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Discussion: Working With Families

Families are as unique as the individuals who form them. While you may utilize the same or similar techniques while working with family systems (through the steps in the GIM and related practice skills), it is also important to recognize that each family has its own unique needs and experiences in the world. The empowerment perspective states that an essential aspect of working with individuals and families is to address their feelings of powerlessness and oppression. Empowerment is a process, and one part of that process is to gain an awareness of the oppressive structures evident in our society. Oppression, in the form of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, can impact a family’s quality of life and ability to thrive. In this Discussion, you consider the many aspects of working with diverse families.

To Prepare

· Select a family system working with barriers and challenges, such as those related to differences in sexual orientation, a differences in race or ethnicity, substance abuse, food insecurity, or managing a disability.

· Think about how a social worker might address one of these barriers on an individual, family, organizational, group, or community level.

· Next, visit the Walden Library to find information on barriers and social work roles for engaging with the family system. Support this post using information that you find, in addition to the assigned resources.

· Walden Library recommends the following:

· Navigate to the 

Social Work Research Guide
. From the Library’s homepage, click on the blue button 
Research by Subject, then choose 
Social Work.

· Use the gold-lined search box at the top of the pages to search thousands of social work journals. This is a great place to start your research.

· Look at the results—especially the title and subjects—to see related concepts and keywords to add to your search.

· Use OR between related terms, which means you will take either term. For example:

· Domestic violence OR intimate partner violence

· Add a second concept in Box #2 to focus your search. It helps to keep concepts separate, especially when multiple boxes are provided. For example:

· Box #1: Domestic violence OR intimate partner violence

· Box #2: Veterans

· Refine your results based on what you find. Don’t be afraid to try other keywords or combinations of words.

· Apply limits now. Scroll down in the left column to limit by date (last 5 years) and limit the results to peer-reviewed scholarly journals only.

· To retrieve the full text of the article, click on the PDF or click on the 
Find@Walden button. Then, follow the prompts.

· Other examples of searches:

· Drug addiction OR drug abuse OR substance abuse

· Senior citizen OR older people OR elderly OR aging

· Suicide prevention OR suicide intervention

· Adolescent OR youth OR teen AND anxiety

By Day 3

Post a response to the following:

· Provide a brief description of the family system you selected.

· Explain potential barriers or challenges this family might encounter.

· Explain how a social worker might address this barrier on an individual, family, organizational, group, or community level.

Support your post with examples from the course text and any other resources used to respond to this Discussion. Demonstrate that you have completed the required readings, understand the material, and are able to apply the concepts. Include a full reference of resources at the bottom of the post.   

Learning Resources

Required Readings

Kirst-Ashman, K. K., & Hull, G. H., Jr. (2018).
Empowerment series:
Understanding generalist practice (8th ed.). CENGAGE Learning.

· Chapter 9, “Understanding Families: Family Assessment” (pp. 349–381)

· Chapter 10, “Working With Families” (pp. 382–418)

Samudio, M. (2015, Winter). Doing family therapy as a new social worker: The Do’s and don’ts.
The New Social Worker, 22(1), 6–7.

Walden University Writing Center. (2020). Walden templates: General templates: Course paper.

Walden University Library. (2020).
Evaluating resources: Peer review.

Walden University Library. (2020).
Searching and finding information in the library databases: Overview.

Required Media

Walden University Writing Center. (2020).
Writing Center module:
Basic citation frequency [Interactive media].

Walden University Library. (n.d.).
Evaluating types of resources [Interactive media]. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from

Walden University Writing Center. (2020).
Using evidence: Overview [Multimedia].

Discussion 1: Social Work as an Ethical Profession

Social work is a profession bound by a code of ethics, one which has evolved in conjunction with the development of social work practice. The code of ethics outlines the mission and values of the social work profession, as well as the subsequent principles and standards that demonstrates those values. The code is not a rule book, but a set of guidelines that helps a social worker choose the most appropriate course of action.

Codes of ethics or discussions of ethics can be formal, sometimes resembling legal language, and adopted by varied groups. When examined closely and analyzed, they can become powerful, and their meaning can evolve with your experience. And they serve a practical purpose, especially in social work—they are guiding principles and a checkpoint. In this Discussion, you reflect on the NASW Code of Ethics to begin the process of finding how its meaning can apply to your practice.

To Prepare

· Read the NASW Code of Ethics in its entirety, including Preamble, Purpose of the NASW Code of Ethics, Ethical Principles, and Ethical Standards.

· Your Instructor will assign you to a small discussion group with up to five peers.

· Each student in the Discussion will be assigned one or two section(s) of the code (e.g., Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to Clients, Colleagues, in Practice Settings, as Professionals, to the Social Work Profession, Broader Society).

· While each student will be assessed independently for their assigned contribution, the goal is for the group to provide a complete description of the entire code to present to the class.

By Day 3

Post in your assigned group the following:

· Describe professional ethics and the purpose of the NASW code of ethics in your own words.

· Explain the section of the code that you were assigned.

· Describe the standards within that section in your own words.

· Provide a specific example of how a social worker would apply these ethical standards in their practice.

Discussion 2: State Licensure

Licensure represents the ability to practice under the title of social worker. Each state regulates the profession and sets the requirements to be licensed to practice in that state. Even when regulations vary, all states require licensed social workers to have graduated from a CSWE–accredited program and pass the national ASWB exam. This assures that those who receive the title of “social worker” have met the criteria developed to demonstrate proficiency in meeting the demands associated with the profession. This is referred to as “title protection,” and protecting the title means that individuals not appropriately trained for the profession cannot call themselves a social worker.

In this Discussion, you research the licensure requirements in your state and share them with your colleagues. Sharing the various states’ requirements can be useful should you be planning a relocation, or if you have ever worked in this or a related profession in another state.

To Prepare

· Research the criteria for assuming a social work license in your state or country. You will want to research the regulations put forth by your state’s licensing board.

· Consider the benefits offered by title protection and maintenance of licensure standards.

For help with this discussion the Library recommends the following: 

For students in the United States, the simplest way to find out about your state’s requirements for becoming a licensed social worker is to search 


Enter your state and licensing board. For example, Illinois social work licensing board. 

The following websites may also be helpful in finding social worker requirements in your location: 


Social Work Licensure Map

 (United States) 

· Social Work Student and Professional Related Organizations


National Association of Social Workers

For international students, search 

 for your Country’s or region’s National Association of Social Workers. For example Kenya National Association of Social Workers. 

The following website may also be helpful in finding social worker requirements in your location:


International Federation of Social Workers

Note: For this Discussion, your must 
post your response before you will be able to view your colleague’s posts.

By Day 6

Post response to the following:

· Identify the types of social work licenses available in your state.

· Describe the criteria required to earn an LCSW in your state. Specifically,

· What are state requirements for education?

· How many hours of post-MSW practice are required?

· How many hours of supervision are required?

· How much does it cost for initial licensure?

· Describe the criteria to maintain an LCSW in your state. Specifically,

· How often do you need to renew your license?

· How much does it cost to renew a license?

· How many continuing education credits are required?

· What, if any, specific education hours are required (e.g., suicide, ethics, substance use, cultural competence)?

· Explain the benefits for licensure and title protection.

You are encouraged to read your colleagues’ posts to understand how licensure varies across states; however, no response posts are required.

Writing with Integrity

Hello Everyone:

Writing is a very important component of this course- both in the Discussions and the Assignments.  Please review the following regarding Expectations for Academic Research and Professional Writing:

In this class, there is the expectations that all communications in the Discussion and in Assignments will reflect Writing with Integrity.  There are certain expectations that will be strongly adhered to in the Discussions:

1)  ALL posts required research- includes a reference list and citations with the narrative of your post.

2)  ALL posts must adhere to APA Style guidelines.  This is required per the grading rubric.

3)  ALL posts must be grammatically correct.  Common errors that should not exist in a post: write out contractions (i.e. it’s should be it is), NEVER have the pronoun “IT” at the beginning of a paragraph, tense must be consistent (both past/present and singular/plural) should be the same in a sentence- in a paragraph tense can shift one to two times), and avoid writing in first person.

4) Each post should have an introduction, body, and conclusion:

       -ALL post must have an introduction that focuses on informing the reader of your purpose.  (The purpose of this post is…).  Avoid including a reference in the introductory paragraph.

       -ALL posts must have a body that focuses on your analysis.  Focus on at least 3 paragraphs here.  Each paragraph should have a topic sentence, a reference or two, tie the reference to your facts and/or embellish with specific examples, take a position, and have a summing up sentence.

        -ALL posts must have a conclusion.  The conclusion should focus on reminding the reader of your message(s).  No new information should be introduced in the conclusion- that means no reference.

Learning Resources

Required Readings

National Association of Social Workers. (2021).
Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers.

National Association of Social Workers. (n.d.).
History of the NASW code of ethics.

Sewpaul, V., & Henrickson, M. (2019). The (r)evolution and decolonization of social work ethics: The global social work statement of ethical principles.
International Social Work,
62(6), 1469–1481.

Mathias, J. (2015). Thinking like a social worker: Examining the meaning of critical thinking in social work.
Journal of Social Work Education, 51(3), 457–474.

Association of Social Work Boards. (n.d.).
Laws and regulations database.

Grise-Owens, E., Owens, L. W., & Miller, J. J. (2016). Recasting licensing in social work: Something more for professionalism.
Journal of Social Work Education,
52(sup1), S126–S133.

Monahan, M. J. (2016). The challenges and benefits of becoming a licensed social worker.
The New Social Worker.,and%20four%20protect%20practice%20only

Required Media

Walden University. (2016, 2021).
The NASW code of ethics [Video].

Note: The approximate length of this media piece is 5 minutes.

