Developing critical conversations about practice

action research

In this 1995 article Mark K Smith explores the use of study groups by practitioners to deepen and extend their practice. It looks at how we may transcend individualized responses through building ‘critical communities of enquirers’.

contents: preface · introduction · collective explorations of practice · the mechanics of study groups · exploring practice collectively: key dimensions of the experience · the impact of study groups · in conclusion – developing a critical community of practice · bibliography ·  how to cite this piece
This article was first published in Groupwork in 1995. It arose out of research on local educators (Smith 1994a and b).

In this article I examine the place of groups in developing conversation about professional practice. In particular, I focus on ‘study groups’ involving informal and community educators engaged in initial and in-service education programmes. My interest lies in how we may transcend individualized responses through building ‘critical communities of enquirers’ (: 40). Material is drawn here from a series of taped conversations with participants in study groups – and written recordings of 126 hours of such groups. These formed part of a larger research project ().

Collective explorations of practice

Informal and community educators operate on their own initiative for a great deal of the time. Frequently they have to make difficult choices concerning their actions and deal with distressing situations. Not surprisingly, many have sought forums where they can talk about or explore practice. One expression of this has been the tradition of supervision (see, for example Tash 1967; Kadushin 1992). Another involves talking informally with peers. Such talk is a means of counteracting the isolation that many feel; marking the membership of the occupational group; and a mechanism of social control. Yet, as Pithouse (1987) has shown in respect of social workers, such relationships are carefully managed. Informal consultancies usually exist on the basis of friendship and commonalty of role or experience – and exchanges are typically privatized and covert. A more public forum around policy has been provided by trade unions and professional associations.

Open, grounded, and collective exploration of practice does not take place on any substantial scale. As one practitioner put it:

One of the things I think is missing is a sense of unity with other workers – and we haven’t got that because we don’t really talk about the work. Things aren’t really public.

The nearest that many practitioners come to it is in the discussion of particular cases, clients or groups. Here, however, the focus is on the issues and questions that arise in relation to, for example, the dynamics of a particular family or group. What workers are actually thinking and feeling in their day to day conversations with individuals and group members – and how this fits with some common purpose – are secondary concerns.

Privatizing reflection on work is not simply the product of established norms and trade-offs, and fears around exploring practice. The intellectual traditions that infuse practice have also fed a failure to develop understandings which locate people’s lived experiences. Here I want to pick up on three connected strands. First, much of the current literature concerning groups and supervision draws heavily on psycho-dynamic insights and metaphors. This can be contrasted with earlier social groupwork practitioners such as Coyle (1930) who drew heavily on pragmatism and on educational discourses (see, for example, Reid 1981: 103-136). Many of those writing still ‘tend to slip past structure to focus on isolated situations’ and to consider problems as ‘the problems of individuals’ (Mills 1943: 534). We need to work to hold onto an appreciation of the shifting relationships and imbalances in which our work is located.

Second, and historically linked to this, is the extent to which western discourses are populated by a one-sided appreciation of selfhood. Individuals are seen as self-contained and unitary. They ‘carry their uniqueness deep inside themselves, like pearls hidden in their shells’ (Burkitt 1991: 1). The result is a tendency to appeal to what supposedly goes on inside us, rather than to the interactions between us and the environment in which they take place. Not only is there a sense of the individual as a bounded container, separated from other containers, but each is seen as in ‘possessionship or ownership of its own capacities and abilities’ (Sampson 1993: 31). Such views of selfhood – and their focus on the unconscious – are culturally and historically specific (Cohen 1994); and gendered in the way that the self becomes ’embodied’ (Moore 1994).

Third, writers such as Grundy (1987) have made clear our long-standing attachment to what Habermas (1972) describes as technical rather than emancipatory interests. Our activities as practitioners do not exist in a vacuum.  They are produced and experienced in specific social and historical conditions – and involve particular moral and political considerations. We, therefore, need to cultivate a consciousness in our activities of the kind of future we hope to build. What we engage in is ‘intrinsically political, affecting the life chances of those involved in the process by affecting their access to an interesting life and material well-being’ (Carr & Kemmis 1986: 39).

