Reflective Practice, Continous Professional Development and Knowledge Sharing

The Key Situations in Social Work Model


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    The Key Situation Model

    The Key Situation model1a is an innovative approach to continuous professional learning and practice development. At it's heart lies a reflective learning process organised around key situations in social work. It is supported by a virtual platform that enables blended learning, collaboration and knowledge sharing. Key situations are the typical practices that social workers regularly encounter. They are experienced as a discrete and meaningful sequence of activities with a beginning, middle and end, such as a home visit. 116 social work key situations were described and validated by over 100 social workers in England1b. The model was originally developed in Switzerland based on research into the key situations in Swiss social work and social pedagogy. It is now applied in universities in German speaking regions in Europe. The model is designed for social workers, practice organisations and universities. The three elements of the Key Situation model are the reflective learning process, communities of practice and virtual platform.

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    Reflective learning and knowledge co-production

    The Key Situation model has grown out of a need to enhance the way students and professionals in education and practice merge theory, research and ethical knowledge with ‘a common-sense grasp of a situation, formal rules with creativity, standards with improvisation and reason with intuition’2, ‘in ways that “speak” to the situations regularly encountered in social work’3. This involves both analytic and intuitive skills and pays attention to emotions, quality and innovation. The eight-step reflection process supports the development of both analytic and intuitive skills and ensures that CPD is colesely linked to practices of professionals. Unlike other reflection methods, the Key Situation model offers a blended learning approach in which co-produced knowledge is documented and shared with other learners and social workers within and across organisations.

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    Communities of practice

    Communities of practice4 within and across organisations co-produce knowledge in relation to key situations to support individual, organisational and professional learning. The development of professional competence relies on ‘a learning culture and environment where reflective practice, evidence and research mindedness underpin the focus on practice’5. Rather than enhancing capabilities of reflexive and mindful professionals alone, the Key Situation model offers approaches for organisations to organise practices and environments conducive for learning, knowledge co-production and sharing of knowledge to support knowledgeable and ethical practice and judgements. The Key Situation model aims to create and sustain a learning culture and offers an approach based on communities of practice and practice-based collaborative learning. It can be implemented in a team, an organisation or in practice-university partnerships.

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    Key Situation platform

    The platform supports learning, collaboration and knowledge sharing. Investing in access to knowledge alone does not lead to its integration in professional decision-making6. To enhance integration, technical-material tools and social practices need be combined7. The platform allows documentation of knowledge, experience and reflective learning in relation to situations, thereby creating a situation library. Practitioners and students can access this to revisit situations with the potential to enahance their understanding and to reflect on future practice, when preparing for practice in a similar situation. The Key Situaiton model thus combines the platform with collaborative learning, knowledge and practice development in organisations and enables sharing of and discussing situated knowledge across organisations and internationally. The platform is run by the Association Network Key Situations in Social Work.

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    Digital Conference: Thinking together - networked learning with Etienne Wenger

    On Monday 28th and Tuesday 29th of June 2021, the Association's network conference focuses on new forms of learning in social work organisations. We embrace the opportunities of a virtual conference and go international. Key inputs will be thinking about how to design for learning in and for practice. Etienne Wenger (USA) will talk about the communities of practice perspective. Pippa Yeoman (AUS) will share her insights into how to design learning (environments) and Adi Stämpfli (UK) will weave these strands together and discuss how the key situation model and network can contribute to ongoing learning and knowledge sharing in organisations. If you are interested please let us know here

Reflective Learning Process

The Key Situation reflective learning model8, guides learners through eight steps. They describe an experienced situation (1), link it to a key situation title (2), tease out the emotion and reflection-in-action (3) and elaborate the overarching characteristics of such situations (4). General knowledge (theoretical, research and ethical knowledge) and specific knowledge (experiential, organisational, skills) are identified and linked with the situation (5). From this, quality standards for social work practice in key situations are developed (6) and used to reflect on the situation (7). This finally, leads to the generation of alternative courses of action for future similar situations (8). Here (pdf) you find further information on the process.

Reflection process

Learners work in small groups both face-to-face and online, each reflecting on their own experienced situation but all working on situations with the same key situation title:

Social arrangement of the learning process

Learners therefore constantly engage in a process of thinking about the general and specific aspects. The process is facilitated and incorporates elements of problem-based learning. Feedback is provided on each step of the process. The merging of different forms of knowledge and practice is enabled through identification of knowledge resources and thinking about their relevance to the situation. Guiding questions tor each of the seven types of knowledge thereby facilitate learning:

Fusing of different forms of knowledge

Unlike other reflection models, it is an in-depth learning process that involves many activities over several sessions. It blends face to face with online learning. By documenting their learning on the Key Situation platform, the knowledge within such reflections becomes accessible to others. This model can be applied in social work education and CPD in university and practice settings.

