Action Learning and the development of Social Work practice

Social workers need to develop a complex set of skills in order to fulfil their roles to the best of their ability, and provide the support and empathy required to build positive relationships with their clients.

These complex skills include ‘expert’ knowledge, refined self-awareness, the capability and resilience to assess difficult cases, understanding how to keep clients safe, and evaluating risk taking so that clients can lead independent and empowered lives.

The challenges of developing complex skills

I recently ran an action learning facilitator training programme for supervisors of trainee social workers. The supervisors’ concern was how to develop trainees to enter the client environment safely, with authority, empathy and respect – within the context of strong accountability and high practice standards. The nervousness inherent in the environment of strong accountability had led trainees to look to supervisors for the ‘right’ answer to challenging cases and to disempower their own authority and downplay their tacit knowledge.

The supervisors found that the Action Learning process helped them to face dilemmas similar to that of their trainees and to think about the important role Action Learning can play in developing these complex Social Worker skills. By learning how to run action learning sets, the supervisors were able to focus on building skill sets that would help their trainees face their complex work challenges.

The experience of taking part in an action learning set parallels social work priorities in several ways:

  • The ability to take risks, hold back ‘expertise’ and give the set member the respect to work issues through for themselves and take the time they need to respond to questions.
  • The opportunity for individuals to push through their comfort zone: allowing them to feel vulnerable both as a presenter in front of colleagues and as a facilitator in trusting the group to listen and ask insightful questions.
  • Taking on a new role (as facilitator) and trusting themselves to ‘know enough’ and let go of being an expert.
  • Learning to pay attention to both academic models and intuition to frame insightful questions.
  • Understanding the assumptions being made about the power dynamic in the room.

Following the facilitator training, all the supervisors facilitated at least two Action Learning sets of trainees. The strength of the action learning model to develop trainees was confirmed through follow up feedback undertaken 3-6 months later:

“For me it was mostly about holding on to the reflective dialogue; supporting students in not searching for a solution but to look for greater understanding.”

“Supporting social workers to move away from descriptive casework discussion, and toward considering the emotional impact on themselves and understanding the consequences of values and judgments in decision making.”

“By giving my students the opportunity to talk uninterrupted and to listen without being able to interrupt – this has helped them take on different viewpoints and see different narratives without being critical or defensive.”

“Action learning impacted on their social work practice in terms of how they work with service-users and what versions of service-user ‘stories’ are being shared and need to be further explored.”

Action learning – unlocking key coping skills

This feedback has demonstrated, in the participants’ own words, the true value of action learning in enabling them to approach their roles and client interactions with less self-doubt and uncertainty. Supervisors experienced the benefits of having a new development intervention tool at their disposal, whilst the social worker trainees took great strength and resourcefulness from taking part and developing new skills.

Action learning was able to offer a powerful reflective space to the participants. It provided the opportunity to build confidence when facing uncertainty and the time to explore and validate feelings. The action learning sets were instrumental in restoring social workers’ feelings of authority and empowerment so they were better equipped to transition into effective, capable social workers.

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