Accessible player 


6 The New Social Worker WInter 2015

In the Field

I hate doing family therapy!” a col-
league of mine once said during
group supervision. She was sitting

across from me, and even though her
comment was harsh, I could see in her
eyes and expression that it wasn’t anger
coming through, but frustration and
despair. “I’d rather meet with the kid
individually than to deal with the chaos
that is going on at the kid’s home.” She
finished her statement, and everyone else
in the group nodded in agreement. This,
my fellow social workers, is how some of
us have come to view family therapy and
treatment—as a burden!
I started out wanting to save the
world—not unlike many other social
workers who make the arduous jour-
ney through rigorous undergraduate
and graduate work. And, like others, I
thought that if I could just impart my
clinical understanding and cultural expe-
rience with people, I could cure mental
illness and save individuals one session
at a time. But, as I settled into my first
position out of graduate school—a com-
munity mental health agency providing
services to children and families—I began
to realize how ill-prepared I was to begin
working with the populations we all had
our hearts set on saving!
For many new social workers, work-
ing with families has become an uphill
struggle fraught with missed appoint-
ments, hard-to-reach parents, children
who can only be seen during school
hours, and family members who some-
times undermine the clinician’s treat-
ment with their own views about mental
health. Still, families need help and new
social workers are trained to help—so
how do we mix the two?

The Do’s and Don’ts of
Family Therapy
Family therapy is a type of group
psychotherapy that involves the treat-
ment of two or more family members
during the same session. Sounds pretty
easy, right? Just provide the same type of

treatment you would give an individual
to multiple people, right? Well, not quite.
Families have their own culture
that includes not only gender, sexual
orientation, race, and socioeconomic
status, but also themes, roles, myths, and
a developed family concept that perme-
ates all treatment. They have a resiliency
that allows them to “absorb the shock of
problems and discover strategies to solve
them while finding ways” to meet the
whole family’s needs (Van Hook, 2008,
p. 11). But it can be tough and challeng-
ing to engage families, and it requires
a clinician to have “a willingness to ap-
proach your anxiety” (Taibbi, 2007, p. 4).

DO Understand the Family’s
One of the main things that you
must do when you begin family work is
to look at how families identify them-
selves. A common mistake of most new
social workers is to look at the family
through the lens of services the family
has or their current living situation. The
best way to learn how a family identi-
fies itself is to simply ask: “Would you
say that your family is close or distant?”
“Can you detail everyone you consider
‘family’?” You’d be surprised by the
answers you receive that can help inform
treatment and give you a chance to use
informal supports to help the family.

DON’T Chase Chaos
When working with families, one
of the many barriers that tend to arise

is that they have an uncanny knack for
pulling clinicians into their chaos. It
can be even more difficult to avoid the
chaotic atmosphere of a family when you
are doing home visits. The best remedy
for managing the family’s chaos and your
own anxiety is this: develop a concrete,
succinct treatment plan that details each
family member’s role in treatment and
each family member’s goals for treat-
ment. As families begin to succumb to
life stressors, it will be easier to redirect
the family back to the treatment plan and
even link the family’s stressors with what
they are working on with you.

DO Respect the Family’s
Current State
As new social workers, we have a
tendency to want to tell our clients what
to do—not in an offensive way, but in a
naïve, overtly helpful way that allows
us to share our information and train-
ing. Although that’s all well and good,
it does not serve the family, nor does it
help develop the therapeutic alliance
you’ll need to do deeper work. Being
able to respect where each member of
the family is in his or her current level
of functioning and being able to speak
to that level of functioning will show
that you are not there to run the fam-
ily’s life, but rather you are there as a
support for the family to heal and grow.
When you are feeling tempted to give
suggestions to the family on ways to im-
prove their functioning, a good rule of
thumb is to ask: “Can the family sustain
this suggestion without help from me?”
If the answer is no, then be patient as
the family develops a new understand-
ing of its current challenges and the
solutions to them.

DON’T Judge the Family’s
Current Skill Set
When working with families, it’s of-
ten easy to see the patterns and decisions
that have led the family to its current
state of functioning. We are trained to see

Doing Family Therapy as a New Social Worker:
The Do’s and Don’ts

by Mercedes Samudio, MSW

The New Social Worker Winter 2015 7

the systems that affect families and are
given the tools to set the family on the
right course. But hold on, grasshopper!
Being able to be present with the family
exactly where they are and guiding them
to be a functional family is a very fine
line, and it all starts with honoring the
family’s current set of skills. Van Hook
(2008) suggests that the clinician’s role in
the family is to join with the family and
enable its members to experience new
ways to function. Through your work
with the family, they will begin to prac-
tice new behaviors. But you have to do
one more thing before you can just jump
in and get to practicing new skills.

DO Develop a Therapeutic

Remember in the last paragraph
when we talked about joining with a
family so they can begin to experience a
new way to function? Well, that all occurs
when you are able to build a therapeu-
tic alliance with the core family and its
extended support systems. The therapeu-
tic alliance will help create a safe space
where each family member can not only
practice new skills, but also process bar-
riers to mastering those skills. This is the
part that many new therapists get hung up
on—being able to actively engage with a
family that may be resistant to treatment.
A few key ways to develop a positive alli-
ance, or join, with the family include:
• Being on time and present during

the session;
• Actively listening and asking for

clarification instead of assuming;
• Being flexible with the family’s

• Delivering value to the family by

triaging needs (remember Maslow?);

• Allowing the family’s voice to be
heard in treatment.

DON’T Ignore Cultural
The buzz word of our profession
is cultural sensitivity, right? And, more
than likely, each class in your graduate
program expected you to take a cultural
perspective in applying theory to prac-
tice. But as you work with families, the
cultural lens has to become one of your
sharpest assessment tools. Looking at
everything from race, gender, and socio-
economic status to religious ideals, family
rituals, and external support systems will

help you get a good picture of a family’s
culture. I encourage new clinicians to
not get hung up on what they think are
going to be cultural barriers. Take inven-
tory of your own ideas about culture
and process them in supervision so you
can come to families ready to hear and
observe their cultural perspectives. One
suggestion is to do a cultural assessment
of a family that goes deeper than the
intakes you perform in your agency. In
this assessment, be sure to include all the
aforementioned items, as well as the fol-
lowing aspects of a family’s culture:
• Previous negative experiences in

• Coping efforts and beliefs about

• Family organization (communica-

tion, leadership, roles); and
• The family’s basic needs.

DO Develop a Strategic
Treatment Plan
Going back to making sure that
you do not get caught up in the family’s
maladaptive level of functioning, making
sure that you have a strategic treatment
plan that details the goals of treatment can
be one of the keys to facilitating successful
family therapy. The treatment plan should
illustrate a clinical loop: assessment,
diagnosis, goals, and termination. In the
assessment, you’ll gather all the important
information about the family (history,
resources, needs, and commitment to
treatment). Next, you’ll assign a mental
health diagnosis to the identified patient
(usually the person on your referral) that
you establish from the assessment. Then,
you’ll use the assessment and diagnosis
to create a goal that will help the fam-
ily decrease symptoms and/or increase
coping strategies. Last, you should discuss
termination in this plan, so you and the
family understand that treatment is not
indefinite and will eventually end once
goals are met. This clinical loop will help
you to assess the progress of the fam-
ily’s treatment and allow you to pinpoint
where adjustments need to be made as
you traverse through treatment. Another
benefit to developing a strategic treatment
plan is that you can use the plan to discuss
the family’s symptoms and progress ef-
ficiently during your supervision.

DON’T Underestimate Your
We all come from families. And if
truth be told, a lot of us came into this

field as a result of our experiences with
our own families. Honoring this truth can
help you build a therapeutic awareness,
so you can begin to understand your
motivations and difficulties in providing
effective family therapy. When we work
with families, it’s not always obvious
where the barriers to treatment can pres-
ent themselves. As clinicians, we have a
tendency to look to the families we work
with to find answers to barriers in treat-
ment. However, we can also look within
ourselves to see that our own perspec-
tives, experiences, and beliefs about
families come into the way we provide
services to families. It is important to
discuss this countertransference with
your supervisor, to rule out whether your
experiences are shaping the treatment of
the families you serve. And it is impor-
tant to be honest with yourself about how
your own family history and experiences
motivate your work with families, so you
do not force or undermine a family’s
The work we do with families can
be transformative and life-changing.
Whether you’re partial to family work
or not, thinking about these Do’s and
Don’ts as you serve families will give
you a framework with which to do effec-
tive, meaningful work in our communi-


Taibbi, R. (2007). Doing family therapy: Craft
and creativity in clinical practice (2nd Ed.). New
York: Guliford Press.

Van Hook, M. P. (2008). Social work practice
with families: A resiliency-based approach. Chi-
cago: Lyceum Books.

Mercedes Samudio,
MSW, is a family/
parent coach who
has been work-
ing with families
for more than six
years helping them
achieve results
in parent-child
bonding, decreasing
power struggles,
and developing
effective discipline
strategies that foster strong, nurturing relation-
ships. She received her MSW from the Univer-
sity of Southern California. You can read more
about her parenting philosophy at http://thepar-

Copyright of New Social Worker is the property of White Hat Communications and its
content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the
copyright holder’s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email
articles for individual use.

Recasting Licensing in Social Work: Something More
for Professionalism
Erlene Grise-Owens, Larry W. Owens, and Justin Jay Miller

Abraham Flexner contended that “something more than a degree or claim”
is needed to make a profession. He further asserted that the definitions of a
profession require recasting over time. This article critically considers recast-
ing licensing as something more for social work. Analysis of past and
present discourse on licensing in social work revealed three overarching
themes: (a) advocacy and rationale for licensing, (b) scrutiny and critique of
licensing, and (c) the disconnect and dissonance between professional
licensing and social work education. Moving forward, we suggest recasting
social work’s professional paradigm in the common framework of compe-
tency, with licensing part of the continuum of professionalization. This
recasting can promote critical congruence between social work education
and ongoing professional competency.

Accepted: March 2016

Flexner’s (1915/2001) pivotal speech reverberates through the decades. The impact and intent of that
speech has been analyzed critically by some, argued against by some, and accepted implicitly by
others (Baylis, 2004; Glaser, 2001; Holosko & Leslie, 2001; Johnson, 1999, 2008; Morris, 2008; Wong,
2001). Somewhat ironically, given the impact of this speech, even Flexner questioned whether he had
the “competency” (p. 152) to assess social work. Later, he stated that the definitions of a profession
will require “recasting from time to time” (p. 153).