Reflective learning and knowledge sharing for action

Because training and access to knowledge alone is not enough to develop and sustain professional expertise, the Key Situation model’s approach is built on ongoing reflective learning and knowledge sharing. This approach to CPD and knowledge management is highly relevant to practitioners, as it is organised around key situations they actually encounter. It can be flexibly integrated in workplace or university settings. It enables not only development of competence but crucially, also the integration of new evidence, changes in the legal, policy framework and learning form situational experience, which is increasingly more important in a fast-changing world. It aims to enhance social workers’ ability to justify their actions with reference to evidence from multiple sources, including research, theory and the law and practice wisdom. It also aims to support knowledgeable and ethical decision-making in action.

Many researchers reject the idea of decision-making as a rational process and rather see it as involving both intuitive and analytical thinking9. This understanding based on natural and dual processing decision-making10 shows that practitioners draw on knowledge and experience from previously encountered similar situations. It relies on the recognition of patterns in situations. Rapid and intuitive thinking occurs in the action itself and steers practitioners’ actions in response to encountered situations. Analytical reasoning and deliberative reflection occur when a situation is not recognised. As soon as a good enough narrative, hypothesis or alternative course of action is formed, a practitioner then proceeds with caution11. Deliberative reasoning can also be undertaken after the action. This understanding of decision-making in and after engagement in practice situations was observed in social work12

Reflective learning that is supported by knowledge co-production and sharing in organisations that helps practitioners to create situational memories. They are stored in a network of remembered situations that are activated in similar situations and act as “integrated and flexible mental representations that underpin sound understanding and practical reasoning”2. This view underpins case-based reasoning education13 and informs the situation-based learning, knowledge co-production and knowledge sharing approach of the Key Situation model:

Situation-based learning

Feedback from participants in an ASYE programme showed that: “It has not been easy to reflect on one situation in such depth but on the other hand it has been an extremely useful tool.” Furthermore, the reflection process “informed my reflections in practice”. A whole system implementation of the model as an approach to CPD has the potential to support ongoing development of knowledgeable and ethical practice. Such ongoing reflections offer a practice-based perspective for CPD as the following illustration shows:

Continuous situation-based learning

The model enables not only development of expertise but crucially, also the integration of new research, evidence, changes in the legal or policy framework and learning form situational experience leading to actionable knwoledge and potentially knowledgeable action. This is increasingly more important in a fast-changing world. It aims to enhance social workers’ ability to justify their actions with reference to evidence from multiple sources, including research, theory and the law and practice wisdom and to influence their thinking and actions in similar practice situations14.

Key Situation Platform / Knowledge Sharing

Learning and knowledge exchange needs to be firmly grounded in what social workers do18. Therefore, key situations - the typical and reoccurring practice situations in social work – offer a practice-based focus for learning, knowledge coproduction, and knowledge sharing. They offer a holistic perspective through the lens of situated knowledge and practice that links theories and conceptual knowledge2 with the typically encountered situations in social work practice3. It is an activity-based classification system that categorises professional practices and knowledge across sectors and fields and is associatively accessible by practitioners. To support the implementation of the Key Situation model in English social work, 116 key situations were described in a three round Delphi research study (Staempfli, in preparation).

Teams or organisations who reflect on and document their own key situations capture knowledge and practice that is relevant to their setting and make it accessible to old and new staff members and students alike. The Key Situation platform supports teams and organisations to share situated knowledge and this enables discussion about the quality of the practice and knowledge within and across the organisation. This open approach to sharing of knowledge aims to support a learning culutre.

Key situation titles offer a practice-based categorisation of knowledge and practice. Our own research has shown that social workers can associatively identify relevant situations on the platform, as key siutation titles are based on practitioners' own language. They do this to plan, reflect on, or learn about practice challenges, for example when thinking about a home visit. You can find an example of a situation completed by a newly qualified social worker here (pdf).

Continuous professional development

The platform was developed between 2014 and 2016 in a research and development project in Siwtzerland. The platform had on average around 1500 users. In 2019, the association decided to move to decentralised platforms, run by the organisations that implement the key situation model. The association offers templates and consultancy on how to set this up for the needs of the users and orgainsations.

