In order to be a good youth worker it is, we argue, necessary to become a reflective practitioner. What do we mean by this? Put at its simplest, a reflective practitioner is someone who takes time to think about what they are doing. It means that the process of youth work is a thought through practice, one where the youth worker is observing their own and others’ attitudes, behaviours and actions. Working with people is messy, youth workers have to be able to understand the complexity and interrelationship between the young people we work with. Youth workers should recognise that the young people’s experience of the world may well be informed by, for example, issues of identity. The society in which the youth work is set will also have an impact upon practice.
Critical reflection is the process whereby the youth worker is consciously thinking about their own impact upon others, as well as the broader impact upon the work.
Critical reflection is the process whereby the youth worker is consciously thinking about their own impact upon others, as well as the broader impact upon the work. The social and political sphere, the ecology of the work, will be significant. It is in the interrelations of these factors that the youth worker has to be clear about where and how they work. Youth workers examine their own and others’ behaviour within groups. Further, we are able to articulate, using theory, their understanding of these behaviours and impact on group dynamics. This ability or skill is then echoed in wider community, regional and political circles.
For example, early on in their youth work career one of the authors did some specific work with newly arrived communities mainly from Somalia and Yemen. As a white woman, they had to ask themself some critical reflective questions about practice. What policies did they need to know and understand whilst working with a group of young refugees and asylum seekers? What power dynamics might be at play? How might the young people’s prior experiences impact on the way they viewed them and what they might represent? How is the community in which we are situated viewing the group of young people? Are they experiencing specific barriers or bigotry that could be challenged and changed
The practice of critical reflection requires us to look beyond ourselves, to consider context, and identify influences. To be a critical reflector, the youth worker is able to look at a variety of factors from different stances and understand how they might impact upon them and the people they work with. It is through an honest and humble examination of practice that youth workers can improve their understanding and knowledge; this in turn provides a focus to improve skills, and then delivery.
For many youth workers, reflecting on our practice provides us with an opportunity to consider what worked well and also what did not. When this process of reflection is combined with a creative writing approach then the youth worker is engaged in an exercise of dynamic learning.
To be a reflective practitioner is not simply about intuition. Our memories are fallible, so we should develop the art of writing about our practice; not simply as a memoir but rather as a tool for our own learning. Recording not just facts but also feelings and thoughts provides a rich description of events and our experiences. (for more on this see Bolton and Delderfield)
Our memories are fallible, so we should develop the art of writing about our practice;
Kolb’s Learning Cycle
In order to be effective, our reflections need to go beyond just the page and our own personal development: sharing with colleagues can lead to enhanced team work and enrich our knowledge of how others explore and experience their practice. To facilitate that process, many youth workers start with Kolb’s Learning Cycle.
Kolb’s Learning Cycle creates a simple yet structured way for youth workers to explore their work. It consists of four distinct elements: Concrete Experience, what happened, who was involved, and where did it take place; Reflective Observation, the youth worker to ask temselves “How did I feel when it was happening?” and “How do I feel now?”; Abstract Conceptualisation, “Why did this happen?”, “What was my role in this?”, “Could I have done something different?”; and Active Experimentation, bringing thoughts and feelings together and devising a plan.
It is through this process of experiential learning that a youth worker’s knowledge about both the needs of those with whom they work, and of themselves, is “created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984: 38). But we must consider context too.
Thompson’s PCS Model
As practitioners we must acknowledge that we live in a volatile world that swirls around us and impacts our lives at many levels. To aid our critical understanding, Thompson (2003) created a model to locate the understanding of discrimination and the oppression that arises from it.
Thompson posits that discrimination operates from three separate but interrelated levels: Personal, Cultural, and Structural. Personal, relates to the individual thoughts, feelings and actions that have a bearing on inequality and oppression. This usually manifests as overt or covert prejudice on a personal level. The Cultural level of Thompson’s model refers to the context within which individuals operate: the beliefs, values and actions linked to the prevailing cultural norms and expectations. In a group context, this would be referring to the way of life of the group, e.g. language, humour etc. And the Structural level identifies the macro-level influences such as the social, political and economic factors of social order. Social factors include race, gender, and class. Political factors include the distribution of power both formally (political structures, parties etc) and informally (power relations between individuals and groups etc). The economic factors include the distribution of wealth and thus the construction of poverty.
Reflective Practice is the combination of consideration and context: individually, the tools offer a partial view; taken together, they enable a much more comprehensive and informed analysis to be created. Through conversation with others comes the creation of new knowledge.
Find here REFLECT the reflection tool developed in the Youth Workers Online Learning Opportunities Project.
Bolton, G. and Delderfield, R. (2018) (5th edn) Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development, London: Sage.
Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Thompson, N. (2003) Promoting Equality: Challenging Discrimination and Oppression, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
by Pauline and John Grace (2021)
Pauline Grace, Glassblower, Youth Worker, and University Lecturer.
John Grace, Volunteer with a UK-based NGO.
Photos in order of appearance © Aaron Burden, Priscilla Du Perez, Angelina Litvin, Kimberley Farmer on Unsplash