Such matters can only be addressed as both personal and collective concerns. Judgements about what makes for the good, for human flourishing, have to be both individual and shared. If we individually decide what is right without reference to the wishes and views of others then we are succumbing to ways of working which are self-serving, anti-dialogical, and designed to subordinate rather than emancipate. The cultivation of judgement is dependent upon forms of communal life that facilitate engagement and conversation about what makes for the good (Bernstein 1983: 225). Here we see the makings of a powerful case for collective explorations of practice. They provide us with a rationale for looking at not just at what we may be feeling or thinking, but also at our interactions, and how these may be located within a dialogue about what may be appropriate for a particular community of practice such as informal education.

The mechanics of study groups

Study groups are an attempt to bring the exploration of practice and the generation of a community of practice to the fore. Their mechanics are straightforward. Agreed periods of time are allocated for the exploration of a specific encounter or intervention (around 45-60 minutes per person). The practitioner involved begins by presenting verbally an outline of the intervention.  One of the rules often made by these groups is that ‘presenters’ should also provide a short written summary containing the main points or a recording. The group then works with this material.  One briefing for those involved in initial training suggests the aim is to explore:

  1. what was happening in the particular encounter;
  2. alternatives were possible; and
  3. knowledge and skills were being used and the ones that could have been used, and to identify those feelings and attitudes that were promoting or hindering the task. (YMCA George Williams College 1994)

Participants are encouraged to focus on what people do – the actual interventions they make – not on what they would like to do; and to work on the material presented, not on the worker. From such an exploration of practice, they may then move on to more general thinking about the particular area of work. It is an important tenet of such groups that it is not the presenter alone who is learning from the presentation.  As group members work to help the person to clarify and refine their understandings, they also enhance their own learning and enlarge their abilities to engage in dialogue (Jeffs & Smith 1990: 10).

Before sessions begin groups usually set out basic rules of conduct and then review these as they go. Often sessions are structured so that there is time for at least two presentations/explorations and a space for drawing out general themes and questions (without going back over the specifics of the presentations).

Exploring practice collectively: key dimensions of the experience

One way of making sense of this process is derived from supervision.  The focus is on the practice of an individual, but instead of there being a single supervisor, the group collectively scrutinises the work. Indeed some writers describe this process as group supervision (Hawkins and Shohet (1989: 95-117). However, unlike supervision, a primary concern is the learning of the whole group, not just the understanding of the individual whose practice provides the focus.  This links back to earlier concerns expressed about an over-concentration on pyschodynamic models. For the process to work, individual practitioners must share what they have decided to do with a particular individual or group, why that decision was made, how the decision was carried out and what the outcome was. They need also to bring their own person into the situation, describing the processes of their own ‘mind and heart’.

Much of the success of these group explorations of practice lies in the way participants get hold of basic tenets and mould them. What is also of particular interest is the extent to which these ‘rules’ or dimensions mirror key aspects of their practice as educators.

Focusing on the work rather than the person of the worker

One, central, tenet is that it is the work that is the centre of attention rather than the character of the worker. As one participant put it, ‘we separated the deed from the person’. This was not without difficulty:

People say it is not a personal thing, it is just about work, I can’t separate the work from the personal thing, because I think the work is personal in a way… It is like going to the dentist.  I think your work is part of you.

This entwining of personal and professional identities involves a double paradox for workers. ‘The personal rewards to be found in their work come only from self-investment in it and…, when the cost of the latter is too high, the rewards are also reduced’ (Nias 1989: 18). Separating the worth of the person from the deed and, in turn, recognizing the limits of any such split, helps us to approach questions of personal investment – and takes us back to questions of ownership. Here, we examine what happened and that necessarily involves questions about who and what we are.  While it remains a risky business, it is, at least, constrained by the focus on the work: the central question concerns the appropriateness of our actions as workers – as members of a community of practice – not whether we are ‘nice’ people to know. This can inhibit direct attacks on the person, but the process can still be painful.