The association in collaboration with the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwestern Switzerland offers many open access resources and on registration developed key situation relfections can be accessed. Schlüsselsituationen and Schlüsselsituationen erklärt

Implementing the Key Situation Model in practice

The Key Situation model with its practice-based reflective learning approach, communities of practice, network and platform has the potential to transform the way:

• social workers engage in continuous professional development and reflective learning,

• organisations and universities arrange learning and knowledge sharing and

• the profession as a whole participates in a discourse on quality of social work practice, knowledge and ethics.

Our vision is to develop a network of social workers, academics and organisations who collaboratively develop and share their knowledge and experience and help shape the knowledge base and culture of the profession.

Professional learning cannot be designed, rather 'design for learning has to work indirectly by proposing tasks – suggestions of good things to do – which may stimulate and otherwise influence the real-world activity that eventuates, but which cannot prescribe or actually generate that activity'15. The Activity Centred Analysis and Design (ACAD) framework16 emphasises the centrality of learners’ activities with a focus on what they actually do. Design should also suggest tools and other artefacts that can support learning and 'make recommendations about how learners might best work with one another'2. In this view, learning emerges through the activities of learners as they make use of 'the task design (epistemic), the structures of place (set) and the organisational structures (social)'17. So, while learning itself cannot be designed, the epistemic, physical and social elements can be designed.

The ACAD framework should be considered at three levels: the detail or micro, the regional or meso, and the global or macro level. The global macro dimension outlines the broader context for the design, the regional meso dimension is concerned with the local design and the micro level focusses on the learning arrangements in and around the actual learning space and time17. These design elements and levels can be used to negotiate and co-design the implementation of the Key Situation model in an organisation.

If you are interested in implementing this model in your organisation, then perhaps we can consider how to design this, so that it meets the your and your organisation's needs.

Do you want to find out more? Why not take a look at this screencast from the SOAS Learning and Teaching Conference in June 2018: The Key Situaitons in Social Work Reflective Learning Model

In 2020, Adi Staempfli completed his thesis, in which he developed the key situation model for England and makes suggestions as to how the model could be implemented. The thesis Practice-Based Design for Professional Learning and Knowledge Sharing: Adapting the ‘Key Situation Model’ for Social Work in England.


The Association Network Key Situations in Social Work aims to support reflection on and discourse of key situations in social work and for this purpose operates the platform and coordinates activities of its members in the network. It was founded in 2015 and It is a not for profit charitable organisation under Swiss law and has its head office in Basel, Switzerland.

Membership in the Association Network Key Situations in Social Work is open to all persons and organisations wishing to promote discourse and reflection on key social work situations. Members of the association are active in the network and promote the association's interests.

The Association supports universities and practice organisations to adapt and implement the Key Situation Reflection model and platform in their education and continuous professional development programmes. It offers training for reflection group facilitators and supports organisations in making the best use of the platform. We have almost 10 years’ experience and can advise on the benefits and challenges of adopting the Key Situation model!

We are convinced that the Association with its platform and network will transform the way social workers and organisations can integrate theory, research, ethics and practice through reflective practice, communities of practice working on key themes within and across organisations, access to co-produced knowledge embedded in real social work situations and discourse on the quality of the practice and knowledge of such situations. Together we will develop enhanced and shared practice-based understandings of good social work practice!

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The Key Situation in Social Work Model by Adi Staempfli and the Association Network Key Situations in Social Work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Board members

Dr. Adi Staempfli, co-president – Lecturer in social work at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK.

Prof. Dr. Annette Vogt, co-president – Professor of psychology, Katholische Stiftungshochschule München, University of Applied Sciences, Munich, Germany.

Claudia Morselli, MA, co-president - Lecturer in Social Work, University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwestern Switzerland.

Prof. Dr. Regula Kunz, board member – Head of BA in social work, University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwestern Switzerland.

Dr. Eva Tov, board member - Associate lecturer and researcher in social work international freelancer, Israel.

Dominik Tschopp, MA, board member - E-Learning Coordinator / Research Associate, University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwestern Switzerland, Switzerland.

Gaby Merten, board member - Independent registered supervisor and coach, associate lecturer, Switzerland.

Tatjana Zingg, MA board member - Research Assisstant, University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwestern Switzerland

Lukas Zingg, MA, Secretary - Social Worker, Social Services Basel, Switzerland.


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