• Podsoc #22

Critical Reflection:

In conversation with Jan Fook

[Transcript found in the tab below]

Reflecting on what we do is an important aspect of competent practice and important to ongoing professional development and supervision. A critical approach encourages a deeper process. Jan Fook talks to us about her work on critical reflection.

Jan Fook was born and raised in Australia, but in the later part of her career has worked in the UK, Norway and Canada. She is currently Professor and Director of the School of Social Work at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Immediately prior to this however she was Professor of Professional Practice Research and Director of the Interprofessional Institute at the South West London Academic Network (Royal Holloway, St Georges (University of London) and Kingston University). She has also held professorial positions at the University of Southampton, Diakonjhemmet College (Oslo) and La Trobe and Deakin University.

Her earlier work was mainly in the arena of critical social work, and her professional reputation was established in this area. However in the second part of her career she has broadened her interests, working particularly now in critical reflection, which has wide applicability to many professions. Her research and professional work currently focuses on critical reflection and its development, both theoretically and as a research methodology. In this second edition of critical social work she has been able to bring these other traditions into play in developing critical perspectives on social work.

She now travels extensively providing training in critical reflection. Her books include: Radical Casework (Allen & Unwin); Professional Expertise (with Martin Ryan & Linette Hawkins, Whiting & Birch); Social Work: Critical Theory and Practice 1st ed. (Sage), and Practising Critical Reflection (with Fiona Gardner, Open University Press). Critical Reflection in Context: Specific Applications in Health and Social Care (with Fiona Gardner, Routledge) is due out before the end of 2012.

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Interviewer). (2012, September 6) Critical Reflection: In conversation with Jan Fook [Episode 22]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/critical-reflection/.

Back to main page
  2. Transcript

Transcription Podsocs 22: Critical Reflection: In Conversation with Jan Fook

Thank you to Chantal Meadlarkin for this transcript

[musical intro to 00.10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.

Trish: Hello Podsocsers, we have Jan Fook on Podsocs today and she’s going to be talking to us about reflective practice.

Trish: Jan it’s lovely to have you on Podsocs, welcome.

Jan: Same here Tricia, nice to talk to you.

Trish: And you’re talking to us from Halifax, in Canada

Jan: Yeah near Halifax it’s in Nova Scotia and I live about an hour from my work which is in Halifax so I’m actually right out in the country at the moment in rural Nova Scotia.

Trish: A long way away even though you’re an Aussie.

Jan: Yeah so, I’m having quite an interesting time traveling around because you probably know I spent the last five years or so in the UK so I’m trying to see how far I can get away from Australia it looks like.


Trish: Now Jan, we’re talking today about critical reflection. How did you first get interested in that area?

Jan: I think Tricia, it goes back about nearly 20 years now. I was asked to develop a master’s course in advanced social work practice and I had been teaching social work practice and theory for a good part of my career before then but at Bachelor level and so I was a bit stymied as to how to teach it at a more advanced level. And then someone introduced me to the work of Donald Schön and I became really interested in looking at how we teach practitioners more about practice by developing their own theory from their practice. Ah, so it gave a very different paradigm, I guess for, um, looking at how people make practice theory rather than teaching the theory from top down. And so we designed the course around people bringing examples of their own practice and then helping them reflect on that. And of course, I became completely intrigued by hearing stories of practice and then the fascination was how to you then create theory out of that and I’ve never looked back. I have to say I just became so much more energised about social work and its practice and the stories we never normally hear, particularly in an academic setting. So, uh, I was hooked Tricia, after that.

Trish: So, what’s the difference between critical reflection and reflective practice? Because often those two terms are thrown around interchangeably.

Jan: yeah absolutely they are, so this is a very good question and the third term I should say that is often flung in there is critical analysis or critical thinking but if you look closely at those three terms there’s the whole idea of critical, the whole idea of reflection and then how it gets put into practice. So, I tend now, to talk about critical reflection because I’m interested in both those aspects whereas I think reflective practice is more talking about how you get the theory from practice. The critical bit is much more of the theoretical framework, if you like, and for me that comes from a social science perspective, so we’re really talking about trying to understand how domination gets pulled into practice, through all of the different ways of thinking. You know, the cultural ways of acting etcetera. The reflection bit is more about understanding how your own learning comes from your own experience. So, when I put critical reflection together I’m talking about how your understanding of how power and domination works comes together through your own experience. And once you understand how that has an effect in your experience it gives meaning to your experience, but it also allows you to change that experience. So critical reflection to me is about, it’s a transformative process, if you like, whereas reflective practice doesn’t necessarily have to be transformative because it depends on the theoretical frameworks you use to understand your experience.

