and continuing acquisition and use of knowledge and skills
    • use research critically and effectively to sustain and develop their practice.
    ICT and Numerical Skills

    5.9 Honours graduates in social work should be able to use ICT methods and techniques to support their learning and their practice. In particular, they should demonstrate the ability to:

    • use ICT effectively for professional communication, data storage and retrieval, and information searching
    • use ICT in working with people who use services
    • demonstrate sufficient familiarity with statistical techniques to enable effective use of research in practice
    • integrate appropriate use of ICT to enhance skills in problem-solving in the four areas set out in paragraph 6.2
    • apply numerical skills to financial and budgetary responsibilities
    • have a critical understanding of the social impact of ICT, including an awareness of the impact of the ‘digital divide’.
    Teaching, Learning and Assessment

    6.1 At honours degree level, social work programmes explicitly recognise and maximise the use of students’ prior learning and experience. Acquisition and development of the required knowledge and skills, capable of transfer to new situations and of further enhancement, mark important staging posts in the process of lifelong learning. Social work models of learning are characteristically developmental and incremental (i.e., students are expected to assume increasing responsibility for identifying their own learning needs and making use of available resources for learning). The context of learning should take account of the impact of the Bologna Process and transnational learning. The overall aims and expected final outcomes of the honours degree, together with the specific requirements of particular topics, modules or practice experiences, should inform the choice of both learning and teaching strategies and aligned formative and summative assessment methods.

    6.2 The learning processes in social work at honours degree level can be expressed in terms of four interrelated themes.

    • Awareness raising, skills and knowledge acquisition – a process in which the student becomes more aware of aspects of knowledge and expertise, learns how to systematically engage with and acquire new areas of knowledge, recognises their potential and becomes motivated to engage in new ways of thinking and acting.
    • Conceptual understanding – a process in which a student acquires, examines critically and deepens understanding (measured and tested against existing knowledge and adjustments made in attitudes and goals).
    • Practice skills and experience – processes in which a student learns practice skills in the contexts identified in paragraph 4.4 and applies theoretical models and research evidence together with new understanding to relevant activities, and receives feedback from various sources on performance, enhancing openness to critical self-evaluation.
    • Reflection on performance – a process in which a student reflects critically and evaluatively on past experience, recent performance and feedback, and applies this information to the process of integrating awareness (including awareness of the impact of self on others) and new understanding, leading to improved performance.

    6.3 Honours degree programmes in social work acknowledge that students learn at different rates and in diverse ways, and learn best when there is consistent and timely guidance and a variety of learning opportunities. Programmes should provide clear and accessible information about learning approaches, methods and outcomes that enable students to engage with diverse learning and teaching methods in learning settings across academic and practice environments.

    6.4 Approaches to support blended learning should include the use of ICT to access data, literature and resources, as well as engagement with technologies to support communication and reflection, and sharing of learning across academic and practice learning settings.

    6.5 Learning methods may include:

    • learner-focused approaches that encourage active participation and staged, progressive learning throughout the degree
    • the establishment of initial learning needs and the formulation of learning plans
    • the development of learning networks, enabling students to learn from each other
    • the involvement of practitioners and service user and carer educators.

    6.6 Students should engage in a broad range of activities, including with other professionals and with service users and carers, to facilitate critical reflection. These include reading, self-directed study, research, a variety of forms of writing, lectures, discussion, seminars/tutorials, individual and group work, role plays, presentations, projects, simulations and practice experience.

    6.7 Assessment strategies should show alignment between, and relevance to, social work practice, theory and assessment tasks. They should also be matched with learning outcomes and learning and teaching methods. The purpose of assessment is to:

    • provide a means whereby students receive feedback regularly on their achievement and development needs
    • provide tasks that promote learning, and develop and test cognitive skills, drawing on a range of sources, including the contexts of practice
    • promote self-evaluation, and appraisal of their progress and learning strategies
    • enable judgements to be made in relation to progress and to ensure fitness for practice, and the award, in line with professional standards.

    6.8 Assessment strategies should be chosen to enhance students’ abilities to conceptualise, compare and analyse issues, in order to be able to apply this in making professional judgements.

    6.9 Assessment methods normally include case-based assessments, presentations and analyses, practice-focused assignments, essays, project reports, role plays/simulations, e-assessment and examinations. The requirements of honours degree programmes insocial work frequently include an extended piece of written work, which may be practice-based, and is typically undertaken in the final year. This may involve independent study for either a dissertation or a project, based upon systematic enquiry and investigation. However, the requirements of research governance may restrict opportunities available to students for research involving human subjects. Where practice competences have to be assessed, as identified through national occupational standards or equivalent, opportunities should be provided for demonstration of these, together with systematic means of development, support and assessment. Assessment methods may include those listed above, in addition to observed practice, reflective logs and interview records.

