Can I be honest with you?
When you finish your final placement, your supervisor will send you a final document detailing your learning needs, and how you can move forward.
I read through it.
All 44 pages of it.
And nearly wanted to toss it out of the window.
I was very angry about how my supervisor seemed to criticise every aspect of my work.
I thought I had done very well!
However, upon closer inspection, I realised that this would help me greatly to be a better social worker.
Today, you might be a supervisor wondering how to describe your student’s work.
Or you might be a student wondering how to address the learning needs raised. You might be a student struggling through the concerns process, with multiple learning needs being raised.
Before we start looking at examples of learning needs, it might be useful to provide context.
- What is a learning need?
- What are some principles in addressing learning needs?
What is a learning need?
A learning need is defined as:
An area where improvement is needed.
There, it’s that simple.
There are a few characteristics of learning needs that make them ‘learning needs’.
The first is its recurrence.
If mistakes happen once or twice, you may not be sure if it’s a learning need. But if it persistently happens, you know that this is a pattern. For example, whilst on placement, I was persistently going solo. I would do things on my own, without asking for advice of other colleagues. This didn’t happen once.
It happened several times whilst I was on placement.
When you see a student who seems to be repeating the same mistakes, take the time to address it with him first. Then, tell him/her the necessary changes you want to see. Be clear about what you want to see.
Don’t be vague about describing what the expected standards are.
For example, I appreciated that my supervisor told me:
- You shall ask for my permission before trying something new.
- Whatever I say you do, you shall carry it out, or not explain why you aren’t keen on carrying it out.
- You shall be contactable over the phone at all times during work hours.
There are other times when there are serious errors in judgment which do not necessitate it to repeat, before you address it.
For example, during my last placement, I tried a kitbag with a client with learning disabilities.
I was promptly put through the concerns process after her mother felt that I had been demeaning by using something childish.
Let’s not look at whether it was good to try something new.
The point is that I did not ask if using this would be helpful.
It did not occur to me that I needed to ask for permission. That is dangerous.
Especially in cases where there are tense emotions, pulling something new out of the bag may not be a good idea.
When there are serious errors in judgment, the student needs coaching to understand why he did wrong.
The student might struggle to understand. Guiding him through a reflective process would help.
When you supervise a student, you might not want to dampen his spirit and passion by introducing learning needs. You feel that may dampen his love for social work.
But some learning needs may not only be concerning now. They may be of greater consequences in future. You see into the future. You see that the trajectory of the social worker would be severely hampered if these learning needs are not addressed.
Raise those learning needs early. It’s better to course-correct early in someone’s career, rather than letting him go on.
Example of learning need in teamwork
In the following examples, they are plucked out of my Practice Learning Report, written by my very own supervisor on placement.
You can draw lessons in how they are written.
John has struggled at times to adapt to team working and a busy office environment. John would benefit from developing his ability to work as part of a team, recognising the roles and expertise of other professionals, rather than expecting or believing that he can ‘do it all’ or ‘know it all’ not only to demonstrate greater partnership working but also to support his own health and well-being (PCF 1; 8).
To recognise and understand how planning and preparation, rather than sidestepping these processes in order to approach an intervention with an ‘open mind’, can provide better outcomes for service users and better enable them to be involved in decisions about their support (PCF 2; 7).
John has had limited experience of safeguarding and would benefit from developing his skills in this area, particularly around appropriately using the authority of the social work role (PCF 7).
Example of learning need in reflection
While John is a natural reflector he would benefit from developing his skills of critical reflection to develop his practice in several areas:
- to ensure he identifies a range of sources of information to achieve holistic assessments and inform his subsequent decisions (PCF 6; 7);
- using ‘reflection on action’ to recognise not only his own response to interventions but also how his practice may impact on service users and carers, through asking questions such as: what worked, what didn’t work, why and what could I have done differently? (PCF 6)
- to critically analyse his use of social work theories and models, considering a broader range of theories in order to decide which method or approach is the most appropriate, and how he can effectively apply these to his practice (PCF 5; 7).
As you can see from the above, examples of learning needs include:
- critical reflection skills
- planning of interventions
How do you write about learning needs?
Assess them against a framework
Learning needs are not just your assessment.
It’s an objective assessment, measured against an agreed set of expected standards.
For the U.K., learning needs are assessed by looking at the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF). The PCF is the standard that all British social workers work towards to illustrate their capabilities in social work. The 9 domains are as follows, with examples of learning needs attached to them.
Be clear about what the learning needs are
As you can see from the above examples, my supervisor was clear on where I had fallen short of expectations.
She was clear about the examples where these had been demonstrated. For example, in teamwork, she pointed out how I tended to disregard my colleagues and do things ‘solo’.
Being clear about the learning needs is not about nitpicking. Rather, it’s about being clear about how those learning needs have been shown through your student’s work.