Trish: So, the critical aspect, does that include the structural elements of how society affects people as well?

Jan: Yeah, absolutely, it puts all, um, when I say – looking at how domination happens, that includes the structural, it also includes cultural. So, when I say structural I’m talking about in the institutions in society like gender, class, family etcetera. When I say cultural I’m talking about the beliefs and behaviours that are associated with maintaining those structures. And actually, you need an understanding of it all I think in order to understand how it plays out in your own experience. So, commonly, we would say that critical analysis or critical thinking normally involves using that kind of framework to understand society, understand yourself and your place in it and how they link. It becomes critical reflection when you’re able to link that through an understanding of your own experience, so the experience bit would incorporate emotions for instance. It would incorporate personal meaning, it would incorporate your own thoughts. Whereas, when we talk about critical analysis it tends to be just much more of an intellectual framework that we graft onto whatever we see around us. So critical reflection from that point of view is a much more um, complex way of understanding ourselves in relation to our own worlds. Whereas, if you just talk about the structural analysis you see, it’s not going to incorporate the emotions for instance or your own personal meaning.

Trish: So, it’s bringing together those broader elements, the very personal elements, the thinking and the emotion together?

Jan: Yes, along with your structural analysis

Trish: Mmm, is….

Jan: And that, that makes it difficult I think Tricia

Trish: Yes

Jan: That’s what’s hard for people to get.

Trish: Yeah that’s what I was just about to say, that I think, when you’re working with people on an individual level it can be sometimes difficult to understand those broader influences on what’s happening to an individual person

Jan: Absolutely, and you know I think the way that we traditionally approach our study, you know we tend to divide things up, so psychology is supposed to be about whatever is personal and the internal dynamics etcetera, and sociology is supposed to be about the external environment. Well in fact, if you look at people’s experience, it doesn’t work in a divided way like that it all comes together. And I think part of the problem for social workers is that we’ve tended to think well if we’re going to work with people we need theories about the personal and then we don’t understand how the structural fits with that and so they get divided off. So, we tend to do like counselling or clinical work or case work as opposed to doing community work or social action if we’re working in society. But of course, all social workers know, that in most jobs you’ve got to bring it all together, but how you do that on a micro basis is very difficult.

Trish: So, is there a series of steps, to be able to do critical reflection well?

Jan: Yes, there um, there are. There’s a mountain of literature of course, on this as you and everyone who’s listening will know. What I’ve tried to do with my work is put it into a process that is reasonably clear, intellectually. So, I’ve tried to spell out what it is clearly and how you do it. And then of course, it needs a lot of practice but, but in a nutshell, in my model, how it’s done is there are two stages and the framework is roughly that first we’re looking to simply reflect on the practice. So, we’re looking for what the assumptions are underneath what people say about what they do. So, what are they assuming in their story of their practice? That’s the first thing we do so the technique is simply to help them look for assumptions. And normally when I do that, that’s in a small group where each person takes a turn to do that and the whole group helps them. And there can be a series of questions that can help with that, you know like you know “What do you think is behind this” “I wonder what that was about for you?” that sort of thing. And at the end of that first stage, I say we’re trying to get to a point where we’ve uncovered what some of the deeper assumptions might be for that person. Then I say that we should go to a second stage which is putting it back together so in other words now that they’re aware what some of the deeper assumptions are, how does this change the way they think they need to think about it? How does it change the way they think they need to practice? And what would that look like? So, the second stage is putting it back together now in terms of how they might practice differently. And I like to label that second stage as the stage where they are making their theory of practice. So, the first stage is the breaking down, the second stage is the putting back together and people do tend to enjoy the process, but they do say it’s very hard.

Trish: Yes, I was wondering how much resistance there might be in that, revealing of, of your assumptions.