Yet, Flexner (1915/2001) asserted that “to make a profession in a genuine sense, something more
[emphasis added] than a mere claim or an academic degree is needed” (p. 153). In many professions, in
part, licensing, regulation, and credentialing are cast as the primary means for achieving this something
more. The terms, credentialing, licensing, regulation, and certification are used somewhat interchange-
ably, and the distinctions among them are delineated elsewhere (e.g., Crane et al., 2010; Iverson, 1987;
Miller, Deck, Grise-Owens, & Borders, 2015; Miller, Grise-Owens, & Escobar-Ratliff, 2015; Randall &
DeAngelis, 2008) For simplicity, we use licensing as a general term, in this article.

Hardcastle (1977) declared regulation or licensing “a major contemporary movement in social
work’s efforts to attain recognition as a full profession” (p. 14). However, this licensing as something
more has been a dynamic tension in social work (e.g., Bibus, 2007; Boutté-Queen, 2003). Members of
many professions, such as medicine or law, seem to largely accept licensing as an unquestioned
aspect of their professional identity and practice reality (e.g., Goldsmith, 1931; Thyer, 2011). In
contrast, social work tends to debate the efficacy and effects of licensing (e.g., Hardcastle, 1977; Liles,
2007; Marson, 2006; Miller, Deck, Grise-Owens, & Borders, 2015; Miller, Grise-Owens, & Escobar-
Ratliff, 2015; Seidl, 2000; Thyer, 2000). Bibus (2007) described licensing in social work as a topic of
“discourse, debate, and some controversy for at least 75 years” (p. 2).

This article briefly considers where social work has been and analyzes where it stands today in
terms of professional licensing. The article synthesizes three prominent themes in the present
discourse on licensing in social work: advocacy and rationale for licensing, scrutiny and critique
of licensing, and the disconnect and dissonance between professional licensure and professional

CONTACT Larry W. Owens Western Kentucky University, Department of Social Work, 1906 College
Heights Blvd., #11039, Bowling Green, KY 42101-1039.
© 2016 Council on Social Work Education

2016, VOL. 52, NO. S1, S126–S133

preparation, that is, social work education. Then the article critically considers implications and
directions for licensing as social work moves into the future. We suggest recasting social work’s
professional paradigm to more fully use the common framework of competency.

Themes in the discourse regarding social work licensing

This article does not replicate other articles that document the history of social work licensing and describe
the details of licensing levels and criteria (e.g., Bibus & Boutté-Queen, 2011; Boutté-Queen, 2003; Dyeson,
2004; Hardcastle, 1977; Iverson, 1987; Miller, Deck, Grise-Owens, & Borders, 2015;Miller, Grise-Owens, &
Escobar-Ratliff, 2015; Randall & DeAngelis, 2008). Rather, this article synthesizes major themes in the
discourse on licensing to provide a context for moving forward critically and constructively.

Some early discussion about licensing debated its value (e.g., Gandy & Raymond, 1979). However,
early proponents, such as Goldsmith (1931) strongly described licensing as “important and desir-
able” (p. 560). Goldsmith noted that social work could learn from the evolution of other professions
(such as teaching and nursing) and their adopting regulation on their path to professionalism. In the
early 1970s, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 1974) issued a policy statement
promoting regulation of social work, that is, licensing.

In social work today, licensing has become a “fixture” (Boutté-Queen, 2003, p. 166). Currently in
the United States, every state has professional social work licensing in place, and countries such as
Great Britain, Australia, and Canada also regulate the practice of social work (Association of Social
Work Boards [ASWB], 2014; Randall & DeAngelis, 2008). Licensing is administered at the state level
in the United States. The vast majority of the states work with the ASWB, which develops and
administers licensing examinations.

Even with the ubiquity of licensing, the literature on licensing and social work remains relatively sparse.
Bibus and Boutté-Queen (2011) concluded, “there are fewer published articles than expected” (p. 11).
Likewise, these authors and others (e.g., Black & Whelley, 1999; Donaldson, Hill, Ferguson, Fogel, &
Erickson, 2014) specifically noted a paucity of research on licensing related to social work education. In this
article, we consider what has been written (and not) along with discussions in professional forums,
conferences for example (Escobar-Ratliff, Miller, & Grise-Owens, 2014). In the following sections we
consider three overarching themes in the past and present discourse about licensing.

Advocacy and rationale for licensing

Regulating the profession is viewed by some in social work as a basic professional obligation for all
social workers. Thus, proponents usually frame licensing as a necessary commitment and indicator
of professionalism (Colby & Dziegielewski, 2004). Defining professional parameters and practices,
protecting the general public and providing accountability for consumers, developing and enhancing
the profession, and gatekeeping for the profession are common reasons given for the need for and
purpose of licensing (e.g., Deitz & Thompson, 2004; NASW, 1975; Randall & DeAngelis, 2008) As
noted previously, professional bodies such as the NASW (2005) promote professional licensing as a
means of ensuring professional standards.

Some studies examined the impact of licensing on practice, including protecting the public.
For example, Boland-Prom (2009) examined sanctions levied by licensing boards and found that
licensees were most often cited for substandard practice, dual relationships, and crimes. Boland-
Prom found that licensing boards responded with letters of reprimand or revocation of the
licenses. Bern-Klug and Sabri (2012) found that social service directors in their study reported
that licensed social workers needed less on-the-job training about elder abuse than their non-
licensed counterparts.

Others documented the positive impact of licensing on the status of practitioners. For example,
Baines (2004) noted that licensing “restored some of the worker’s sense that their knowledge and skills


were valuable” (p. 17) Baines further reported that licensing “improved social respect [which con-
tributed to] an increased sense of control over their work and stature in the larger community” (p. 17).

Boutté-Queen (2003) explored barriers to obtaining social work licensing in Texas, such as the
perceived cost. Other studies have identified cost as a barrier (Cavazos, 2001; Floyd & Rhodes, 2011).
This perceived cost may be related to perceived benefit (Escobar-Ratliff, Miller, & Grise-Owens,
2014). As Boutté-Queen (2003) asserted, “If the profession is to decrease the perception of barriers to
licensure attainment, efforts to educate the general public, those who oversee social service agencies,
and those seeking a social work education about the benefits of licensure must continue.” (p. 148)
Boutté-Queen emphasized the need to educate prospective employers on the value of social work
licensing. And she advocated for social work education to lead in this educational endeavor.

Scrutiny and critique of licensing

Although some tout the benefits of licensing as an obligation and essential element of professional social
work, others critique and scrutinize licensing. For example, some authors have drawn attention to possible
biases (e.g., race, gender) in the licensing examination content and licensing credentialing expectations
(Boutté-Queen, 2003; Garcia, 1990; Iverson, 1987). Significant scrutiny is related to the efficacy of licensing.
For example, Hardcastle (1977) harshly criticized licensing, primarily because of vague standards and
rampant exemptions. Hardcastle declared that “weak legal regulations” make it worse, rather than
better (p. 19).

Others report preliminary findings that question the impact and efficacy of licensing. For example, in a
study of BSW-level social workers in Texas, Cavazos (2001) found no correlation between being licensed
and higher salary or greater employment. Swagler and Harris (1977) reported similar findings in an
economic analysis of the benefits of licensing.

A few studies look at factors affecting exam scores and related effectiveness of the exam. Albright
and Thyer (2010) highlighted flaws in the licensing preparation examinations. Johnson and Huff
(1987) further questioned the effectiveness of the exam. Thyer (2011) looked at the licensed clinical
social worker pass rates in Florida and considered the relationship between the Council on Social
Work Education’s (CSWE) accreditation standards and the ASWB’s task analysis. Thyer noted the
lack of “formal investigations on the extent to which these two driving forces governing the
profession overlap, supplement, or contradict each other. Such analyses are long overdue” (p. 300).

Some research further critiqued the licensing exam and ASWB. For example, Albright and
Thyer’s (2010) study concluded that the ASWB clinical examination did not offer a valid assessment
of practice. Other works have noted similar concerns (Randall & Thyer, 1994; Thyer, 2011). In
contrast, Marson, DeAngelis, and Mittal’s (2010) research found that the social work licensing
examinations (at all levels) were “valid, reliable, and defensible” (p. 98).

Licensing has been scrutinized by some formicro bias. For example,Donaldson et al. (2014) critiqued the
“hegemony of clinical social work” (p. 59) and argued for a social work licensing level related to macro
practice. Donaldson et al. noted that Michigan, Missouri, and Oklahoma are the only states with such a
designation. They asserted that social work needs to revisit the issue ofmacro-practice licensing and, indeed,
the idea of inclusive licensing. Citing the deleterious effects of this lack of an encompassing professional
licensure structure, Donaldson et al. concluded, “Not having this conversation is no longer an option”
(2014, p. 60).

Disconnect and dissonance between licensing and social work education

Another key theme in the discourse is the disconnect and dissonance between licensing as a
professional credential and social work education as the preparatory process for the profession.
This dissonance is seen most prominently in the debate in social work education on whether faculty
should be licensed. Similarly, a disconnect is seen in the relative lack of attention developers of social
work education curricula give to licensing requirements.


Whether social work faculty should be licensed is a key topic in the discourse (e.g., Liles, 2007; Marks &
Knox, 2009; Marson, 2006; Seidl, 2000). The CSWE (2001) issued an opinion statement that social work
faculty do not need to be licensed. The ASWB (2010) conducted a comprehensive study of licensing; the
demographic report noted a significantly low number of licensed individuals whose primary setting is in
academia. Boutté-Queen (2003) noted that many faculty “work actively to see that licensure does not
become an additional requirement of faculty for a number of reasons” (p. 148), which include (a) direct
practice services are not part of the job function; (b) burden of the faculty role in scholarship, teaching, and
service precludes licensing requirements; (c) barriers regarding eligibility for licensing from state to state;
and (d) accountability to the university and accreditation bodies supersedes licensing accountability.

However, proponents argue that these reasons fall short, particularly in the context of broader practice
expectations. These proponents believe that social work educators should possess this practice credential
(e.g., ASWB, 2012; Marson, 2006; Thyer, 2000). Reasons for licensing include (a) an ethical obligation to
practice in an area of competence, (b) credibility in the social work profession at large and in interprofes-
sional contexts, and (c) adequate practice preparation for instructional roles. Modeling professionalism for
students is another argument for social work educators to be licensed (e.g., Thyer, 2000). This discrepancy
of faculty promoting licensing while being unlicensed creates dissonance.