Offer a way out
I have been working as a social worker for a year.
Recently, I had a Performance Improvement Plan discussion. If you are not sure what this is, this is when there are concerns about your work.
Concerns are raised. The essence of it is:
Shape up, or ship out.
What was frustrating about the process was how there was little concrete advice on how I could change. There was little practical steps that were offered. Instead, they expected me to come up with my own. Whilst that can be good in encouraging social workers to take ownership of the change they want to see, that can backfire at times.
The social worker might not even be clear what a ‘better’ way looks like, since the problems have been festering for a long time.
Be clear about the way out. Offer a way out.
Coach the student social worker.
Don’t throw out all the problems, without offering any possibilities.
Give concrete plans on the practical actions the student social worker can do, rather than expecting the student social worker to know how to resolve things independently.
Use learning needs to drive performance
Talking about learning needs isn’t just to make you feel better than your student social worker.
But it’s to recognise that there are significant shifts that can happen that can improve your student’s practice.
Have a clear plan about how you can work together with your student to address the learning needs pointed out.
What helps is to have a table.
- What is the learning need?
- What can you do?
- What support do you need?
- When do we review this?
Values and ethics
Values and ethics cover the BASW’s commitment to values such as social justice and human rights. Thus, learning needs might include:
- Difficulty in navigating ethical dilemmas in social work
- Inability to balance personal and professional values in social work
Diversity and equality
Social work works with an incredible range of clients from different background. Knowing how to adopt an anti-discriminatory practice is important to ensure that clients who are unlike you do not feel left out or discriminated against.
- Difficulty in demonstrating anti-discriminatory practice to service users that may come from different backgrounds.
- Insensitivity to cultural differences
Rights, justice and economic wellbeing
Social work is concerned about social change for people who might be facing economic oppression, discrimination, and disadvantage. Thus, knowing the rights and fighting for the rights of service users is essential. Learning needs include:
- Poor advocacy for the rights of service users
- Inability to refer clients to agencies that can help.
- Poor knowledge of partner agencies and the help they can provide
As much as social work seems to be done through gut instinct, it is an evidence-based profession that requires clear academic foundations for excellence.
Knowing the theories, is not about just knowing the theories.
It’s about applying the theories.
Knowing the theories to inform one’s assessment and the appropriate interventions to use is vital to helping clients better.
Learning needs might include:
- Poor knowledge of theories to inform assessments
- Inability to connect theory to practice
- Inability to apply theories in practice
Critical reflection and analysis
Social work harps a lot on being able to be reflexive, identifying how your own perspective might affect the way you help clients. Therefore, critical reflection is vital to prevent your own biases. Examples of learning needs include:
- Poor time spent reflecting on work with service users
- Inability to understand how personal perspectives might influence work with clients
- Poor understanding of personal perspectives and biases
Skills and interventions
I remember that I once made a service user cry because of how clumsy I had been with my intervention.
Social work requires great skills to do well.
Knowledge of those skills, and familiarity with using those skills well, is crucial to establish good outcomes in social work.
Learning needs might include:
- Poor understanding of appropriate skills to use in different contexts
- Limited number of skills and interventions to deploy with different types of service users
Contexts and organizations
During my previous placement, I forgot that I was a representative of the local government. I ended up making statements that were not in line with the local government’s policy. This made me get into lots of trouble.
- Poor understanding of organisational policy and values
- Poor representation of the organisation’s image
Many social work students find it hard to show leadership in an organisation where they are expected to be learning, rather than leading. However, leadership can be expressed in many ways, such as taking the initiative to ask questions, present academic theories for application, or even to share thoughts during a meeting.
Learning needs include:
- Ability to display confidence in front of external agencies
- Presentation skills at multi-agency meetings
Looking professional, and being professional, is a key part of being a social worker. It’s not just about telling people that you are a social worker, but looking like a social worker. If you dress sloppily, how do you expect clients to take you seriously?
- Poor dressing
- Inappropriate clothes worn (clothes being too revealing etc.)
This is not a laundry list of learning needs which you can use to fault your student social worker.
But rather, look at it as a way to be together with your student, helping your student be better.
If you are a student reading this, know this.
You are not alone on your journey.
I barely qualified as a social worker. I went through the concerns process twice in 2 months. As if that was not enough, at the end of two concerns procedures, my supervisor was very uncertain about passing me.
She thought I barely made it.
That damaged my confidence greatly.
But that experience helped me to grow. To be accepting of feedback. To accept that I wasn’t perfect.
We all aren’t.
Take this as a learning process.
Lastly, remember, this will help you improve!
So, don’t take it too defensively. Be open, and learn from them.
Learning needs are a labour of love to help you grow.
What learning needs do you struggle with? Comment below!