However open minded you might present yourself, it is difficult to accept criticism that lightly. Even when you are prepared to accept it is still quite a challenging experience.

Clearly, what we do in a situation has to be owned by us. However, we must act in situations where there is much that we cannot know; where the tools we employ are necessarily tentative; where communication is stuttering and partial; and where there are always a number of different, and often conflicting, paths we can take. Practice will always be imperfect; it will always be problematic. We will always have something to learn. Once we recognize that fallibility is a part and parcel of working, and that such groups are opportunities to learn from our mistakes, then the task becomes a little more manageable.

Being prepared to challenge and to accept challenge

Given recognition of fallibility, and concern not to attack people (and not be attacked ourselves), groups have the potential to be cosy. They can be ‘too nice, too comfortable’ and ‘padded for comfort’. Part of the task may be to work for a more exploratory or challenging environment.

I knew it would benefit me, so I wanted to get what I could get out it. I was wanting more understanding. I wanted to know why I wasn’t happy with this. I wanted to learn from it. I have got an all-absorbing thing about learning. You can get analysis paralysis, so that is why it is refreshing to get other people questioning your work.

Fears remain around the discomfort and disruption that can be involved. Much of the way the process is experienced depends on the initial frame of reference or orientation of participants.

The pieces of work I brought were extremely important to me. I thought this is my time, I am going to use it. I was in a positive frame of mind… Another thing was the respect of your colleagues. Sometimes somebody would ask something that made me go ‘Ouch!’, but I would respect them for that.

This is a significant response. First, there is the question of ownership – the practitioner talks about ‘my time’ rather than ‘our time’. He appears to be using a metaphor from individual supervision and is falling into the trap outlined earlier. Second, he interprets the challenging occurring in the group as part of a professional discourse. Being asked questions in this way, engaging in this process, signified entry into, or a place in, that discourse – he was ‘being professional’.

Exploring practitioner processes, rather than the ‘client’ or what to do next

Another dimension of these groups is the way in which the focus is kept on what happened: what was the person was thinking and feeling in the situation, what did they do, what were the natures of the interactions and so on? Giving advice or handy hints was not what was required.

The positive thing is focusing on a specific thing and not making it too general and getting other people’s opinion on the intervention. Why certain things had happened, what had you done to create the situation.  I don’t like getting into the bits where people say ‘if that had been me I would have done this’, that wasn’t you and you didn’t do it.

The focus is on practitioner processes. It is an exploration of praxis (informed, committed action).

Quite often I found that many of the problems were not with the young people or with the group or the piece of work, but rather with yourself – with your own confidence or maybe assertion of when was it your right to intervene.

The group is not there to make speculative guesses or interpretations concerning the other person or people, but to examine the worker’s thinking and action so that all may learn. Where participants avoid doing this, or are still learning to focus on an actual moment in their practice (an intervention), then there are tensions.

I sense being blocked by other presenters at times and then you think it is totally useless being involved in this because he or she won’t let you have a look… The job is not able to be done. The work is not looked at.

The briefings given to group members were fairly explicit in relation to focus and it was often a matter for some discussion in the groups in the contract setting phase.

Holding boundaries

Considerable attention tends to be paid to establishing and holding boundaries – especially in relation to task. Two further boundaries were named by participants in conversation as important. First, time: explorations tend to last their contracted time and no more. This is to ensure that each member of the group has their fair share of time. Second, ‘confidentiality’ is nearly always an important element of the initial contract.

The boundaries were fairly clear, particularly around confidentiality. My feeling is that if people do not understand that 100 per cent then there are grave risks. The idea is that is the opportunity to explore what you are doing. In that situation it may well come out that you hate your boss or whatever it is and you have to be safe enough to say that. It is one of those situations where the safety and the risk need to balance.

Attending to group process

For such groups to work effectively it is necessary for participants to pay attention to the way they are functioning as individuals and the totality of the interactions. This area can be a major source of learning for many participants.

It took me a while to learn how to function in a group. To not be the centre of attention all the time.  The intervention may be around whoever, but for me I was still the focus of attention. It took me quite a while to come to grips with that, accept it, and learn to be a member of a group so that I could actually help somebody.

