In Social Work education, as with many other subjects in higher education, we spend a lot of time talking to students about reflection, reflective practice and reflexivity. Our learners are introduced early in Year One to various tools for reflection such as Kolb’s Learning Circle and Gibbs Reflective Cycle (Kolb, 1984. Gibbs, 1988). On the whole students tend to understand very quickly why reflective practice is important as well as why they will need to develop a set of tools to aid reflection and to create embedded habits of reflection into social work practice. It is not too long before students are then introduced to the concept of reflection in action as opposed to reflection on action. Schon distinguished between these activities in order to highlight the importance of developing the skill of being able to stand back and consider one’s actions while in the midst of those actions rather than simply reviewing what went well and what went not so well after the event. (Schon, 1983). Reflection in action is a highly skilled activity because of the fact that it requires us to have a focus on what we are doing at the same time as keeping some focus on reviewing what we are doing.
Skilled use of reflection in action allows practitioners to change direction in the midst of an activity in order to undertake better and more appropriate practice right in the here and now rather than doing things differently next time we find ourselves in a similar situation. In order to give an example of the value of reflection in action I tell students from time to time that as a teacher and lecturer I endeavour to have a dual focus during any teaching session by continually asking myself the question ‘How is this going?’ This allows me to change tack if my original plan is not working in the way that I had planned. The jump from reflection on action to reflection in action is I believe a very considerable one, it requires the development of a range of skills that take time and practice to master. Students undertaking the BA Social Work are required to undertake 2 assessed practice placements in their second and third years respectively. One lasts for 80 days and one for 90. During these placements’ students are supervised by qualified practitioners to carry out real social work with real service users. If they can learn to reflect in action as well as on action then they will learn faster, more quickly spot their mistakes and develop more flexible approaches to their practice.
It was with all of the above in mind that I developed the Record, Pause, Rewind technique. The technique was a development of one I had experienced as a learner on an Advanced Communication Skills programme (LOROS, 2018). During this course the learners undertook ‘counselling type’ interventions with clients who were played by actors. Each counselling intervention was videoed, and the facilitator would stop the action to rewind the video from time to time so that everyone could consider what was happening, what was working well and what was not. It was a useful technique and it helped me to consider whether the video equipment was actually necessary. What if everyone was simply asked to imagine that the action was being videoed? What if I as facilitator, could simply say ‘pause’ at any point and ask everyone to consider what is working well, what is working not so well and what might be done differently. What if the student taking on the counsellor role could say ‘pause, I need some help’ at any point? What if the other students who were watching could say ‘pause I have an observation to make’ at any point? I also asked myself whether I needed real actors or whether my colleagues could take on the client roles? So that is what I have done. Each ‘pause’ allows me and my students to discuss what has happened and what is happening. It allows us to highlight examples of excellent practice and examples of where things started to go awry. It also allows us to ‘rewind’ and see what happens if things are done differently. Further it allows other students to step into the ‘hot seat’ and see what happens if they try out their suggestions. And we can even ask the actor in client role to say what they think and feel about the practice of the student taking on the role of counsellor.
Once I started to put this method into effect, I was staggered by how well it worked. First of all, there was the surprise of the number of students who commented on how real it felt to undertake the counselling role and to witness it as an observer. Then there have been the number of comments from students about how different it is to have a theoretical understanding of what to do in practice compared to the realities of actually undertaking practice, albeit in this ‘artificial’ environment. And as I tell students over and over, this method gives them the opportunity to make mistakes and to learn in a completely safe environment without the danger of doing any harm to real clients.
There have been other significant discoveries for me. If I teach counselling and communication skills from a purely theoretical perspective, students can present as more competent than they actually are. If for example I am trying to explain the importance of being able to tolerate a client’s distress, I may well have the impression that the majority of students in the class would be able to simply listen with compassion to a client’s story. The truth is that very few Year 1 and Year 2 students can deal with a really distressed client and so they will quickly try to offer solutions or bombard the client with questions when faced with the reality of a distressed person. In a classroom discussion it is easy to pontificate on how one would listen compassionately to a recently bereaved person, when faced with someone in genuine pain students all too frequently need to move the conversation on because it is simply too uncomfortable. And often the students who are most competent in this classroom practice are not the same students as those who receive 70%+ for their academic assignments. This is valuable for all parties to discover.
Another surprise discovery has been that the technique allows me to quickly assess how well-developed students’ skills are. Therefore, the focus of any session relates directly to the skills students need to learn and I have come to see that my colleagues are able to undertake the client role acting a part I have briefed them to undertake. Importantly I have come to realise that the technique not only allows students to develop counselling and communication skills, it also helps them to become more reflective. Some people will ask how students feel about taking on the counselling role in these sessions. Do they feel nervous or threatened? Responses show that they do, but I take time to ask them to consider that the aim is. This is not to expose their weaknesses but to assist all of us to learn together, producing a ‘high challenge but high support activity’ (Sanford, 1962). The value of ‘high challenge, high support scaffolding’ has been highlighted by Mariani (1997) and more recently by Wilson (2014). I ask students to consider the fact that any mistakes will not have any impact on the real life of a client and therefore it is an opportunity to be embraced.
My experience has been that students are happy with this introduction and embrace the activity, putting aside their own vulnerability because of the high support offered. When I was undertaking my own counselling training I was introduced to the idea that our imaginations are ‘reality simulators’, that one of the major benefits of the human brain is that it allows us to use our imaginations to rehearse how things may turn out given a particular course of action. (Griffin and Tyrrell, 2013). This technique utilises this principle of reality simulation to assist significant learning to take place. Certainly, student feedback would suggest that it does so successfully. Student feedback obtained via standardised university feedback forms has provided evidence that a majority of students undertaking the module in which the technique was used found it to have enhanced their counselling skills. There is a need for more detailed and comprehensive collection of quantitative.
To find out more please contact: Gavin Jinks, Lecturer in Social & Community Studies. G.Jinks@derby.ac.uk
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