Bring shadowing out of the shadows: an examination of shadowing as a learning activity in social work practice placements

Peter Scourfield


Social work students shadowing more experienced practitioners is usually regarded as self-evidently a positive learning experience by  practice educators, on-site supervisors; university tutors, and not least by the students themselves. Whilst it can form part of a formal practice learning agreement, much shadowing is also undertaken informally often on an ad hoc and impromptu basis. Given the extent to which shadowing takes place, it is a basic assumption of this paper that it must have a significant impact of what students learn about practice both in their specific placement but also more generally about social work.


For this reason the primary aim of this paper is to bring more of a critical gaze onto shadowing as a learning activity in social work practice placements. The paper begins by examining the different purposes of shadowing and putting them into context. It explains how shadowing can be seen as both part of the process of socialisation into professional social work but also into a specific workplace culture. As such shadowing experiences need to be understood as part of the implicit (hidden) curriculum of social work. The second part of the paper considers some ways in which examining shadowing experiences more critically can improve certain aspects of practice. This includes understanding power relationships but also how shadowing can provide important opportunities for professional leadership. It is proposed that, often taken as a background or taken for granted activity, shadowing needs to be given a higher profile and therefore better preparation in social work practice placements.

Full Text:

 Subscribers Only



Abbott, C. and Taylor, P. (2013). Action Learning in Social Work. London: LearningMatters.

Argyris, C. (1991).Teaching smart people how to learn. Harvard Business Review, 69(3): 99-109.

Alsubaie, M. (2015). Hidden Curriculum as One of Current Issue of Curriculum. Journal of Education and Practice, 6(33) 125-128.

Barretti, M. (2004). What do we know about the professional socialization of our students? Journal of Social Work Education, 40(2), 255-288

BASW. (2018) Professional Capabilities Framework. Retrieved from

Bogo, M. and Wayne, J. (2013). The Implicit Curriculum in Social Work Education: The Culture of Human Interchange. Journal of Teaching in Social Work. 33(1), 2-14.

Bundy-Fazioli, K. (2013). Graduate Students' Perceptions of Professional Power in Social Work Practice, Journal of Social Work Education,49,(1) 108-121.

Chatman, J. (1991). Matching People and organizations: selection and socialization in public accounting firms. Administrative Science Quarterly. 36(3), 459-484.

Department of Health. (2002). Requirements for Social Work Training, London: Department of Health.

DfE. (2016). Social work teaching partnership programme pilots: evaluation Final research report May 2016, London: Department for Education.

Doel, M. and Shardlow, S. (2005). Modern Social Work Practice: teaching and learning in practice settings, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Dominelli, L. (2002). Anti-oppressive social work theory and practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Entwistle, N. (1988). Styles of Learning and Teaching. London: David Fulton.

Fairtlough, A. (2017) Professional Leadership for Social Workers and Educators. London: Routledge.

Fook, J. (2012). Social Work: A critical approach to practice (2nd Edition). London: Sage.

Fook, J. (2015). ‘Reflective Practice and Critical Reflection’ in Lishman. (Ed.) Handbook for Practice Learning in Social Work and Social Care: Knowledge and Theory (3rd Edition). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Giddens, A. (1979). Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Oakland: University of California Press.

Gould, N. (2000) Becoming a learning organisation: A social work example, Social Work Education. 19(6), 585-596.

GSCC (2012). The supply of social work practice placements: Employers’ views, London: General Social Care Council

Higgs, J. (2013). ‘Professional Socialisation’ in Educating Health Professionals: Becoming a University Teacher, Loftus, S., Gerzina, T., Higgs, J., Smith, M. and Duffy, E. (Eds.) New York: Springer, 83-92.

Higgs, J. McAllister, L. and Whiteford, G. 2009). ‘The Practice and Praxis of Professional Decision-making’ in Green, B. (Ed.) Understanding and Researching Professional Practice, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 101-120.

Jackson, P. (1968). Life in classrooms, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Knott, C. and Scragg, T. (2016). (Eds) Reflective Practice in Social Work (4th edition). Exeter: LearningMatters.

Le Riche, P. (2006). Practising Observation in Shadowing: Curriculum Innovation and Learning Outcomes in the BA Social Work, Social Work Education. 25(8), 771-784

Lister, P. and Crisp, B. (2007). Critical incident analyses: A practice learning tool for students and practitioners. Practice, 19(1), 47-60

McKitterick, B. (2015). Self-leadership in Social Work: reflections from practice. Bristol: Policy Press.

McLaughlin, H., Scholar, H., McCaughan, S. and Coleman, A. (2015). Are non-traditional social work placements second best learning opportunities for qualifying social work students? British Journal of Social Work. 45(5), 1469-1489.

Mathews, I., Simpson, D. and Crawford, K. (2014). Your Social Work Practice Placement. London: Sage.

Miller, S. (2010). A Conceptual Framework for the Professional Socialization of Social Workers. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 20(7), 924- 938.

Miller, S. (2013). Professional Socialization: A Bridge between the Explicit and Implicit Curricula, Journal of Social Work Education. 49(3), 368-386.

Parker, J. (2010). Effective Practice, Learning in Social Work (2nd Edition). Exeter: LearningMatters.

Parker, J., Hughes, M. and Rutter, L. (2006). ‘Shadowing’ and its place in preparing students for practice learning, Journal of Practice Teaching & Learning. 7(3), 49-69.

Peterson, N., Farmer, A., Donnelly, L. and Forenza, B. (2014). Assessing the Implicit Curriculum in Social Work Education: Heterogeneity of Students’ Experiences and Impact on Professional Empowerment, Journal of Teaching in Social Work. 34(5), 460-479.

QAA. (2016). Subject Benchmark Statement for Social Work, London: Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

Rolfe, G., Jasper, J., and Freshwater, D. (2010). Critical Reflection in Practice. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Rosen, A. and Zeira, A. (2000). Unravelling “Tacit Knowledge”: What Social Workers Do and Why They Do It, Social Service Review. 74(1), 103-123.

Ryden, N. (2015). ‘Using observation in training and development’ in O’Loughlin, M. and O’Loughlin, S. (Eds.) Effective Observation in Social Work Practice. London: Sage, 56-69.

Shardlow, S. and Doel, M. (1996). Practice Learning and Teaching, Basingstoke: Macmillan/BASW.

Skills for Care (2012.) Quality assurance in practice learning (QAPL): the social work practice learning quality assurance benchmark statement, with supporting evaluation tools, Leeds: Skills for Care.

Skills for Care (2019). Retrieved from

Smith, L. (2017). Social work student placements and employability. Retrieved from

Tew, J. (2006). Understanding power and powerlessness: Towards a framework for emancipatory practice in social work, Journal of Social Work, 6(1), 33-51.

The College of Social Work/BASW. (2012). Retrieved from

The College of Social Work. (2013). Return to Social Work: Learning Materials: shadowing practice guide. Retrieved from

Thompson, N. (2006). Promoting Workplace Learning, Bristol; Policy Press.

Van Maanen, J. and Barley, S. R. (1984). Occupational Communities: Culture and Control in Organizations, Research in Organizational Behavior. 6, 287-365.

Walker, J., Crawford, K. and Parker, J. (2009). Practice Education in Social Work: a handbook for practice teachers, assessors and educators. Exeter: Learning Matters.

Williams, S. and Rutter, L. (2015). The Practice Educator’s Handbook (3rd edition). London: Sage/LearningMatters.



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2019 The Journal of Practice Teaching and Learning