Part of this movement involves a shift from experiencing the group as a context for interaction. Instead the group becomes an instrument ‘where the group members are able to work as a unit to explore and exploit the resources that the group contains or to which it has access’ (Douglas 1993: 31).

Group members may be aware of dealing with people in different ways, although not always knowing why:

Some members I will ask more willingly. It is mostly about their vulnerability although there is one member of the group that I like having a go at. I do it jokey. I don’t understand that relationship.

Others struggle against this.

I consciously tried to not treat anybody differently because I liked them better than anyone else – because you always do in life. I wanted to give everyone equal value for money. Part of the group maintenance bit was that people did play the game. You felt you wanted to give the person presenting a fair deal, to enable them to get the most out of the thing.

Some groups were conducted over a short intensive period such as a residential. Others were conducted monthly over a period of three years.

When the study group works together for a long time, things merge and everybody contributes and stuff become communal property. You develop ways of working together.

For those in long-term groups, reflection on the changes and developments is a crucial aspect of the experience for some participants. One of the indicators of the relative maturity of the group used by participants is the extent to which barriers come down and it is possible to work on sensitive material: ‘It is getting more intimate, to the nitty gritty.’ This simultaneous or parallel attention to the process of the group and to the material presented is one of the hallmarks of these groups. As things progress, members are often able to flip between the two and to use understandings about one to inform the other (see below).

Preparation, follow-up and the use of recordings

Participants need to identify a piece of work that has enough material for the group to work on. In addition, a number of ‘presenters’ want to identify key questions beforehand so that they have some focus for learning and exploration. Some take possible situations and questions to individual supervision. Others prefer not to.

Often I used to think ‘why didn’t I do so and so’ just by writing it down. Then I used to get so much out of the groups that I think I wouldn’t have wanted to spoilt it in supervision. It would have taken something away. I quite liked the ducking and diving.

There are problems when presenters come over-prepared: where they had either over-worked the piece and had grown tired with it; or where they are nervous about the experience and try to work out the various angles beforehand. Given the vulnerability that many experience such a response is not surprising. However, it can stimulate a particular reaction:

I sometimes used to get the impression that people used to bring a piece of work that they already had the answers for. No matter what anyone said that piece of work was history or placed in a compartment with ‘solved’ printed on it.

This was a theme that emerged regularly in the conversations. Once people made a commitment to engage with their and others’ practice, then attempts to avoid the subject were seen as undermining.

For presenters the experience of the workshops or groups can be intense, especially where they bring substantial material and want to work in the group on it: ‘there were so many things coming thick and fast, trying to recall all those different things was difficult’. Concerns such as this led some workers to emphasise follow-up work. This typically involves recording their experiences after the group – and reflecting on them in supervision.

Being a facilitator

The task of the facilitator in this setting – as with any other form of humanistic groupwork – is to effect two complementary objectives. ‘The first is the development of the democratic mutual aid system; the second is the actualization of purpose’ (Glassman and Kates 1990: 105; see also Mullender and Ward 1991). Inevitably, we are drawn to the significant role played by the groupworker in establishing or helping to adapt, the group so that work of this kind can take place. Here the two ‘complementary objectives’ can be represented as :

  • establishing the task. Facilitators have to work with the group to establish a clear understanding of the task. While there may be an initial, written, briefing, there are inevitably questions concerning the exact framing of the task. Beyond this, facilitators establish the task by engaging in it – by asking questions of presenters, exploring themes and issues. Last, they are also likely, from time to time, to have to remind people of the focus of the discussion.
  • establishing boundaries. Here a common approach is to open a discussion early on concerning the ways in which the group can work, and what agreements should be concerning confidentiality, time, relationships and procedure. As the group operates, facilitators then have some responsibility for encouraging the review of these matters.