    6.10 Honours degree programmes in social work assess practice not as a series of discrete practical tasks, but as an integration of skills and knowledge with relevant conceptual understanding. This assessment should, therefore, contain elements that test students’ critical and analytical reflective analysis. As the honours degree is an integrated academic and professional award, the failure of any core element, including assessed practice, will mean failure of the programme.

    7 Benchmark Standards

    7.1 Given the essentially applied nature of social work and the co-terminosity of the degree and the professional award, students must demonstrate that they have met the standards specified in relation to both academic and practice capabilities. These standards relate to subject-specific knowledge, understanding and skills (including key skills inherent in the concept of ‘graduateness’). Qualifying students will be expected to meet each of these standards in accordance with the specific standards set by the relevant country (see section 2).

    Typical Graduate

    7.2 Levels of attainment will vary along a continuum from the threshold to excellence. This level represents that of typical students graduating with an honours degree in social work.

    Knowledge and Understanding

    7.3 On graduating with an honours degree in social work, students should be able to demonstrate:

    • a sound understanding of the five core areas of knowledge and understanding relevant to social work, as detailed in paragraph 5.1, including their application to practice and service delivery
    • an ability to use this knowledge and understanding in an integrated way, in specific practice contexts
    • an ability to use this knowledge and understanding to engage in effective relationships with service users and carers
    • appraisal of previous learning and experience and ability to incorporate this into their future learning and practice
    • acknowledgement and understanding of the potential and limitations of social work as a practice-based discipline to effect individual and social change
    • an ability to use research and enquiry techniques with reflective awareness, to collect, analyse and interpret relevant information
    • a developed capacity for the critical evaluation of knowledge and evidence from a range of sources.
    Subject-Specific and Other Skills

    7.4 On graduating with an honours degree in social work, students should be able to demonstrate a developed capacity to:

    • apply creatively a repertoire of core skills as detailed in section 5
    • communicate effectively with service users and carers, and with other professionals
    • integrate clear understanding of ethical issues and codes of values, and practice with their interventions in specific situations
    • consistently exercise an appropriate level of autonomy and initiative in individual decision-making within the context of supervisory, collaborative, ethical and organisational requirements
    • demonstrate habits of critical reflection on their performance and take responsibility for modifying action in light of this.


    Affective domain

    To do with emotion, judgement, character and conscience. Those skills that involve awareness, differentiation and integration and are associated with feelings and the ability to synthesise learning.


    Giving or receiving agreement, or persuading another that they are favoured.


    Practice that seeks to recognise and counter the making of unjust distinctions and selections for giving out unfavourable treatment often practised by the more powerful against the less powerful. Numerous acts of discrimination over time lead to oppressive practice.


    The act of adding notes to a text to aid your own understanding or to prompt further research.


    Practice that seeks to recognise and counter the experience of injustice brought about by being kept in subservience by the coercion of those more powerful.


    One or more premises given in support of a conclusion.

    Aspirational learning

    Having a view about your own motivation, responsibility, drive, determination and confidence to believe that you will achieve. Knowing that you will never cease learning and that you need to develop strategies for transforming and enhancing your current position. This technique is also useful in working with service users who have low self-esteem.


    Something that is taken for granted in, say, an argument, or a discourse or a case you are working with. For example, the claim that in debates about lone parenting, mothers are more commonly blamed for delinquency in their children, then the text would readIt is axiomatic that mothers are seen to be responsible for delinquency in their children.


    The way older and disabled people have to prolong their stay in hospital while waiting for social care arrangements to be put in place ready for their discharge.


    Overused, worn-out, tacky phrases often making you cringe. They waste words in assignments because they never lead the argument forward or add anything of interest to the text.

    Cognitive ability See Cognitive domain.

    Cognitive domain

    To do with fact, knowledge, understanding and application. Those skills that involve describing, comparing and contrasting, and are associated with abilities of the mind.


    Having a logical flow of ideas that link themes in a meaningful way.

    Commissioning services

    The act of buying services for service users following a process of assessment, brokerage and evaluation. This process may involve putting out aservice specification for tendering, securing individual or block purchases and considering added value. This process can be carried out by agency commissioners, care managers or devolved to individual social workers.


    Using words and phrases that assume we all agree with the writer.


    Describes a situation where the focus remains constant and does not go off at a tangent.


    The circumstances under which the text was written or an event has happened.

    Critical learning

    Learning that integrates knowledge, analysis, synthesis and the ability to reframe ideas and debate, values and beliefs in order to challenge existing views. In social work the term can be usefully applied to an understanding of social constructionism, and how political, social and economic factors impact on individual and cultural experiences.

