Think about it

Developing critical thought processes should be an important part of continuing professional development write Keith Brown, Lynne Rutter and Steve Keen

Continuing professional development (CPD) has recently been defined by Skills for Care as a process that contributes to work-based and personal development and can be applied or assessed against competences and organisational performance.1 As such, it is any activity that increases understanding, knowledge or experience and thereby contributes to life-long learning. CPD is valid for all levels of staff and is not just confined to training and/or qualifications, as it encompasses informal and experiential learning as well.

Opportunities for CPD, therefore, have a great benefit in providing a focus for an individual to locate evidence of practice development and to critically reflect on their practice. In many ways it is only when the individual starts working as a qualified social worker that they begin to reflect on their learning and experience to date and begin to realise what they don’t know. CPD is vital in order to give a qualified practitioner the opportunity to reflect and consolidate their learning to date and plan further development.

There is a necessity to base all CPD, whether it occurs within a formalised programme or not, upon valid evidence so that the practitioner, the employer and society can be assured of safe and secure practice. So all CPD should be assessed, and critical thinking and reflection frameworks can aid this evidencing process.

Most professional bodies agree that the notion of CPD is inextricably bound up with critically reflective practice and so includes the notion of capability as well as competence, in order to deal with the complexity, uncertainty and ever-changing nature of social work. These are complex processes to articulate and evidence and can provoke anxiety.

In this respect, critical thinking and critical reflection can be useful tools, providing the necessary language, structure and guidance to identify, analyse, evaluate and develop practice for CPD evidence, for example in learning logs and portfolios. For any CPD activity a practitioner has to think back on experience more deeply to identify relevant underpinning knowledge (for example, experiential, theoretical, policy) and values, as well as the deliberations and judgements which make up their expertise. They also allow a more questioning and creative approach – highlighting different options, alternatives or implications which could inform future practice. This ensures that CPD “does what it says on the tin” – that is, it continues in time, adopts a professional approach and is developmental.

Texts like Brown & Rutter(2) aim to support and develop this process by providing models, frameworks and reflective questions. We propose that our models of critical reflection and thinking can be used as tools to demonstrate the learning associated with CPD, especially for PQ1 – the first mandatory step in gaining the post-qualifying award in social work – or in the future for the consolidation part of the revised post-qualifying framework.

Initially, we present a critical reflection framework which offers a series of progressive steps for a practitioner to look deeply at practice experience by:

  • Describing an experience.
  • Critically analysing aspects – for example, assumptions, deliberations, decisions, knowledge, experience, values, powers, risk.
  • Evaluating these aspects and outcomes.
  • Drawing out the learning from this evaluation to show how it can affect or impact on practice.

    This framework produces an evaluated conclusion in terms of a practitioner’s understanding, learning and development – and this is the key purpose for CPD, especially if the practitioner is not undertaking a formal course.

    Next, a critical practice framework (see table) links certain various aspects of practice to specific critical thinking activities. The practitioner can focus on relevant aspects of practice and then identify which particular critical thinking activities are taking place. For example, when making a decision a practitioner could be using discretion; weighing up their levels of responsibility and power; balancing risk, and allowing for alternatives.

    By understanding and discussing practice in terms like these a practitioner can more readily articulate their competence, but also notice where extra training or education is appropriate to support further development. Again, this framework can be used within supervision sessions, self-directed learning activities, or in association with a formal course.

    The principles of lifelong learning go hand-in-hand with CPD and fully support the use of tools such as critical thinking and reflection to allow personal and professional development. When this is achieved in alignment with an organisation’s development and growth the end result is not only success for the individual but the service itself is able to move forward positively and meet new demands.

    Keith Brown holds professional qualifications in nursing, social work and teaching; and academic qualifications in nursing, social work and management. He has worked in education and training for over 20 years. Currently he is the head of the Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work at Bournemouth University. Lynne Rutter and Steve Keen also work at the centre, Lynne as a student support lecturer and Steve as senior lecturer – research

    Training and learning
    The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

    There is now a great deal of emphasis on continuing professional development within social care education and training, for example, the post-registration training and learning (PRTL) 15-day CPD requirement over three years. This article looks at the value and role of critical thinking and critical reflection in practice, to ensure that all CPD activities are meaningful, valuable and assessable.

    (1) Skills for Care, Continuing Professional Development Framework for the Social Care Workforce, 2006. See
    (2) K Brown, L Rutter, Critical Thinking for Social Work, Learning Matters, 2006

    Further information

  • Learn to Care, Partnerships, CPD and APL, Learn to Care, 2006. Learn to Care:
  • L Gibbs, E Gambrill, Critical Thinking for Social Workers: Exercises for the Helping Profession, Sage Publications, 1999
  • T O’ Sullivan, Decision Making in Social Work, Macmillan, 1999
  • Skills for Care,

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