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Teaching and learning criticality: a case study of post-qualifying social work education

Mayall, Helen (2016) Teaching and learning criticality: a case study of post-qualifying social work education. Doctoral thesis (EdD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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Reviews of social work consistently emphasise that social workers need critical thinking to analyse complex information, alongside practical skills development. Although theoretical discussion of social work criticality is well established, this is an under-researched area with few empirical studies. This study aims to inform and develop educational practice by exploring understandings of criticality in social work through a case study of teaching and learning on a post-qualifying course. Participants were experienced social workers, working with children and families. Dialogue and reflective activities were used to encourage critical thinking and investigate participants’ responses. Critical realism, aligned with Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, capital and field, were used to support an investigation of how individual participants understood critical reflection in the context of their social work role. The study developed an interpretative, thematic analysis of qualitative data from semi-structured interviews. Findings suggest that participants became familiar with reflective practice during their pre-qualifying courses. In their early career, opportunities for reflection receded as participants felt overwhelmed by an urgent need for technical skills and procedural knowledge. When they returned to study, as experienced social workers, the idea of critical reflection was unfamiliar and provoked anxiety. Whilst reflection was a private activity, some participants initially associated criticality with vulnerability, exposure and risk of public criticism. Participants’ prior educational experiences and their perceptions of their own academic ability affected their confidence in the higher educational field. However, opportunities to discuss their learning in a small, supportive group enabled them to develop confidence in exploring and developing their critical thinking about practice. This thesis contributes to knowledge through exposing and exploring post-qualifying students’ various responses to criticality and has implications for teaching criticality effectively. The study suggests there is a role for specific teaching to develop critical thinking, especially in supporting post-qualifying social work students to become the highly critical practitioners necessary in the most complex areas of social work practice.

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