    Critical practice

    Practice that goes beyond the functional requirements of social work to include a wider understanding of the social construction of public and personal problems. This may also include a critique of policy, discourse analysis, practice that is anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive, and a commitment to working professionally to achieve as good an outcome as possible.

    Critical sources

    These are texts (or erudite individuals) that are considered to be authoritative within your discipline area.


    A statement that is easily proved by reference to another.

    Deductive reasoning

    Drawing one conclusion by considering many positions.


    Consists of similar thoughts and ideas on a topic. In social work terms, the discourse may be beneficial as in the case of the protection of children; or detrimental as in the vilification of sex workers.

    Economic rationality

    Used in this text, it embraces the idea of supporting people to return to work and therefore relinquish income maintenance and having the benefit of paying into the country's tax system rather than drawing benefits from it. It is therefore seen as economically rational to reassess the long-term unemployed and disabled people in order that they contribute to the capitalist system rather than extract from it. These actions are often framed in a facilitative discourse by government yet felt as punitive by those they affect.

    Emancipatory paradigm

    Being transformational in that any representation of views stems from those who are disadvantaged rather than by powerful structures that discriminate against them. The emancipatory strategy, research or discourse would therefore seat the views and experiences of these people above those of the funders, medical personnel or social workers carrying out the research.

    Emotional confusion

    Feeling paralysed in thinking and acting because you are unable to evaluate a clear outcome. This can happen when the care and control agendas of social work seem unyielding to analysis.

    Emotional intelligence

    More than academic theory, knowledge and experience, EI is the capacity for recognising ourselves as ‘agents’ in understanding the constant interplay withothers, with our own motivational activities, and in mediation and advocacy in the promotion of effective action.

    Excavation of argument

    The ways one can either support or refute arguments. This method involves the marshalling of premises, evidence, statements and assertions to promote or deny an argument. An example would be refuting the argument for the right to life as against the right to choose an abortion on the basis that the first is based on a discourse that is hugely influenced by money from the Catholic Church. The process involves digging into the reasons for the many protests supporting the right to life.


    An example that is considered to be an excellent guide to others. A very insightful reflective practice narrative, as included in this book, would act as an exemplar to those reading it.


    The truth backed by evidence that something has happened or will happen or a statistic demonstrated by evidence.

    Fit for purpose

    Suitable for the work. This term can mean that something or someone is only meeting a minimal sufficiency in their work, rather like good-enough parenting.

    Future basing

    Using a system to think yourself forward and imagine your changed situation. This might be used to plan your personal or professional development or to deal with organisational change. It is often a management tool but is also useful in practice in helping service users to transform their situations.


    In social work the concept that exclusion, human rights and oppression are involved in aspects of social policy and political values that shift over time depending on world movements. Examples would be the rights of women, immigration, affirmative action, the People First movement.


    The French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu applied this term to the social sphere to mean all a person's dispositions, habits, tastes, values and beliefs as they navigate their way through the objectivity of formal life and rules, and the subjectivity of making judgements and choices. In doing this the essential qualities of the individual are influenced by their socialisation and experiences in a way that becomes cyclical in the making of those essential qualities. So by acting in certain ways under the influence of who we are, the essence of who we are changes through that experience.


    The way in which powerful groups maintain their power over those less powerful. This can refer to nations, e.g. Britain during the time of its former colonies, or organisations, e.g. the police and judiciary.

    Helicopter view

    One of the de Bono tools that encourages you to rise above current disarray and confusion to see the whole picture. This is a useful way of making order out of chaos and can be represented by visual means.

    Hidden agenda

    An ulterior motive behind some action.


    A tentative explanation for something.

    Inductive reasoning

    Taking one idea and expanding it to consider all the implications.


    The idea that there are tacit agreements and consensus between people; people having the same professional status, experiences, class position, for example. An understanding of intersubjectivity may help in using persuasion in the light of conflict, in advocating for an oppressed person or group and in establishing improved working relationships between professionals.


    Distinguishing between good and bad reasoning used to form a view or conclusion about something.


    Language having particular and discrete meaning for professionals that can act to exclude those not in that profession. Educational, medical, philosophical and social work language can sometimes unintentionally do this.


    Provide two or more opposing or different positions from which to make your case. This causes you to look at the strengths and weakness of an issue but also to imagine alternatives.

    Medical model

    A discourse instigating thinking that focuses on medical aspects of people's lives. People are seen as a collection of their symptoms to be cured and when this is not possible the system is unable to support them further than their diagnosis.


    Planning, maintaining and evaluating the self in action. Understanding how you think and working on this to improve.


    Using words imaginatively rather than literally to apply to ideas. For example, your learning journey where you use the idea of going from one island to another. Some may express their progress as in a speedboat reaching the other island quickly while others are using a row boat, have lost the oars and hit fog and rocks.