Jan: Yeah, I think it an emotionally tough thing to do, Tricia, so, uh. It’s probably not so much conscious resistance, because normally when people practice the model I introduce it, one with a framework but two, with some cultural principles we like to follow which I call an ethical climate, so I talk about needing to be prepared to be vulnerable etc. So, people normally consciously sign up to that...

Trish:mm hmm
Jan: But it’s quite hard to do it when you do, do it because we’re not used to being vulnerable in front of colleagues, particularly not in professional or academic settings. So, it just takes some practice I think, and it takes the group to be sensitive to helping people do that. And it’s about kind of saying to people, you know, the more vulnerable you are the more you may learn. So, the more risk you take the more you may stand to get out of it. So, people have to commit to some degree to that process and I do find that people do. It’s just that it’s hard to do because we’re not used to it.

Trish: Mmm, and I suppose like everything else, it gets better with practice

Jan: Yeah so um, and I will have to say you know probably about 90 to 95% of the people that I have in my critical reflection groups are just fantastic with it and take to it like ducks to water. But there are about 5-10% of people for whom it doesn’t work. It doesn’t sit with them culturally or they just can’t do it and you know, I think we just have to accept that, that’s the case. It’s like all learning methods they’re not perfect for everybody all the time.

Trish: I imagine that sometimes it might be hard to marry the cognitive and the emotional aspects.

Jan: Yes, and people, again, struggle with that. One because we’re not used to doing it but two, I think the emotions seem much more mystical to us and sometimes as social workers, because I think we’re in danger sometimes of just, you know, letting people emote for the sake of it, or thinking somehow that we’ve done something terribly therapeutic because we’ve gotten people to express emotion. What I always try to do in critical reflection is focus on what the meaning of the emotion is. You know, so what is that saying about what the experience is, or how important the experience is. What assumptions is it pointing to? Because otherwise I think, you risk the danger of the emotion not leading to the person developing their own practice theory.

Trish: I think that’s a really important point

Jan: Yeah, and it’s a hard one, I think because a lot of us are trained in a therapeutic mode whether we understand that or not. Or even accept that or not and so we find emotions terribly difficult and sometimes we think it’s just great to express emotions for the sake of it. Well I would swear on my heart that I don’t think it is, in a learning setting. Maybe in a therapeutic setting yes, but not in a learning setting.

Trish: And I imagine making explicit certain assumptions, or beliefs or ideals or whatever can bring back personal experiences for people as well, or connect to personal experiences, which can be difficult.

Jan: Absolutely, and in some ways, we hope that it would connect to personal experiences in the past because actually, I don’t think we can deny the effect of those. The problem is that most of us think that that means we’re taking a Freudian or psychoanalytic framework and we’re not. We’re just trying to understand how the present day person came to be that and of course past experiences play a vital role in that. And of course, what we find, I find, constantly is that people’s present day assumptions tend to have been learnt and created by themselves from their past experiences. And there might be an overlay of, you know, theoretical learning from their first degree in social work for instance, but usually that’s an overlay that’s been grafted on later. And it’s often the force of those initial experiences that needs to be deconstructed in the light of further theorising which then helps them make meaning of it. Because often what happens is the experience sits there and then later on the theory comes but the people often can’t put the two together in a very effective way, so there’s a big discrepancy between their own experience and theory and because, as professionals, we think the theory is meant to rule we then often deny our own experience. And so, I would argue that better practice comes about because you are able to use the theory to understand your experience better and modify both. So, it then becomes your own and once it becomes your own you can then work much more effectively to develop it better. And develop it more in line with your own experiences and other people’s as well.

Trish: It comes back to use of self doesn’t it? I mean you really need to know self, to be able to understand how you’re using it in your relationship with clients, because you’ll be using it whether you realise it or not and I suppose, it’s how you use that. If you use it well or not so well.

Jan: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it too, Tricia, because most of us understand the self. What I would say the difference here is, that it’s much more complex and broader understanding of the self than perhaps we’ve had before, and I guess we’re now talking about reflexivity if you want to introduce a different term. And when I say reflexivity, I’m talking about understanding the self completely in social and structural contexts as well as the emotional side, past experiences, biography etcetera. And I would say that you can’t really know the self fully until you’ve really engaged in critical reflection. Because that’s allowing you to connect yourself with your structural circumstances, your biography etcetera, with your past experiences. So, it’s pulling it all together, so it’s a very big and complex notion of the self. And until we’ve started to plumb that, I think it’s harder for us to be open to other people and constantly I get told this by students, who only engage in a small amount of critical reflection, they’ll often say, you know, that they have been working alongside someone for a few years and they never knew them so well until they just asked a few reflective questions and opened up properly to another person. Now that says a lot to me and I suspect that we relate, normally, in fairly superficial ways to other people. So, in a sense we’re practising on opening up to other people by understanding ourselves if that makes sense.

