A “critical reflection" essay in social work

Our first text is a high-scoring "critical reflection" essay written by a final year undergraduate student in social work. The essay was published as a model answer in an edited collection titled Critical Reflection: Generating Theory from Practice (Pockett and Giles 2008). The purpose of the assignment was to prepare students to enact what is described as a process of critical reflection and thereby "create new professional knowledge" and develop "their emerging identity as 'new graduate social workers' about to enter the workplace" (Pockett and Giles 2008, xiv). To guide their writing, students were asked to

select a critical incident from their field education experience and using Fook (2002, pp. 98-100), analyse the incident through the process of deconstruction and develop new practice theories as a form of reconstruction . . . identify, describe and critique key themes within a critical review of literature, and redevelop practical theory in relation to the critical incident. (Pockett and Giles 2008, xiv)

Students were required to "critically reflect on their learning" (Pockett and Giles 2008, xiv) based on Fook's (2002) model of critical deconstruction and reconstruction. This model comprises four stages:

  • 1. Critical deconstruction: "searching for contradictions, different perspectives and interpretations" (92);
  • 2. Resistance: "refusing to accept or participate in aspects of dominant discourses which work to disempower, or perhaps render a situation unworkable because of this" (95);
  • 3. Challenge: "the identification or labeling of both the existence and operation of discourses and that which is hidden, glossed over or assumed" (96); and
  • 4. Reconstruction: "formulating new discourses and structures" (96).

Uncovering one's own assumptions about social work practice through this kind of critical reflection is considered a highly valued skill for practitioners as part of fostering social justice (Brookfield 2001; Fook and Askeland 2007). In the assignment students were required to identify a difficult situation or "critical incident" that they encountered during their field placement and discuss that incident using Fook's model. Thus, to successfully demonstrate critical reflection, the incident must become an object of study to be analyzed by the student using ideas from social work.

To explore the model essay we shall begin with its basic structure. The essay comprises five stages that we shall term as follows:

  • Introduction—in which the student discusses the importance of critical reflection for the subject area of social work;
  • Critical Incident—where the student narrates an incident from her field placement when she was subjected to verbal sexual harassment;
  • Excavation—in which the student deconstructs her own "dominant assumptions" by focusing on what she perceives as an inappropriate response to the incident, using "critical deconstruction," "resistance," and "challenge" from Fook's model;
  • Transformation—where she draws on Fook's notion of "reconstruction" to discuss lessons learned from her experience and acknowledge the need to change her behavior in similar situations in future; and
  • Coda—where she finishes the essay by emphasizing the role of critical reflection in enabling "self-transformation" in professional practice.

Figure 33.2 traces the profile of semantic gravity characterizing the knowledge claims expressed throughout the essay. One overarching feature to note

Semantic profile of a successful reflection essay in social work

Figure 33.2 Semantic profile of a successful reflection essay in social work.

is the series of gravity waves characterizing the essay: recurrent movements are made between concrete particulars (such as an account of the "critical incident") and more generalized and abstracted concepts. The essay thereby weaves together meanings of greater and lesser context-dependence, empirical examples and theoretical constructs, and experiential and academic forms of knowledge. We now turn to explore the particular forms taken by this "semantic weaving" (Maton 2013; 2014a) by addressing in turn the key stages of Critical Incident, Excavation, and Transformation.

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