    Mission statement

    Usually a brief statement of intent that encompasses the intention of an organisation to provide its services in a certain way to certain types of people. Generally, these statements appear to be hearts and flowers promising an all-inclusive and overarching service to users without stating that there may be a charging policy or eligibility criteria.


    Involving professionals from several different disciplines. A school may use such an approach by employing teachers, health visitors, social workers and educational psychologists.


    Outside the statutory sector of service provision. The term can mean a charitable organisation or one that covers its outgoings without intending to make a surplus profit.


    A view of something based on personal judgement.

    Oppositional binary

    Ways of thinking that give voice to the situation and experience of the less powerful. These challenge the taken-for-granted consensus view of the powerful as contentious and needing revision in favour of the oppressed.


    The supporting claim (statement) in an argument.

    Political correctness

    A term used to indicate an awareness of how disadvantage is promulgated by those with power and a determination to change the assumed natural orderthrough challenge on political grounds that recognises oppressive histories and experiences. Although of sound roots, the term PC is often used pejoratively to derail activist intentions and actions.


    A collection of tangible artefacts for a focused purpose. In social work this term is often applied to written contributions kept in a file for professional education and training purposes. Increasingly e-portfolios are replacing paper copies. The inclusion of practice reflections, learning experiences, recordings of influential interviews, visual representations of learning and eureka moments give depth to the portfolio.


    To become more critical in how you think about an issue. Note that the use of this word in social work does not mean to make something a problem but to interrogate it so that you understand all its nuances and implications.

    Professional artistry

    The opposite oftechnical rationalism. Using reflective and reflexive practice, feelings, imagination, intuition, critical thinking and reasoning to practise, evaluate, analyse and make judgements. Having consideration for all the human elements that are involved in working within the caring professions and that are uncontrollable, shifting and subject to interpretation.


    One who is the leading proponent of a cause being the central orator.


    Logical thinking in order to get results or reach a conclusion.

    Reflective practice

    Generally, a retrospective activity where one thinks about some experience with a view to gaining deeper understanding resulting in improved practice. Social work students are often asked to write a critique to expose dilemmas and tensions in their practice. Schön describes reflection as being both on action and in action, the first being retrospective and the second during the event.

    Reflexive practice

    Simply the act of delaying the immediate reaction to an event in order to think through the implications. At a deeper level the notion that in thinking through we reform our values and beliefs about an issue and that this in turn goes on to influence our practice. Some social work writers believe that reflective practice can also do this if taken to deeper levels.


    Persuasive techniques used to convince the reader, often sounding pompous.


    Comparing one thing with another, e.g. ‘as slippery as an eel’.


    Those with an interest in the social work field. They can be social workers, employers, social care workers, service users and their carers. Peripheral stakeholders would be healthcare professionals, the media, the judiciary, elected members of council.

    Social capital

    The idea that people have status, acceptance within communities, that their life experiences are validated and that they have some power and agency to effect changes in their lives.

    Social construction

    Normally the idea that what we assume are givens in any society are actually constructed by powerful opinion-makers and are subject to change over time. Some ideas might be about the social construction of childhood, ageing and immigration, in fashion architecture and the setting of spurious rules of prior requirements in educational courses.

    Social model

    A discourse focusing on the physical, social and attitudinal barriers that exist for people who experience ill health, disability and disadvantage. This may mean the artificial creation of physical barriers to access or the assumption about people's intellect, capabilities and possibilities. Some examples include the right of disabled people to have children, who may also be disabled, the siting of polling stations in rooms with steps or narrow doors and corridors, the creation of uneven floor surfaces.


    An oversimplified view of one or a group held by another or group of others.

    Strategic learning

    The ability to use both deep and surface-level learning to best effect, so you may skim-read some texts yet focus on the minutiae of others.


    The flow of an article which sets the intention, leads the discussion logically and ends with a coherent conclusion.


    Stemming from an individual perception that may include both conscious and unconscious interpretations. Not seen as scientifically unbiased but open to the ‘social noise’ of the human interpreter.

    Technical rationalism

    The idea that theoretical applications result in certainty, prediction and control. Such an idea is manifested in managerialism in social work. The notion that if work is made the subject of functional management such as form-filling and tick-list assessment, for example, that associated with a risk analysis, the outcome will be predictable. The opposite of professional artistry.

    Transformational social work

    That which stimulates a radical change in understanding and practice with application to social work. Often this is achieved through eureka moments where concepts such as discourse analysis, social constructionism and the mechanisms for the development of social capital are realised. It may also be realised at a lower level where the synthesis between theory, practice and knowledge-making come to be understood.


    A description of work that is sound and defensible.

    Virtuous social work

    Practising in the best possible way because to do otherwise would leave you feeling uncomfortable and unprofessional, regardless of whether you are under scrutiny.


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