Research findings indicate that students value licensing as a professional credential and see
licensing as a means for professional advancement, marketing, credibility, and competence (e.g.,
Bibus & Boutté-Queen, 2011; Miller, Deck, Grise-Owens, & Borders, 2015; Miller, Grise-Owens, &
Escobar-Ratliff, 2015). Cherry, Rothman, and Skolnik (1989) reported that students perceive the
licensing exam as “important to the profession and significant to their future” (p. 268). However,
Cherry et al. found that faculty are unfamiliar with the licensing examination content and do not
take the examination into account in curriculum development or classroom teaching. Cherry et al.
concluded that “although recognized as a growing phenomenon … it [licensing] has had only
minimal impact on schools of teaching” (p. 273). More recent surveys of students have echoed
similar findings (Miller, Deck, Grise-Owens, & Borders, 2015; Miller, Grise-Owens, & Escobar-
Ratliff, 2015).

Social work education has largely neglected licensing as a matter of concern (Bibus & Boutté-
Queen, 2011; Black & Whelley, 1999; Donaldson et al., 2014; Miller, Deck, Grise-Owens, & Borders,
2015; Miller, Grise-Owens, & Escobar-Ratliff, 2015). Thyer (2011) characterized social work educa-
tion’s attitude toward licensing as “ambivalence” (p. 297). This ambivalence contributes to a relative
lack of attention to licensing, which in turn creates a disconnect between social work education and
professional practice.

This disconnect is even more evident as evolving accreditation standards call for more accountability.
Increasingly, administrators of schools of social work are expected to consider licensing factors (e.g.,
number of test takers, pass rates, and so forth) as gauges of programmatic outcomes and effectiveness
(Thyer, 2011). For example, as part of a volunteer benchmarking service, the CSWE asks schools to
provide data related to licensing pass rates (deGuzman, 2009). The growing tendency to use licensing
factors in assessing social work educational programs is consistent with other professional disciplines
(e.g., nursing, law). Universities and their related constituents expect this consistent programmatic
evaluation from professional programs (Miller, Deck, Grise-Owens, & Borders, 2015; Miller, Grise-
Owens, & Ratliff, 2015; Thyer, 2011).

Given the increasing reality of licensing in professional social work, educational program adminis-
trators need to consider more preparatory initiatives to support successful licensing (Escobar-Ratliff,
Miller, & Grise-Owens, 2014). The ASWB (2013) has created a Path to Licensure Initiative to form
partnerships with CSWE-accredited schools of social work to customize initiatives to “meet their own
teaching needs,” (para. 5) as applied to professional regulation or licensing. According to the ASWB, the
primary aim of this initiative is to help students make the transition to professional practice. Preparing
students for professional licensing as part of a social work curriculum could contribute to addressing the
disconnect between their studies and their professional practice realities (Escobar-Ratliff, Miller, &
Grise-Owens, 2014; Thyer, 2011).


Recommendations and future directions

Having considered three primary themes in the current social work discourse regarding licensing, where do
we go from here? The following section offers three recommendations for social work licensing: continued
critical attention and balanced research, engaged interprofessional interchanges, and improved linkages
between social work education and licensing. These recommendations promote a recasting of social work
professionalization, using the congruent framework of competency throughout educational preparation
and ongoing regulation.

Continued critical attention and balanced research priorities

Licensing is a normative aspect of social work practice. The current challenge and opportunity is to
ensure improved quality and effectiveness of this normative element. Certainly, continued critique is
needed to achieve this aim. For example, continued scrutiny of and research regarding the licensing
examination content, process, and parameters are necessary (e.g., Albright & Thyer, 2010;
Biggerstaff, 1994). Furthermore, continual assessment of biases in the licensing process and exam-
ination needs to be pursued (e.g., Boutté-Queen, 2003; Garcia, 1990; Iverson, 1987).

Likewise, as the discourse has revealed, continued critique is needed about which social work roles
should require licensing and what (if any) exemptions should apply (Boutté-Queen, 2003; Hardcastle, 1977;
Marson, 2006; Seidl, 2000; Thyer, 2000). Similarly, more research is needed on the impact of licensing on
professional status, performance, andmarketability in all arenas of social work (e.g., Donaldson et al., 2014).
And, most notably, sustained research should examine the effectiveness of licensing in meeting its basic
aims, such as protecting the public and ensuring there are competent professionals in the field (Bibus &
Boutté-Queen, 2011; Thyer, 2011).

Social work education must lead the way in contributing research on licensing. In particular,
social work education needs to implement licensing preparation initiatives and evaluate their
effectiveness. This area of research complements the growing need for accountability measures
that mirror other disciplines and document ongoing professionalization (Escobar-Ratliff, Miller, &
Grise-Owens, 2014; Marson, 2006; Thyer, 2000)

Engaged interprofessional interchanges

As noted at the beginning of this article, many other disciplines accept licensing more as a reality of
professional practice. Markedly, other disciplines seem to give more attention to preparing students
for passing their professional examinations. Social work education programs may benefit from these
interprofessional comparisons.

For example, Chambers (2004) promoted a portfolio approach to preparing for dental licensing.
Trujillos (2007) discussed methods for updating the attorney licensing process, highlighted strategies to
improve bar passage, and delineated steps for law school administrators to take in their curricula to better
prepare students for the bar examination. Similarly, Lauchner, Newman, and Britt (2008) described the use
of computerized programs to prepare nursing students for the licensing examination. Jeffreys (2007)
tracked the progress of nursing students toward licensing; factors that correlated with success in passing
the examination included a higher grade point average and fewer course withdrawals.

Another area for increased interchange is interprofessional and interdisciplinary practice models
for education (Interprofessional Education Collaborative, 2014). Developments in interprofessional
education inform social work education’s emphasis on competencies. The Interprofessional
Education Collaborative Expert Panel (2011) developed a set of core interprofessional competencies.
A congruent focus on competencies translates across disciplines. These interprofessional compar-
isons have an impact on social work education; likewise, social work needs more research that
includes a social work perspective in these collaboratives (Kilgore-Bowing, 2014). Notably, a
competency framework is congruent with professional regulation and licensing.


Improved linkages between social work education and licensing

Although the scholarship on licensing and social work is relatively limited, the literature (and gaps
therein) consistently identifies the need for more attention to the relationship between social work
education and licensing (Bibus & Boutté-Queen, 2011; Black & Whelley, 1999; Boutté-Queen, 2003;
Cherry et al., 1989; Donaldson et al., 2014; Miller, Deck, Grise-Owens, & Borders, 2015; Miller,
Grise-Owens, & Escobar-Ratliff, 2015). Flexner’s (1915/2001) key criticism of social work was the
“lack of specificity” (p. 162) in social work training and practice. This criticism has continued to
challenge social work, such as the consistent development of curricula and the efficacy of licensing.
Boutté-Queen (2003) noted social work’s “lack of vision” (p. 148) in clearly defining social work
practice as a deterrent in valuing and promulgating licensing as a professional credential. Likewise,
Hardcastle (1977) critiqued licensing and social work education, lamenting, “If those associated with
social work are unable or unwilling to define more precisely the basic competence, knowledge, and
skills of the profession, the assumption that they can test and differentiate these appears
dubious” (p. 19).

As Flexner (1915/2001) noted, the definitions of professions will require “recasting from time to
time” (p. 153). Social work education has recast the professional training framework. The CSWE
(2015) moved toward a competency-based approach to curricula, a new approach that provided a
particular opportunity to cast regulation and licensing of the profession in a new, expansive light.
This competency framework recasts social work’s vision as a profession with more specifics, that is,
competencies. This recasting means that social work programs are revamping curricula to reframe
outcomes as evidence of professional competence rather than measurements of content delivered.

This competency approach is congruent with interprofessional practice as well as professional
practice regulation’s emphasis on competence. Social work education’s primary function is to
strengthen the profession of social work (CSWE, 2015). Therefore, social work education programs
and curricula play a pivotal role in determining the conceptualization and construction of our
profession. Part of that role could include conceptualizing and constructing curricula and programs
that prepare graduates for professional licensing. This preparation should not involve a stunted
approach of teaching to the test. Rather this preparation should underscore congruency between
social work education and practice expectations. For example, as noted earlier, programs could
integrate licensing preparation initiatives. Likewise, social work education could promote improved
efficacy of the licensing examination and ongoing continuing education requirements.

In this article, we implicitly ask the following questions: What is lost in the historical
conceptualization of licensing? What can be gained by a more comprehensive construction of
licensing as the something more for social work? With increased attention to relevance, account-
ability, and competency in the context of globalization and interprofessionalism, those of us in
social work must fully claim our professional identity. Social work education must recast licen-
sing as part of the continuum of professionalization. Social work education can lead in the
development of a constructive paradigm for promoting congruence between professional pre-
paration and ongoing professional competency.

Notes on contributors

Erlene Grise-Owens is Professor at Spalding University. Larry W. Owens is Associate Professor at Western Kentucky
University. Justin Jay Miller is Assistant Professor at University of Kentucky.


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individual use.

Thinking Like a Social Worker: Examining the Meaning
of Critical Thinking in Social Work

John Mathias

Critical thinking is frequently used to describe how social workers ought to reason. But how well has
this concept helped us to develop a normative description of what it means to think like a social
worker? This critical review mines the literature on critical thinking for insight into the kinds of
thinking social work scholars consider important. Analysis indicates that critical thinking in social
work is generally treated as a form of practical reasoning. Further, epistemological disagreements
divide 2 distinct proposals for how practical reasoning in social work should proceed. Although
these disagreements have received little attention in the literature, they have important implications
for social work practice.

In 1991 John Seelig argued that the concept of critical thinking was the best way to answer the
question of how social workers ought to think (p. 21). Since the publication of Seelig’s article,
critical thinking has become the dominant way of describing desirable forms of reasoning1 in
American social work. Other authors began to promote critical thinking in social work at
approximately the same time (Gambrill, 1990; Gibbs, 1991; Witkin, 1990), and the term caught
on quickly. In 1992 the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) began requiring that
baccalaureate and master’s programs teach students to “apply critical thinking skills” in profess-
ional social work practice (CSWE, 1992a, 1992b, as quoted in Gambrill & Gibbs, 1995, p. 194;
Huff, 2000, p. 400). More recently, the CSWE’s Educational Policy and Accreditation
Standards (EPAS) made critical thinking one of 10 core competencies that all bachelor of social
work (BSW) and master’s of social work (MSW) programs should cultivate in their students,
presenting a guiding description of the concept that emphasizes “principles of logic, scientific
inquiry, and reasoned discernment” (CSWE, 2008; see Figure 1). Thus critical thinking has
become a major goal of every social work curriculum in the country.