Trish: Jan, are you able to give us an example of a critical reflection or a critical reflection process?

Jan: Well yeah, I’m trying to think of one that I often use in my talks is actually an Australian social worker who I think was doing a master’s course with me at some point, so she, and she knows that I use this example so she’s ok with it. But she was working with what was then called social security, so it’s a few years back, that dates it, as a middle manager. So, she was a social worker by background, but she was working as a manager and she brought a personal example. So this is a critical incident. And in the process that I use I ask people to bring a story of their practice that they want to learn from, so that is what we’re calling a critical incident. So critical in that it’s important, incident in that it’s just an event, ok? And uh, this person’s incident was a personal one, actually, from her own personal experience. When she was travelling in Ireland, I think, with her husband and they’d gone to meet a lot of members of his extended family who they’d not met before. And they met up at a hotel which had been pre-booked. I think there were quite a large number of them due to stay there and when they arrived they found that there was only a booking to accommodate about half of them. So, her husband was understandably very angry about this and he started arguing with the hotel manager and I’ll call this woman Anne. And Anne surprised herself by stepping in between them, the two men, to put a stop to the argument and that was her incident ok. And so, when we did some reflection with her, she started talking about her own feelings about needing to be in control. So, what she was assuming was that, you have to have control of a situation and a professional person in particular must control a situation. And when we delved further into what some of these assumptions were about, she um, was saying that she felt like to do good professional work, you had to do something, you had to be active, you had to intervene ok, and that this was still related to the whole idea of control.

She then reflected further on this, I think, after we’d finished the discussion and she started to talk about her own fear of uncertainty. That’s what she thought was underlying it, so you can see that she’s bringing emotion into here as well, because she used the word fear. Then, before, she did her stage two reflection, which is remember, where she was meant to put it back together another incident actually happened, and she was, as a manager, she was asked to roll out a new program. And she recalled meeting with one of the staff who had to be involved in this program and he was a bit resistant to it. So, she caught herself telling him that he had to stay with the uncertainty, in inverted commas, and then she pulled herself up short because she realised that’s what her problem was. {chuckle} What her problem was. And so, she came back then in stage two to talk about that whole idea of uncertainty a lot more. So, remember her initial assumptions had started out as wanting to be in control, and now she then wanted to talk about uncertainty and we then helped her with stage two. What she decided she needed to be able to do was have a theory of practice that allowed her to be certain in uncertainty. In other words, how could she derive some kind of comfort even in a state of uncertainty. Because she recognised that she’d have to work with uncertainty. So, we asked her to try to label her new theory of practice and it was something like structured uncertainty and the way that she would do that is that every time she went into a new situation, which felt uncertain for her, she would try to remember other times that she had done that and the kinds of skills and knowledge that she could take from those early occasions into the new situation. And so, you see there, she’s developing what Structured Uncertainty is going to look like for her and how that will influence her practice.

Trish: And that’s what you mean by transformative?

Jan: Well, yes, it was transformative in the sense that it got to a fairly deep set of assumptions for her. Which you see came directly from personal experience, not professional experience. bringing clear bearing on her professional work, so it was transformative in the sense that because it was getting at something deep, and of course it did have to do with power, even though we didn’t dwell on the term power. Because that was her problem, was that she felt powerless in uncertainty. So, by creating a Structured Uncertainty it gave her some power back. But it also gave her a way forward.

Trish: And Jan, you obviously don’t have to do this in one session.

Jan: No, what normally happens is, I would say, work with a small group of people, normally no more than 10. And we would spend, perhaps up to a day, I mean it depends how much time people have, but normally if we’re doing, if we don’t have much time we try to all do a stage one reflection for everyone on the first day. And then come back a second time to do the stage two reflections. So yes, it’s always more than one session but it can be structured differently. I have worked with groups where they decide that they’ll do one person’s stage one first then after a short break for say 10 or 15 minutes they’ll come back and do a stage two for that person. I find that’s less effective because they need some time between stages to reflect a little more.

