‘All social workers should be given a chance to take part in action learning sets, not just the newly qualified’

Action learning helps you to reframe issues and find solutions, finds Nikki Burton, social worker and member of the College of Social Work’s professional assembly


An interesting aspect of my assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) has been the use of action learning sets, writes Nikki Burton. In a small group, we meet on a regular basis to discuss the challenges that we are facing – be it issues from our caseload, our feelings about being a newly qualified social worker (NQSW), or a personal problem that may be impacting our work. Our group is facilitated by an independent social work practitioner, who can guide the discussions forward while also understanding the content.

Professor Reginald Revans, a Cambridge University physicist, designed the action learning sets model in the 1940s. The model has since developed into sessions with five main stages: description of the problem, questioning by other members of the group regarding the problem, reflecting on these questions and determining which action should be taken, reporting back on the action taken and what happened after this and, finally, reflecting on the entire process and how well this worked. In this way, reflection goes beyond discussing the “should haves” and the “could haves”.

During this process of reflection, you start to concentrate on your feelings about the issue raised, as well as benefiting from hearing the thoughts of your peers. This helps to reframe the issue and move on to develop an action plan. Throughout the action learning sets I have participated in, most of us have come away with a different opinion of the problem and a greater focus on resolution.

There are a number of theories that can guide you through the main five stages of an action learning set. One is the gossip theory. After presenting your problem, you sit away from the rest of the group whilst they discuss their thoughts and feelings. I struggled with this model, as it taps into some of my own insecurities; when the group are making comments about my practice, I start to feel defensive and want to comment on their evaluation of my problem.

As a visual learner, however, I gained great benefit from models and theories that use diagrams and timelines to unpack the issue that I or others have presented. I am able to identify relationship/family tensions that may not have been obvious before, or recognise patterns and triggers of behaviour. Whether it is my issue that is being discussed or a problem raised by a peer, I find that I able to learn from the discussions that unfold in this more visual manner.

Using a formal method of reflection, such as an action learning set, is perhaps a luxury of being an NQSW. However, the action learning set, or perhaps a pared down version, would be a welcome contribution to general social work practice. Very rarely can social workers spare the time to engage in intensive reflection, however, the benefits I have seen to my practice and the practice of others suggest that it could be worthwhile expanding the use of action learning sets beyond the parameters of ASYE programmes.

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