However, as Deal and Pittman (2009) pointed out, the scholarly literature on critical thinking
in social work is still quite spare. We know very little about whether or how social work
education teaches students to think critically, let alone the extent to which such education affects

Accepted: January 2014
John Mathias is a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan.
Address correspondence to John Mathias, University of Michigan, 3704 School of Social Work Building, 1080 South

University Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA. E-mail:
1 In the literature on critical thinking, both in social work and more broadly, the terms thinking and reasoning are used

interchangeably. Although I recognize that distinguishing these two processes is helpful in many contexts, I follow that
convention here.

Journal of Social Work Education, 51: 457–474, 2015
Copyright © Council on Social Work Education
ISSN: 1043-7797 print / 2163-5811 online
DOI: 10.1080/10437797.2015.1043196

social work practice. Moreover, few scholars have examined what aspects of critical thinking, as
theorized by philosophers and education scholars, are most applicable to social work. Most
attention has been directed to improving students’ critical thinking skills, with relatively little
consideration of what is meant by the term, or whether all authors are working from the same
definition of critical thinking. Many seem to agree that critical thinking is the best way for social
workers to think, but do they agree on what they mean by critical thinking?

This article aims to address this question by looking for patterns in the ways social work
scholars have taken up the term. Most of the authors reviewed here do not make the
conceptualization of critical thinking a primary aim. Nonetheless, the ways they employ
the term, both in their definition sections and elsewhere, reveal conceptual features particular
to the field of social work. Critical thinking in social work is not critical thinking in
philosophy, education, or even nursing; its use in social work sheds light on purposes,
problems, and conflicts unique to the field. Thus, through an analysis of what the social
work literature has taken critical thinking to mean, this review can also inform discussion of
how social workers ought to think.

  • Historically, conceptualizations of critical thinking have drawn on both theories of cognition in
    psychology and theories of reasoning in philosophy. Philosophically, John Dewey’s pedagogical
    emphasis on reflective thought is one of critical thinking pedagogy’s most influential antece-
    dents; the connection he drew between reflective thought and experiential learning is at the heart
    of most definitions of the term (e.g., Kurfiss, 1988; Paul, 1990). In How We Think, Dewey
    (1910/1997) argued that the most important part of a child’s education was learning to reflect on
    perplexing aspects of his or her own experiences. Because all humans had the capacity for
    reflective thought, the primary work of the schoolteacher was to guide children in developing
    this capacity (pp. 168, 169). Moreover, the scientific method was merely a more formal
    elaboration of this basic learning process (p. 84). Thus, according to Dewey, students who

    Educational Policy 2.1.3—Apply critical thinking to inform and communicate
    professional judgments.

    Social workers are knowledgeable about the principles of logic, scientific inquiry, and reasoned
    discernment. They use critical thinking augmented by creativity and curiosity. Critical thinking
    also requires the synthesis and communication of relevant information. Social workers

    • distinguish, appraise, and integrate multiple sources of knowledge, including research-based
    knowledge, and practice wisdom;

    • analyze models of assessment, prevention, intervention, and evaluation; and
    • demonstrate effective oral and written communication in working with individuals, families,

    groups, organizations, communities, and colleagues.

    FIGURE 1 Statement on Critical Thinking from the Council on Social
    Work Education’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (2008).

    458 MATHIAS

    mastered reflective thought could extend their education beyond the classroom, partaking in the
    scientific process of learning directly from the empirical world.

    In the mid-20th century, Edward Glaser (1941) and Robert Ennis (1962), similarly motivated
    to develop educational interventions that would improve students’ thinking processes, moved
    conceptualizations of critical thinking into the realm of empirical research by associating
    definitions of critical thinking with standardized tests designed to measure it. Their work was
    the seed of the modern critical thinking movement, which initially comprised a network of
    education scholars and philosophers who sought to reform curricula by focusing on reasoning

    For several decades, the movement had only limited success. A crucial turning point came
    in 1981, when the California State University system made training in critical thinking a
    graduation requirement (Paul, 1990). Following this victory, critical thinking was gradually
    incorporated into education policy and curricula in elementary, secondary, and higher
    education throughout the nation. The concept’s popularity spawned a critical thinking
    industry focused on designing and marketing pedagogical tools and testing instruments
    (Facione, 1990).

    The emergence of critical thinking as a central idea in education also resulted in a prolifera-
    tion of competing definitions, and the difficulty of ascertaining where these definitions agree or
    differ has led to conceptual ambiguity. A notable attempt was made to achieve greater clarity
    when the American Philosophical Association (APA) convened 46 critical thinking experts to
    develop a consensus definition of the concept. This definition could then be used to assess the
    many programs claiming to improve critical thinking (Facione, 1990). However, although the
    APA definition has been widely influential, becoming the basis for the popular California
    Critical Thinking Skills Test, it has failed to attain consensus. Indeed, many other definitions
    remain popular, and scholars still proffer new explanations of the concept (e.g., Bailin, Case,
    Coombs, & Daniels, 1999; Barnett, 1997; Ku, 2009; Moon, 2008). Moreover, one prominent
    figure in the critical thinking movement has argued that it is better not to settle on a single
    definition, but to “retain a host of definitions” to take advantage of the insights and avoid the
    limitations of each (Paul, 1990, p. 46). Thus critical thinking remains a difficult concept to pin

    Table 1 displays the APA definition of critical thinking alongside two other definitions from
    education, those of Brookfield (2012) and Kurfiss (1988), each of whom is widely cited in social
    work (e.g., Deal, 2003; Johnston, 2009; Kersting & Mumm, 2001; Nesoff, 2004). In certain
    respects, the definitions are quite similar. For example, Brookfield’s “looking at our ideas and
    decisions from several perspectives” clearly overlaps with Kurfiss’ “divergent views are aggres-
    sively sought” and the APA’s affective disposition of “open-mindedness regarding divergent
    world views.” Likewise, the definitions appear to concur with regard to the importance of taking
    account of one’s own assumptions and of a more-or-less systematic process from inquiry to

    However, Brookfield’s definition is arguably narrower than the others. He explicitly contrasts
    critical thinking with “being logical,” “solving problems,” and “being creative” but allows that
    aspects of all of these may be relevant to critical thinking. Kurfiss’ opening phrase, “a rational
    response,” would seem to include “being logical,” and it emphasizes the process of exploring
    and organizing information to reach a justifiable conclusion. The APA definition appears to be
    much broader, not only indicating the importance of logic with the phrases “evaluation of claims


    and arguments” and “inference to conclusions” but also including a host of “affective disposi-
    tions” such as inquisitiveness, honesty, and prudence.

    It is difficult to determine whether or not such differences are contradictions or merely
    differences in emphasis because each definition leaves certain crucial terms undefined. For
    example, does Kurfiss’ use of “a rational response” to describe critical thinking mean the
    same thing as Brookfield’s “being logical?” On one hand, inasmuch as critical thinking describes
    rationality, to say that critical thinking is rational is obvious, if not tautological. On the other, if
    critical thinking and rationality are equivalent, one would expect “being logical” to be central to
    critical thinking. Without a clear idea of what these terms mean, it is difficult to know whether,
    or to what extent, Brookfield’s statement that critical thinking is not “being logical” is in conflict
    with the centrality of “a rational response” or “inference to conclusions” in Kurfiss’ or the APA’s
    definitions, respectively. The use of such vague language among available definitions in the
    education literature makes it hard to say where they conflict and where they overlap.

    Thus in adopting the idea of critical thinking from education, social work has been faced with
    numerous definitions that are difficult to compare or contrast with one another in any rigorous
    way. By examining how social work scholars have selected from this diverse field of critical
    thinking concepts and repurposed them for their own profession, this review aims to shed light
    on what kinds of thinking are valued in social work.

    TABLE 1
    Comparison of Definitions of Critical Thinking Frequently Cited in Social Work

    Brookfield Kurfiss APA Consensus Definition

    Critical thinking entails: Critical thinking is: Cognitive skills
    1) “Identifying the assumptions that

    frame our thinking and determine
    our actions”

    “a rational response to questions that
    cannot be answered definitively
    and for which all the relevant
    information may not be available.
    It is defined here as ‘an
    investigation whose purpose is to
    explore a situation, phenomenon,
    question, or problem to arrive at a
    hypothesis or conclusion about it
    that integrates all available
    information and can therefore be
    convincingly justified.’ In critical
    thinking, all assumptions are open
    to question, divergent views are
    aggressively sought, and the
    inquiry is not biased in favor of a
    particular outcome” (1988, p. 20)

    • Interpretation of meanings
    • Analysis of relations among

    2) “Checking out the degree to which
    these assumptions are accurate and

    • Evaluation of claims and

    • Inference to conclusions
    3) “Looking at our ideas and

    decisions (intellectual,
    organizational, and personal) from
    several different perspectives”

    • Explanation of the results of
    one’s reasoning

    • Self-regulation of one’s thinking

    4) “On the basis of all this, taking
    informed actions”

    (Facione, 1990, pp. 12–19)

    (2012, p. 1) Affective dispositions
    • Inquisitiveness

    Critical thinking is not:
    “the same as being logical, solving

    problems, or being creative—
    though aspects of some or all of
    these are sometimes present when
    we think critically” (2012, p. 11)

    • Concern to remain well

    • Open-mindedness regarding
    divergent world views

    • Honesty in facing one’s own

    • Prudence in suspending, making
    or altering judgments

    • And more. . .
    (Facione, 1990, p. 25)

    460 MATHIAS

  • There are three aspects to the interpretive methods used in this critical review: the data sources,
    the organization and analysis of the data, and the approach to findings as emergent properties of
    the data.2

    The primary data source was the Social Services

  • Abstract
  • s database, which provides biblio-
    graphic coverage of publications on social work research, education, and practice. A keyword
    search located 125 articles or dissertations published between 1980 and 2011 and containing the
    terms critical thinking and social work in their titles, abstracts, or indexes. Based on an initial
    review of abstracts, the author excluded records that were about disciplines other than social
    work (e.g., nursing or psychology) or that did not take critical thinking as a central topic. The
    author defined the latter criterion as either (1) for research, critical thinking had to be either the
    independent or dependent variable, or (2) for other works, the abstract had to give some
    indication that the concept of critical thinking would be discussed. Borderline cases were
    tentatively included in a review of the full text of the remaining records, and those that did
    not contain at least one paragraph for which critical thinking was the primary topic were
    eliminated. In addition, a search of references during the reading process located two additional
    publications that met the inclusion criteria, and these were added to the study. Although text-
    books are not included in this review, the textbooks of Gambrill and Gibbs, which contain
    theoretical discussions frequently cited in the literature, are cited with reference to these authors’
    influential conceptualization of critical thinking, discussed below. In total, 49 articles or
    dissertations were included in the review.