Trish: Because it gives you time to, sort of, turn things over and really take those steps to a deeper level I suppose.

Jan: Yeah, absolutely, because, usually we only have about half an hour to spend on a stage one reflection and sometimes it’s just not enough for people. They don’t really feel that they’ve got to the core meaning of the incident in that time. So, all we can really do in that half an hour is start the process for them. To be honest, I’ve found that even if it’s only a one day break between stage one and stage two that people often come back for stage two with a very different version of their assumptions from what they got to in the small group in stage one because they’ve kept reflecting about it. So it’s not contradictory to what was said in the small group, but they’ve often taken the reflection a lot further and got to a lot more depth. And to be honest, the more depth you get to obviously the more meaningful it is. And the more it’s going to stick with the person.

Trish: It sounds like it’s really important for practitioners to make time to do this sort of work.

Jan: I have to say I mean obviously the people that I know have done it because they like it, and it works for them. So yeah, in my experience, yes, it, what we’re doing, I mean, I’ve recently done a lot of training in London and it’s been fantastic because quite a few of the boroughs in West London have taken it up across the board. Now, what we are doing with them, is just making sure everyone gets a good initial training in it. Because, firstly, it’s no point doing it if you don’t know what you’re doing. I know that sounds like a truism, but a lot of people think they know what reflection is, I have to say that a lot of people don’t know what reflection is in practice. And finding a structured process that’s doable in the workplace is difficult. So, people do need training in it but once they’re trained in it, it actually doesn’t take that long, but it does have to have space and time, committed space and time carved out for it. But as I say, a stage one should only take about half an hour and stage two can be done in about ten or fifteen minutes. If it’s focused and people know what they’re doing.

Trish: Well that’s not a long time.

Jan: Absolutely not, no, and most people spend a lot longer than that in meetings in any one week. So, if you think about that…

Trish: Asleep in meetings, Jan.


Jan: That’s possibly it.


Jan: And, ah, you know, you don’t have to do it in small groups, if you don’t have a group you can do it in, you can self-reflect using this model. Or you can choose one other person to do it with.

Trish: Are there advantages in doing it in a group?

Jan: Uh, the advantage is you get more perspectives and it is actually good for team building because what happens is that people come to understand each other on a much deeper level and they do appreciate that. So it’s apparently very good for more collaborative work, the disadvantage is quite often not everyone in the group is good at it and there may not be enough trust in the group to do it, as well, so I think if you’re going to do this sort of thing in a workplace you have to make some kind of assessment of who it’s going to be most effective with, or useful with and whether time can be carved out, whether you can set up the appropriate culture to do it. Those are all important questions.

Trish: And it is around safety, because if you’re, you’re making yourself vulnerable and you are living with uncertainty that has to be very important.

Jan: Yeah, safety is I think, the key issue here Tricia. And some workplaces as we know are not safe and possibly never will be. But that then means, you know, can you carve out a place of safety outside the workplace that will, so what you learn will still have a bearing on your work but that your vulnerability won’t be exposed officially, at work. And most people can do that. You know, so there are all sorts of ways of working around this. And I think too, that if everyone is in it together, which is what I always emphasise, so it’s not just a supervisor doing reflection to workers, but it’s everybody involved in doing it as peers, then that in itself helps to start to carve out a safe place for people.

Trish: Final words Jan?

Jan: Um, look, just that I would encourage people to be committed to reflection and to feel and believe that it is possible in one way or another to assist with their practice. And just because there may be, they may be in difficult blaming work environment, does not mean cannot find a place to do critical reflection in a way that is going to nourish and support yourself. And just a personal word is that, I have to say that I’ve found it personally illuminating I guess, to do critical reflection in the way that it does bring together all aspects of who you are to have a bearing on your work and there’s always more learning that can be done about that. So, I just think that people will find it really personally rewarding as well as professionally useful to engage in it.

Trish: Fantastic, thank you so much and it’s been a wonderful session. Thank you, Jan.

Jan: Well thank you Tricia and good luck with getting it all edited and so forth.

Trish: Thanks, Jan

Jan: Alright, thank you then.

[30:09] Outro music plays until 30:35