Once the framework for the conduct of the groups is established and worked at over a period, interventions made by facilitators change but we should not overlook the extent to which they remain a major resource for the group (Douglas 1993: 95). Their position in relation to the group allows them to approach questions with regard to activity, interaction and sentiment (Homans 1951: 33-40) with a different set of constraints to that enjoyed by the others involved. Facilitators are participants (perhaps providing one model for engaging with the material), but there is often also an expectation that they will approach questions of process, functioning and the extent to which the group it is contributing to human wellbeing. Of course, as the group becomes more ‘self-directed’ these matters will also be owned by members – but two dimensions of facilitators were noted by participants in conversation. First, they are seen as possessing repertoires of routines, examples and experiences that can benefit the group. Second, and crucially, they are in a position to make use of these. In this sense they may be perceived as ‘longstops’.

The framework established at the start with the group appears to enable people to take responsibility. In conversation, participants emphasize the high degree of involvement in the process; wholly non-participating group members are relatively rare. If group members begin to recognize a consistent pattern of non-involvement then this frequently becomes the subject of conversation in the reflective/evaluative sessions that follow the examination of individual’s work. The ‘longstop’ role assumes particular significance in situations where there are other, continuing relationships or a history of interaction. The most obvious example here is when seeking to work in this way with teams of practitioners or with units (i.e. involving clients, workers, managers and so on). Here, having someone outside the situation or the established relationships to facilitate process, and bring to the notice of the group questions concerning, for example, deviations from the task or the agreed boundaries, can be valued. There is also something about having someone involved who has a ‘safe pair of hands’.  The process holds a number of risks and a facilitator provides something of a safety net.

Many of the participants I had conversations with had worked with a number of different facilitators and thus were able to compare styles and approaches. This is a not untypical response:

The most useful approach has been when the facilitator has challenged, but has thrown it back at the group or the individual. Rather than challenging someone and saying ‘what about this?’ or whatever, taking it from their (the facilitator’s) point of view. Personally I haven’t found that as useful. At the end of the day it is about the group’s learning and individual’s within that group… It might be about saying ‘you are not challenging this person’, ‘look at what you are doing within the group’ or ‘this is not taking place as it should, that is not an intervention’. Getting people to look actually at the piece of work. It is quite easy to drift into the easy way out.

A significant feature of this latter response is that it is also what is expected from other participants. That is to say, all participants are expected to take responsibility for their own learning and to simultaneously work with material in such a way as to allow others to create frameworks and come to appreciations for themselves.

The impact of study groups

In looking at what participants said about the experience of exploring practice in study groups we have already had some strong indicators of what they gain. Here I pick up dimensions that appeared with some frequency in conversations.

Developing practitioner identities

One of the strongest and most consistent themes was the extent to which repeated and thorough explorations of practice helped to build people’s confidence in themselves as particular kinds of practitioners. Through the group explorations, and linking in with supervision, self reflection, reading and informal discussions with peers, a picture emerges of what a ‘good’ practitioner might be. Through exploring practice, participants can recognize their abilities in such a way as to be able to fully take on an occupational identity. More specifically, for many, their experience of sustained exploration of practice in a public way with peers, and a recognition of their capacities in this area, can cement an understanding of themselves as professional (two workers speaking).

We were talking about professional detachment and I think these were very much part of the process of gaining that detachment. You can cut yourself off from the process and look at it objectively. Spend time reflecting, analysing, deciding on action.

Common themes seem to come out. I think that was the thing that made you feel part of the profession. What was being said or professed, you are professing some knowledge of them, was things that you could really relate to.

It is a process that can be enhanced by having a comprehensive environment in which practice and identity could be explored. By being able to tack between supervision, peer exploration, individual reflection, workers can realize change:

This time last year I had major problems with my identity as a worker. I was struggling with the project work but fighting against being an informal educator. It was going back to supervision and starting again… It suddenly dawned on me what I had heard other people saying. You have got to let the group decide for themselves and take their own decisions. You sit and watch workers and think they are not doing anything, but then you realize they are. They are taking the back seat. It was working out all my biases about the way that other workers had worked.