    The author began the process of analysis by taking notes on all aspects of each record
    relevant to the question “What does critical thinking mean?” Relevant aspects included not only
    formal definitions and explicit discussion of meaning but also any choice by an author that
    implied a commitment to a particular conceptualization of critical thinking. For example, the use
    of a particular test to measure critical thinking was understood to imply some level of commit-
    ment to the concept of critical thinking measured by that test. Data from these notes were entered
    into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, with a row for each article and a column for each type of
    data that appeared relevant. As the data were entered, new columns were added and column
    headings were adjusted to improve the fit between the data and the categories. Data were then
    examined for patterns within each column or category. From this process, three relevant
    categories of findings emerged: definitions and purposes of critical thinking, theoretical discus-
    sions of its importance to social work, and pedagogical interventions. Findings for each category
    are presented in separate subsections below.

    The findings in this review are treated as emergent patterns of meaning in the use of the term
    critical thinking in social work. An emergent pattern is one that results from the interaction of
    multiple parts, where the whole is not reducible to the sum of the parts. For example, geese fly
    together in a V-shape, a pattern that is not present in the flight of any single goose, but only in
    their relation to one another. Similarly, this review identifies patterns of meaning that are not
    necessarily present in any one use of critical thinking, or in the writing of any individual author,
    but that emerge from multiple uses of critical thinking by multiple authors when considered in
    relation to one other. The identification of these patterns as meaningful was an interpretive

    2Readers who would like additional detail about the methods used in this study may contact the author directly.


    process, fundamentally dependent on inferences by the author. This is not to say that the method
    was entirely subjective; in an approach akin to grounded theory, the consistency of any apparent
    pattern was tested against further reading, and only those found to be broadly consistent are
    presented below. Because interpretation was fundamental to the discovery of the patterns
    themselves, inferences about the meaningfulness of patterns of use are integrated into the

  • Definitions and Purposes

    The majority of records (40 of 49) contained some discussion of definitions of critical
    thinking, referred to here as a “definitional subsection” (exceptions are Balen & White,
    2007; Cossom, 1991; Gambrill, 1994; Latting, 1990; Lynch, Vernon, & Smith, 2001; Pray,
    2001; Reid, 2011; Witkin, 1990; Zickler & Abbott, 2000). A review of definitional subsec-
    tions revealed that in social work, as in education, no agreed-on definition of critical
    thinking exists. Indeed, the definitional ambiguity that social work has imported from
    education seems to have been exacerbated in the process. Faced with multiple, competing
    definitions, social work authors have tended toward breadth rather than specificity in the
    way they consider the concept. For example, Johnston (2009) briefly highlighted aspects of
    several definitions and, with little discussion of the relation between them, offered a
    “summary definition” that used terms such as “wide and differing range of reasoning
    tasks” to retain maximal generality. Thus he treated the definitions cited not as competitive,
    nor as complementary, but as supplementary. Similarly, although Huff (2000) stated that she
    was using a definition from the manual of the test she employed in her study, she also
    discussed several other definitions but did not make clear how these relate to the definition
    she had selected. Instead, she cited the opinion, mentioned above, that a “host of definitions”
    should be maintained and argued that “by using a combination of definitions of critical
    thinking, one can avoid the limitations of each” (Huff, 2000, p. 402). Likewise, when
    authors cited multiple definitions, they tended to leave the relation between them unclear.
    This style of presentation reproduced (and, at times, magnified) the ambiguity found in the
    broader literature.

    Nonetheless, the definitional subsections did help to clarify certain aspects of the critical
    thinking concept as it has been taken up in social work. Many definitional subsections included
    statements about the purposes of critical thinking in social work, which revealed clearer, more
    consistent patterns than could be found in the definitions cited. The four purposes most
    commonly noted in the literature analyzed for this review were avoiding errors in decision
    making (23 of 40), practicing in accordance with social work values (19 of 40), applying
    research knowledge to practice (14 of 40), and dealing with messy or complex problems in
    social work practice (12 of 40). Emphases on the importance of critical thinking for avoiding
    errors and applying research knowledge were frequently coupled with one another. With a few
    exceptions (e.g., Deal & Pittman, 2009), purposes of avoiding errors and social work values
    were usually not coupled, or else much greater emphasis was given to one as the primary
    purpose of critical thinking. The fourth frequently mentioned purpose—dealing with messy or

    462 MATHIAS

    complex problems—was sometimes associated with an emphasis on avoiding error and some-
    times with an emphasis on values.

    The most striking finding here is what all of the presented purposes share: a focus on action
    or practice. This indicates some consensus that critical thinking in social work is a form of
    practical reasoning, that is, reasoning about what one ought to do (Walton, 1990). Although the
    aim of theoretical reasoning (i.e., reasoning about what is) is correct explanation or prediction,
    practical reasoning aims at correct action. All of the purposes authors give for critical thinking in
    social work are of the latter sort; they all aim at the correct action of social work practitioners.
    Within this broad consensus, there are tensions—most notably, that between emphasis on
    avoiding error in decision making and on practicing in accordance with social work values.
    Nonetheless, as illustrated by Table 1, such a focus on practical reasoning is narrower than the
    conceptualization of critical thinking in education; of these three prominent definitions, only
    Brookfield’s takes “informed action” as an end. Thus this common emphasis on correct action as
    the purpose of critical thinking sets its conceptualization in social work apart from the education

    Theoretical Discussions of the Importance of Critical Thinking to Social Work

    Two distinct conceptual strains emerge from theoretical discussions of the importance of critical
    thinking to social work. Each strain attempts to use the concept of critical thinking to address a
    different perceived challenge in social work practice. The first, which focuses on the challenge
    of avoiding logical errors in clinical decision-making, is best represented by the work of
    Gambrill and Gibbs (Gambrill, 1993, 2012; Gibbs, 1991; Gibbs & Gambrill, 1999, 2002;
    Werner & Gibbs, 1987). For Gambrill and Gibbs, critical thinking is synonymous with scientific
    reasoning, and it should be employed as a complement to evidence-based practice (EBP), a
    framework that aims to maximize the likelihood of good decisions (Gambrill, 2000). The second
    strain, which focuses on the application of social work values in dealing with complex problems,
    is best represented in articles by Witkin (1990) and Gibbons and Gray (2004). For these authors,
    critical thinking is closely allied with social constructionism and aims to help social workers
    identify the values inherent in any particular understanding of reality to construct analyses and
    make decisions consistent with social work values. Thus the contrast between the two con-
    ceptual strains hinges on differences in the roles each assigns to facts and values in the practical
    reasoning process.

    For Gambrill and Gibbs, the practice of critical thinking consists primarily of decision-
    making strategies that mimic a specific conceptualization of scientific reasoning (Gambrill,
    1997, 2012; Gibbs & Gambrill, 1996). Like Dewey, Gambrill and Gibbs aimed to bring the
    apparently progressive and self-correcting qualities of scientific method into other domains of
    reasoning—in this case, into the practical reasoning of social workers. For these authors,
    however, the crucial link between scientific reasoning and critical thinking is found in Karl
    Popper’s “critical rationalist” philosophy of science (Popper, 1963). Popper argued that science
    progresses through the elimination of false hypotheses rather than through proving true hypoth-
    eses. In Popper’s ideal scientific process, researchers attempt to falsify, rather than justify, their
    own and each other’s hypotheses (p. 37). A hypothesis is never conclusively demonstrated to be
    true, but those hypotheses that no one has thus far been able to falsify can, for the time being, be
    accepted as true. In the same way, objectivity is possible because “no theory is exempt from


    criticism,” and theories are accepted as valid not because they seem right from a particular
    perspective but because they have not yet been contradicted by available evidence (Popper,
    1992, p. 67, cited in Gibbs & Gambrill, 1999, p. 20). Working from Popper’s theorization of
    scientific reasoning, Gambrill and Gibbs (1999) conceptualized critical thinking in social work
    as an analogous process that works to eliminate erroneous assumptions and biases and thus leads
    to more accurate decisions.

