Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education

Practice example 1: Knowing yourself: A foundation for professional practice (1996) Compiled and edited by Christina Stern with Roger Clough, Lancaster University

Knowing yourself: A foundation for professional practice is a written resource based on the observation that self-awareness is a key starting point for the acquisition and deployment of effective communication skills in social work.

It arises out of an experience of teaching around communication skills and selfawareness as ad hoc, and is derived from a course that the author had been teaching for some time when the written resource was conceived. It represents the attempt to bring all the many and various communications and self-awareness materials collected over the years together into one place.

The book takes a service user perspective by focusing on social workers’ selfawareness as a crucial starting point for communicating in a dialogue with users. It also takes into account student feedback on an earlier module which suggested that students needed more time and opportunity to practise skills.

The book is divided into eight sections: The self as a social worker; The origins of self; The current self; The helping self; The thinking and feeling self; Self view of others; Others’ view of self; and Self in relation to power and authority.

The sections consist of exercises, prefaced by explanatory notes, which allow the student to explore an aspect of the self. Some of the exercises are intended to be done alone, some in pairs, and some in groups of varying sizes. Most of the exercises can be done in more than one of these combinations.

The book makes use of symbols throughout, either as 'sign-posting’ devices - for example, to draw attention to 'General aims’ and 'Specific objectives’ - or to point out links and context - for example, 'Some theory’, 'Further reading’ and 'Links to practice’. The book contains 177 pages of exercises and is not intended to be worked through systematically. As the book was first written in 1996, some of the text and references are now inevitably somewhat out of date. However, the tutor continues to adapt and select from the book according to changes taking place in social work and according to the needs of the particular student group in any given year.

All practice teachers involved in student placements have access to the workbook and it has become a tool for facilitating the integration of university and practice curricula. The workbook has also been widely requested by local agencies, and is used by the probation service local to Lancaster.

The author feels that a crucial aspect of the success of this workbook is the tutor’s ability to create a safe environment in which students can learn, as the material covered can often be very sensitive. Therefore the tutor keeps to issues, debates and third party behaviour in the first term and a half, only moving on to work on the self in the second half of the second term. Ground rules about confidentiality always apply, and in some cases feedback will be invited on the process, rather than the content, of small group discussions.

Student feedback on the exercises in the book is very good, although students always want more time working in this area.

User participation in planning, delivery and evaluation

Some of the exercises were designed by individual service users and user groups.

Other key stakeholder participation in planning, delivery and evaluation

Nobody other than practice teachers employed by key stakeholders have used material from the book with students on placement. Feedback has been positive.

Learning aims and outcomes

Student and practice teacher feedback is very good in respect of identified personal growth and change in the student. However, students always want more time and opportunity working in this area.

Assessment of learning

Students are required to write practice essays and reflective pieces of work drawing on (among other things) the use of self and the impact of self on others. Scores in these pieces of work have been consistently good to very good.

Integration between university and practice curricula

Exercises continually draw on the links between theory (classroom teaching) and the practice curricular. Many cross-curricular areas are covered.


Student feedback on the exercises in the workbook is very good, although students always want more time working in this area.


Stern, C. and Clough, R. (1996) Knowing yourself: A foundation for professional practice, Lancaster: Lancaster University.

Further information available from Christina Stern, Lancaster University (c.stern@lancaster.ac.uk www.lancaster.ac.uk).