Listening, observing, asking questions

The act of engaging with material in the sessions, and subsequent reflection and study of that experience, allows for the honing of dialogical abilities. For example, recognizing that others are competent and that you can listen and observe while participating:

An ability to listen to other people and to try and understand where they are coming from. At times to not actively take part, but to sit back and see a process happening. That I found quite fascinating. Especially where you can see where one person is going and what the other person is struggling for.  At times you could see the enlightenment come, the understanding. Sitting back, and even though you could understand what the questioner was trying to get across, to sit back and watch that happen. Not interfere because they had the ability to it, so it was an acceptance that other people have the expertise.

There was also the development of the ability to question material: to make interpretations and judgements.

As a participant it is also about learning how to question stuff…  As time progressed it was much easier to question and not offer solutions.  That has taught me things about working with people in general. In particular, about how you judge stuff. The judgement I make is based on what people say to me. I need to check that out and by questioning in an appropriate manner and not by challenging in terms of the person or the personality. It is about what is actually being done, not about the individual who is doing it.

These abilities were not confined to the forum of the study group. They could be used and developed in other settings: for engaging in meetings and for thinking about one’s own processes.

Generating frameworks for practice

Enhancing the ability to make judgements and interpretations, and to ask questions, involves the development of practitioner frames of reference.  As the groups developed so too did these frameworks.

They helped me to get a framework to analyse things. You read and think about different ideas… Suddenly you have this coathanger to hang on how we analyse certain situations. It was just like everybody else’s experiences coming in. Then you realize ‘Oh I never thought of it like that.. ‘

One of the significant features of these frameworks is that they are both individual and shared.

We are beginning to get a structure for questions – aims, what is your role, how do you think the other people saw you, what do think they saw their role as, what were you feeling, we seem to go through a set of questions. I don’t know how it happened – it just developed.

Individuals can sit down and analyse a piece of work along these dimensions. Similarly, they might be used as they reflect-in-action, as an element of internal supervision. At the same time if we analyse the processes of groups that have been working together for some time, then these frameworks become revealed in the nature and direction of the questioning.

Two further dimensions concerning this emerging framework were particularly noticeable when reviewing the conversations I had with participants. These are the importance of staying in touch with feelings; and of owning ideas, feeling and actions.

It made me recognize… how many people weren’t admitting how they were feeling at the time of what they were doing. I realized that if I am going to learn I will have to unblock that and say this is how I am feeling and I felt that at the time.

A significant proportion of questions asked, and statements made, in groups concern the feelings of the presenter (and, indeed, those of the participants). Such statements tend to be increasingly prefaced by statements such as ‘I think’. That is to say that they were not thrown in as abstract or unattributed statements that could be passed off onto others, but were owned by the individuals.  They were grounded in an appreciation of practice.

The way in which practitioners develop and make use of theory can also be revealed through looking and relooking at the process of the groups. What occurs is that statements are made and questions are asked about a particular piece of work, an intervention made by a worker. Through this process, the tacit and often unacknowledged theories and ideas that guide the way we respond to situations, our theory-in-use (Argyris & Schön 1977) can be exposed and interrogated. We might contrast them with our espoused theory (what we say we are doing when asked) or with other theories or propositions. This form of exploring the theories that practitioners use enables the development of grounded understandings. If practice is understood as praxis – informed, committed action – we are able to get beyond the idea that theory and practice are mutually exclusive realms; that, for example, practice is developed when we apply theory. Practice cannot exist without theory, nor can it be separated from questions of value and disposition. It is precisely this that becomes revealed in the process of the groups.

Expanding practitioners’ repertoires

In addition to developing practitioners’ central appreciative systems, these groups also allow people to add to their store of images, ideas and examples: their repertoire (Schön 1983). ‘You add to that reservoir of knowledge. You are developing a bank of knowledge’. This consists not so much of concrete examples that can be mechanically applied, as of metaphors or starting points. This disparate collection of metaphors can be worked with. It is this ‘working with’ which, arguably, constitutes ‘good practice’.

Understanding group processes and being able to work collectively

One outcome that appears with some regularity in conversations with participants concerns the way in which reflection on the experience enhanced people’s understandings of group processes in general, and cultivated an ability to work collectively. The intensity of the experience and the anxieties involved around the exploration of one’s own work created a rich store of material for reflection.