    In contrast, for Gibbons and Gray, critical thinking in social work should begin from a social
    constructionist epistemology, which “presumes that each person constructs or makes sense of his
    or her own reality; is able to recognize the limits of his or her knowledge; and to see knowledge
    as ever-changing, even shifting and unstable” (2004, p. 21). More than a decade earlier, Stanley
    Witkin (1990) suggested a similar connection between critical thinking and social construction-
    ism in social work education. According to Witkin, constructionism challenges the notion that
    the scientific method is capable of achieving a “morally neutral, value free stance of scientific
    objectivity,” which he argued is “more a ‘storybook image’ than a descriptive account of
    science” (p. 44, citing Mahoney, 1976). In this view, critical thinking is a process of challenging
    the values and interests reflected in the theories underpinning scientific explanation (Witkin,
    1990, p. 42). Like Witkin, Gibbons and Gray argued that “critical thinking, rather than claiming
    objectivity, is value-laden thinking,” as opposed to the “logical, analytical, and value-free
    thinking” commonly associated with science (2004, pp. 36, 37). This is not to say that either
    Witkin or Gibbons and Gray believe critical thinking is opposed to science; rather, the social
    constructionist view of both science and critical thinking stresses the centrality of values in both
    domains. Thus these scholars present a clear contrast to Gambrill and Gibbs, for whom both
    science and critical thinking aim at bringing about an objectively accurate understanding of

    Although opposed in certain respects, these two conceptualizations of critical thinking are not
    necessarily incompatible. Both sets of authors retain broad definitions of critical thinking, some-
    times citing the same sources, and the contrast between the two conceptualizations should be
    understood as a difference in emphasis, rather than a polar opposition. For example, Gambrill and
    Gibbs urged social workers to attend to the role of vested interests in knowledge production and to
    question the politics of some scientific categories, including the psychiatric disorders in the
    American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
    (DSM-IV) (Gambrill, 2000, p. 52; Gibbs & Gambrill, 1999, p. 21). However, their concern is
    primarily that such interest-driven and value-laden categories receive an “aura of science,” when
    they are, in fact, not backed by strong evidence. Thus, for Gambrill and Gibbs, using categories
    such as those in theDSM-IVwould be unethical because the categories are inaccurate, and their use
    is unlikely to benefit clients. From Witkin’s perspective, by contrast, such labels are objectionable
    because they help to construct an undesirable and unjust social reality (1990, p. 45).

    The difference between these two theoretical strains is starkest in their respective treatment of
    the relation between fact and value in critical thinking. Whereas Gambrill and Gibbs regard
    critical thinking as a process that helps to distinguish fact from value (Gambrill, 1993, p. 144;
    Gibbs, 1991), the social constructionist conceptualization of critical thinking blurs this distinc-
    tion: critical thinking inquires into the values embedded in any scientific fact. Although both
    processes of critical thinking are concerned with both facts and values, they situate fact and
    value in relation to one another in very different ways. This is fundamentally an epistemological
    difference; it has to do with how one knows what one ought to do. Those committed to scientific

    464 MATHIAS

    reasoning describe critical thinking as a primarily fact-oriented form of practical reasoning,
    whereas the social constructionist conceptualization is primarily value-oriented.

    As shown in Table 2, most (8 of 13) records with substantial theoretical discussion can be
    categorized as aligning with either a scientific reasoning or social constructionist conceptualiza-
    tion of critical thinking.3 The division is even more consistent with regard to whether authors
    describe critical thinking as fact-oriented or value-oriented practical reasoning, for which 11 of
    13 records fall clearly into one of two categories. Thus the epistemological differences that
    divide these two proposals for critical thinking appear to be broadly salient in the literature.

    Indeed, many authors present more starkly contrasting proposals than those discussed above.
    For example, some authors take the emphasis on values well beyond that of Witkin (1990) or
    Gibbons and Gray (2004) by arguing that thinking, to be critical, must align with a particular

    TABLE 2
    Categorization of Theoretical Discussions of Critical Thinking

    Author Date What Critical Thinking Is Sci/Cona Fact/Valueb

    Bronson, D. E. 2000 Scientific reasoning. Opposed to postmodernism and

    Sci Fact

    Deal, K. H. 2003 Uses Gambrill’s definition, but with emphasis on
    contextual basis of knowledge.

    None Fact

    Ford, P. et al. 2004 Involves reflexivity, action, and transformation, with an
    emphasis on values.

    None Value

    Gambrill, E. 1994 Not discussed here. Elsewhere analogous to scientific

    Sci Fact

    Gibbs, L. et. al 1995 Analogous to scientific reasoning. Sci Fact
    Gibbons, J., & Gray, M. 2004 Openness to multiple perspectives and relativity of


    Con Value

    Hancock, T. U. 2007 Intellectual values such as clarity and logic that lead to
    value-laden conclusions.

    Con Value

    MacMorris, S. H. 1996 Two competing models in social work: the empirical and
    the reflective.

    None None

    Meacham, M. G. 2007 Deliberate thinking about social problems, with a focus
    on values.

    None Value

    Miley, K., & Dubois, B. 2007 Analyzing complex issues with an emphasis on race,
    gender, and class.

    Con Value

    Pardeck, J. T. 2004 Rational discussion and scientific inquiry. Relates to
    Popper’s thought.

    Sci Fact

    Seelig, J. M. 1991 Understood broadly to include creative and critical

    None None

    Witkin, S. L. 1990 One aspect of a social constructionist approach to social

    Con Value

    aAssociates critical thinking with scientific reasoning (Sci) or social constructionism (Con).
    bTreats critical thinking as primarily concerned with the accuracy of facts (Fact) or with social work values (Value).

    3Although MacMorris (1996) does not fit with either category, the dissertation identifies distinct “empirical” and
    “reflective” models of critical thinking in the social work literature. Like the distinction between scientific reasoning and
    social constructionist conceptualizations of critical thinking, MacMorris’ distinction is fundamentally epistemological,
    though it was not found to be salient among the records reviewed here.


    political stance (Hancock, 2007; Miley & Dubois, 2007). On the other hand, Bronson (2000)
    called for more critical thinking as an antidote to a constructionist/postmodernist threat to
    objective knowledge. For such authors, the difference between scientific reasoning and social
    constructionism is more than a matter of emphasis; they present directly opposed visions for how
    practical reasoning should proceed.

    Given this clear contrast, it was remarkable that no authors of either persuasion acknowl-
    edged any controversy over how critical thinking should be conceptualized in social work. As in
    the definitional subsections discussed above, none of these more thorough theoretical discus-
    sions mentioned that the term critical thinking has been used in other ways that conflict with the
    author’s own conceptualization. All authors simply called for more critical thinking in social
    work, not for more of one kind of critical thinking and less of another.

    Pedagogical Interventions—Descriptions and Measures

    Descriptions of pedagogical interventions. The most prominent feature of the literature
    addressing pedagogical intervention (34 of 49 records) was the extreme diversity of pedagogical
    interventions recommended. The second column of Table 3 presents brief descriptions of each of
    the interventions. Some of these interventions are much more targeted in focus than others. For
    example, the argument mapping software recommended by Reid (2011) aims to teach a step-by-
    step analytical thinking process that can then be reiterated in multiple contexts. The MSW
    curriculum studied by Tucker (2008), on the other hand, embeds attention to critical thinking in
    multiple courses without stipulating any single step-by-step process by which thinking should
    proceed. Other interventions are teaching tools as narrow in focus as Reid’s, but target very
    different thinking processes, such as questioning media bias (Hawkins, 1996), recognizing and
    avoiding stereotypes (Johnston, 2009), or reflecting on one’s own experiences (Johansen, 2005;
    Nesoff, 2004). Still others are intensive courses that, though much shorter in duration than the
    intervention Tucker studied, teach a much broader range of thinking processes than any of the
    teaching tools mentioned above.

    It is difficult to find any clear pattern of meaning in this diversity. In particular, the term
    critical thinking seems to be associated with such a wide range of tasks and skills that it is
    difficult to see how they all hang together, if they do at all. If they are taken together, as the use
    of a common term implies, then one can infer that the concept of critical thinking must be
    extremely broad and might better be described as a group of thinking processes rather than a
    single way of thinking. If they are not taken together, however, then the pattern is simply one of
    disagreement; one can only infer that there are many concepts of critical thinking in social work,
    and that their relation to one another is unclear. If this is the case, then the unity suggested by the
    common use of the term critical thinking only masks this multiplicity, allowing very different
    thinking processes to pass as equivalent.

    Methods of measurement. Of the 34 records describing pedagogical interventions, the
    majority (21) presented some attempt to measure the effect of the intervention on critical
    thinking skills. Of these, nine used standardized tests and 12 used teacher-designed assessments.

    A review of assessments using standardized tests suggests that the authors are not operating from
    the same definition of critical thinking. As shown in Table 3, six records adopted standardized tests
    from education, including the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (CCTST), the Watson-Glaser

    466 MATHIAS

    Critical Thinking Appraisal (WGCTA), the Ennis-Weir Essay Test, and the Cornell Critical Thinking
    Test (CCTT). All of these tests are based on broad definitions of critical thinking and include
    subscales for more specific thinking skills, among them analysis, interpretation, and inference.

    TABLE 3
    Pedagogical Interventions Aimed at Promoting Critical Thinking

    Author Date Intervention Assessment

    Clark, H. G. 2002 BSW and MSW education CCTST
    Huff, M. T. 2000 Policy course live and via TV CCTST
    Tucker, T. M. 2008 MSW curriculum focused on critical


    Plath, D. 1999 Intensive critical thinking course CCTT, EWET
    Ryan, L. G. 1996 Intensive critical thinking course PTF
    Whyte, D. T. 1999 Intensive critical thinking course PTF
    Kersting, R. C., & Mumm, A. M. 2001 Intensive critical thinking course PRIDE
    Hesterberg, L. J. 2005 Problem-based learning WGCTA
    Rogers, G., & McDonald, L. 1992 Intensive critical thinking course WGCTA
    Burman, S. 2000 Pedagogy using Perry’s (1970) theory of

    cognitive development


    Carey, M. E., & McCardle, M. 2011 Observing/shadowing professional social


    Gibbons, J., & Gray, M. 2004 Experience-based education Teacher-Designed
    Gregory, M., & Holloway, M. 2005 Classroom debate Teacher-Designed
    Heron, G. 2006 Higher education in social work Teacher-Designed
    Johansen, P. S. 2005 Online journaling Teacher-Designed
    Jones, K. 2005 Teaching with case studies Teacher-Designed
    Lietz, C. 2010 Supervision of child welfare workers Teacher-Designed
    Lietz, C. 2008 Group supervision of child welfare workers Teacher-Designed
    Mumm, A. M., & Kersting, R. C. 1997 Generalist practice course with critical

    thinking emphasis

    Nesoff, I. 2004 Student journals Teacher-Designed
    Noer, L. O. C. 1994 Teaching literature Teacher-Designed
    Pray, J. L. 2001 Online discussion forums Teacher-Designed
    Prior, J. 2000 Anti-oppressive learning environment Teacher-Designed
    Alter, C., & Egan, M. 1997 Logic modeling None
    Balen, R., & White, S. 2007 Discussion and humor in the classroom None
    Coleman, H., Rogers, G., &
    King, J.

    2002 Student portfolios None

    Cossom, J. 1991 Teaching with case studies None
    Deal, K. H. 2003 Guidelines for clinical supervision None
    Hawkins, C. 1996 Media analysis None
    Johnston, L. B. 2009 Teaching about diversity and stereotypes None
    Latting, J. K. 1990 Classroom discussion None
    Lay, K., & McGuire, L. 2010 Challenging hegemony None
    Lynch, D., Vernon, R. F., &
    Smith, M. L.

    2001 Doing research on the Web None

    Nurius, P. S. 1995 Computer-assisted reasoning None
    Reid, C. E. 2011 Argument-mapping software None
    Vandsburger, E. 2004 Analytical frameworks and social theory None
    Zickler, E. P., & Abbott, A. A. 2000 Teaching literature None


    Nonetheless, even these broad definitions differ; one recent study found that college students scored
    very differently in critical thinking development depending on the test used to measure their skill
    (Hatcher, 2011). An even sharper contrast exists between these studies and the three records that
    employed the Professional Thinking Form (PTF) or Principles of Reasoning, Inference, Decision-
    making, and Evaluation (PRIDE) tests, which are social work–specific tests designed by Gambrill
    and Gibbs to assess critical thinking as they have conceptualized it (see above). The PTF and PRIDE
    tests examine a much narrower range of skills than the tests adopted from education, focusing
    exclusively on students’ ability to identify and correct a specific set of social work “practice
    fallacies” (Gibbs, 1991; Gibbs & Gambrill, 1999; Gibbs et al., 1995). Thus there are at least two
    competing conceptualizations of social work implied by the standardized tests, and possibly more.

    The 12 teacher-designed assessments imply even greater divergences in the conceptualization
    of critical thinking. Indeed, it was often difficult to see how these assessments tested anything
    more than an idiosyncratic set of skills or habits that fit the teacher’s own assessment measures.
    For example, Prior (2000) and Noer (1994) both employed content analysis to assess whether
    their interventions—an antioppressive classroom environment and a literature-based ethics
    seminar, respectively—were improving critical thinking. In each case, the authors looked for
    indicators of critical thinking in the ways that students talked or wrote about complex ethical
    issues before and after the intervention. However, the indicators Prior looked for emphasized
    attentiveness to questions about social inequality, whereas Noer’s scoring method emphasized
    attentiveness to the diversity of human experience. In both cases, the concept of critical thinking
    operationalized in the assessment was very closely matched to the content of the course—the
    independent variable (discussing in ways that attend to social equality or diversity, respectively)
    and the dependent variable (critical thinking, defined as writing in ways that attend to social
    inequality or diversity, respectively) were very nearly identical. This raises questions about the
    validity of these assessments. However, the more important point for the purposes of this review
    was the narrowness of conceptualization implied by such studies. It is not at all clear that the
    measures used in teacher-designed assessments were applicable beyond their own classrooms. If
    not, then the conceptualization of critical thinking implied by such tests is greatly impoverished.

  • Each of the methods employed in this review found that there is no widely agreed-upon
    conceptualization of critical thinking in social work. Rather, the evidence suggests that the
    term has multiple conflicting meanings, and that its usage in social work may be even more
    ambiguous than its usage in education. However, the findings from definitional subsections do
    indicate consensus on one point: for social work, critical thinking is a process of practical
    reasoning, aimed at correct action. This distinguishes the conceptualization of critical thinking in
    social work from its conceptualization in education, where the emphasis on correct action is not
    integral to most definitions. This is not to say that social work is unique in this respect; all
    professions can be expected to share an emphasis on practical reasoning to some extent (Tucker,
    2013). In nursing, for example, critical thinking has been associated with action in the form of
    clinical decision-making (Adams, 1999; Turner, 2005; but see Tanner, 2005). Nonetheless, the
    link between critical thinking and practical reasoning may be an apt starting point for under-
    standing what is specific to thinking like a social worker.

    468 MATHIAS

    The two conceptual strains identified in records calling for more critical thinking appear to
    bolster this point; despite their differences, both describe processes of practical reasoning.
    However, the two versions of critical thinking recommend very different procedures for deter-
    mining what one ought to do. For those working from a model of Popperian scientific reasoning,
    critical thinking separates facts from nonfacts to minimize error in social work practice. For
    social constructionists, critical thinking recognizes the values inextricably embedded in facts,
    helping to ensure that practice is aligned with good values. The contrast between these two
    proposals is paralleled, to some extent, by a contrast between records that describe the purpose
    of critical thinking as avoiding error or applying research, on one hand, and records that
    emphasize accountability to social work values, on the other. Thus the literature presents two
    clearly contrasting visions for how practical reasoning in social work should proceed.

    Notably, however, the distinction between scientific reasoning and social constructionism was
    not a salient pattern in the review of descriptions and measures of pedagogical interventions.
    Although some records addressing pedagogical intervention appeared to more closely align with
    one of these two conceptualizations, these alignments were not consistent. For example,
    Kersting and Mumm (2001) made use of a textbook and assessment test designed by
    Gambrill and Gibbs and, thus, appeared to employ a model of critical thinking as scientific
    reasoning. However, quoting Kurfiss, they also describe critical thinking as “a diligent, open-
    minded search for understanding, rather than for discovery of a necessary conclusion” (Kersting
    & Mumm, 2001, p. 55; Kurfiss, 1988, p. 42; Mumm & Kersting, 1997, p. 75). This description
    appears inconsistent with Gambrill and Gibbs’ aims of error elimination and objective accuracy,
    making it difficult to categorize Kersting and Mumm’s study with either conceptualization. More
    generally, although findings from reviews of pedagogical interventions suggest a lack of con-
    sensus among social work scholars about how to define critical thinking, the points of disagree-
    ment found did not fit neatly into a division between scientific reasoning and social
    constructionist conceptualizations.

    As mentioned above, the CSWE recently listed critical thinking as one of 10 core compe-
    tencies to be addressed by BSW and MSW curricula, and its 2008 Educational Policy and
    Accreditation Standards describe the major features of critical thinking in social work. The
    influence of this document on the meaning of critical thinking in social work is unclear; of the
    eight records included in this review that were published since 2008, only two mentioned
    the CSWE’s description, and neither of these employed this conceptualization as the basis of
    its study (Deal & Pittman, 2009; Tucker, 2008). Nonetheless, it is revealing to consider this
    standard in light of the findings of this review. As shown in Figure 1, the EPAS emphasizes how
    critical thinking helps social workers use knowledge to arrive at good decisions or “professional
    judgments” and communicate about those judgments. In other words, critical thinking is
    described as a form of practical reasoning. In addition, the document foregrounds “logic,
    scientific inquiry, and reasoned discernment,” and the “synthesis and communication of relevant
    information.” Both phrases resonate with the conceptualization of critical thinking as analogous
    with scientific reasoning. However, in the same document CSWE also calls on social workers to
    “integrate multiple sources of knowledge, including research-based knowledge, and practice
    wisdom” but does not elaborate on how these two sources of knowledge should be integrated.
    Those promoting critical thinking as scientific reasoning have argued that practice wisdom is, at
    best, a source of conjecture, requiring substantiation by research (Bronson, 2000; Gambrill,
    1994), whereas proponents of social constructionist critical thinking give practice wisdom a


    much more central role (Gibbons & Gray, 2004). Moreover, it is unclear whether the critical
    thinking that should inform professional judgment is more concerned with facts or with values.
    In analyzing models of assessment, for example, should critical thinkers be more concerned with
    discerning the accuracy of the model or with questioning the values and power dynamics
    assumed or perpetuated by the model? Thus, although the description of critical thinking in
    the CSWE’s EPAS is consistent with the broader consensus on practical reasoning, its position is
    ambiguous with regard to the two major proposals for how practical reasoning should proceed.

    Although calls for more critical thinking present two contrasting options for how the term
    should be conceptualized, the theoretical differences between these two conceptualizations have
    yet to be debated explicitly. Few authors addressing pedagogical intervention could be categor-
    ized as consistently aligning with one conceptualization or the other. The same is true of the
    CSWE’s EPAS, which arguably shares with these authors an emphasis on how critical thinking
    should be taught over how it should be conceptualized. Moreover, even authors who clearly
    aligned with one of these two versions of critical thinking treated it as the only version, not
    recognizing that a competing proposal existed. Thus, what this review identifies as a disagree-
    ment about the epistemological basis of critical thinking (and, by extension, good thinking in
    social work) has yet to be recognized as such in the literature.

  • Even though it is clear that social workers do not all mean the same thing by critical
    thinking, a careful reading of the literature offers, at least, a starting point for answering the
    question of how social workers ought to think. Not only can we say that social work
    scholars are primarily concerned with practical reasoning, but we have identified two distinct
    proposals regarding what specific processes of practical reasoning are appropriate to social
    work practice. Further debate about the relative merits of these two proposals would do
    much to enrich the conceptualization of critical thinking as a description of how social
    workers ought to think.

    The contrast between scientific reasoning and social constructionist versions of
    critical thinking is clearly linked to debates about the role of science in social work and
    the relation between research and social work practice, but it should not be conflated with
    those debates. Although the latter have been concerned primarily with the epistemological
    foundations of theoretical reasoning in social work—that is, how we know what is—the
    focus of the critical thinking literature is on how we know what we ought to do. These
    concerns are certainly not unrelated, but the relation between them should itself be a topic
    for discussion.

    The epistemological concerns that divide these two proposals have real consequences for
    the everyday practice of social work. Although both fact and value are obviously important
    to social work practice, different ways of theorizing the relation between fact and value will,
    ultimately, entail differences in what counts as correct action. A student who learns
    Popperian scientific reasoning will practice differently from one who learns social construc-
    tionist reasoning, even if both learn to call their thinking “critical.” Moreover, the two
    proposals highlighted by this review should not be assumed to exhaust the possibilities for

    470 MATHIAS

    how social workers might bring facts and values to bear in practical reasoning. They should
    be taken, rather, as setting the stakes for a discussion that has only just begun.

  • John Mathias

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    474 MATHIAS

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      Definitions and Purposes

      Theoretical Discussions of the Importance of Critical Thinking to Social Work

      Pedagogical Interventions—Descriptions and Measures





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