As a participant observer, it brought it home to you. Being involved in that group helped you to grasp… the way you worked within the group. How you responded to other people, what roles you took on, how your role changed depending on who was in the spotlight or whatever. All those things were learning from being part of the group.

Individuals can also develop an ability to draw attention to the process of the group, what is happening in the immediate situation, and to use this to further understanding. Examples here include comments on the presenter’s emotional state or comment on the impact of the presentation on the group. This is a fundamental move that can occur as groups mature. It involves grasping the possibility of people when recounting or exploring a previous experience or relationship to relive aspects or transfer elements into the current situation. There are three dimensions to this. A focus on whatever is being carried by the presenter, both consciously and unconsciously from the intervention (what some would describe as counter-transference); a focus on the ‘here-and-now process as a mirror or parallel of the there-and-then-process’ (Hawkins & Shohet 1989: 58); and a focus on participants own experience in the group. That is to say the feelings, thoughts and images the material stirs up in them and how these can be used for learning in the group (ibid.: 58). Here we are able to draw upon a rich vein of metaphors and ideas from psychodynamic theorizing. A significant element in this ‘drawing upon’ is that it takes place here within a social groupwork framework and as such also draws on contrasting traditions of practice. Most significant here is the ‘explicit development of a democratic group form in conjunction with the actualization of group purpose (Glassman and Kates 1990: 110).

Lastly, the process of groups can be used in other settings e.g. to develop teams with whom participants are working. Here, there can be some difficulties because they involve a range of relationships and experiences that have to be acknowledged and worked with e.g. workers are exploring their practice with managers and vice versa. The interventions brought may already be known to other participants. This can bring a special problem in that they begin to work with their memory of the situation rather than the account of the relationships and processes furnished by the presenter (Christian and Kitto 1987). However, what the group can help develop is an expanded vocabulary for describing and exploring work within the team. It can help members to appreciate how others work. And the experience of working in this way within one arena can impact upon collective work undertaken elsewhere, for example, in full team meetings.

In conclusion – developing a critical community of practice

There are a number of overlapping reasons why we should seek to encourage and participate in the critical and collective enquiry into practice. The judgements we make are not simply matters of individual choice but must involve dialogue with others. This is both because we dealing with matters of human well-being and because understanding itself is achieved through dialogue. Moreover, through our engagement with such communities and groupings we develop and sustain our identity as practitioners. We also directly develop our understanding and appreciation of the processes and projects that lie at the heart of our work. What emerges is a shared framework for thinking about things.

These concerns are obviously linked to a wish to further the democratic project and ideas about the worth of each and every person.  The process of participating in study groups helps practitioners not only to articulate what they are doing to each other, but also to those they are working with and to the public at large. As such they are a contribution to a more open and democratic occupation or community of practice; and they help deepen public accountability. Furthermore, participation in such groups provides practitioners with models for democratic engagement in other areas of their work.

There are also considerable gains from this form of engagement for theorizing within and across different communities of practice. A good example here has been the tendency within youth work in recent years to turn to paradigms and practices in parallel occupations rather than to interrogate the traditions of actual practice that have emerged (Smith 1988). Explorations of interventions and situations in the ways discussed here allow for the generation of grounded theory and ways of making sense that more closely connect with the concerns and actions of workers in different areas. In turn, these can also be used to deepen discussion across occupational boundaries.

Collective exploration of practice hold great potential. Their power does not lie in some simple notion that by having more people look at something you create the possibility of knowing more. It connects with something fundamental about practice. Practice is a social process involving ideas about what makes for the good. As such it is lost without collective exploration.


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Acknowledgement: Photograph: Action Research Workshop with Christopher Robbins, WPA 2010 by Eyebeam Art + Technology Center. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

How to cite this piece:  Smith, Mark K. (1995). ‘Developing critical communities of practice’, Groupwork pp. 134 – 151, Available in the informal education archives: [Retrieved: insert date]

This piece has been reproduced here with the permission of the writer. First placed in the archives: June 2006