[005.20] Learning Social Work (from) Outside the University Walls – a reflection

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice… but in practice there is.” (anon)

“if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” (Maslow, 1966, p. 15)

If the use of theories in social work is a topic of debate, its complexity starts even before the practical application, being several the arguments and approaches regarding the definition of “social work theory” itself (Fook, 2016). types of theories (Payne, 2016) or about how to organize the use of different theories in practice (Osmond, 2005; Cameron & Keenan, 2010; Scott, 2016; Fook, 2016). 

Here, we accept and assume a more general and broad definition of (social work) theory, that includes the existence of practice models: all the knowledge base, with scientific that should inform the social work practice and, based on the fact that social work is a transtheoretical discipline, complemented by the definition presented by Trevithick (2005, p. 28), of a “knowledge drawn or borrowed from other disciplines, theories that analyse the task or purpose or social work, and practice theories or practice approaches”.

Regarding the types of theories in social work, Payne (2016) presents an explanation based on the work of Sibeon (1990), suggesting the existence of formal (the ones that are “born” and developed in the profession through academic work) and informal (based in societal ideas that are applied in practice) theories, assuming that these formal and informal theories should be also categorized according its relationship with the social work profession (theories of what social work is, theories of how to do social work and theories of the client world).

The complexity of the knowledge base of the social work profession together with the even more complex need to organize this knowledge base in the practice of social work and with the need to differentiate the profession from philanthropic approaches led to several different models that intended to present a rational to support professionals in their practice, having in consideration aspects as client group or the problematics presented. This complexity also led to the defence of the requirement of a “practice wisdom” in the profession (Cheung, 2016; William C.K. Chu, 2008), that can be defined as “the foundation for effective practice [that] encompasses both the art and science of social work. The divide between practice and theory has existed since the profession emerged and practice wisdom is the bridge to this gap” (Samson, 2015, p. 119)

The trans-theoretical nature of the social work profession demands, thus, that social work professionals and social work students develop their knowledge based constantly, incorporating theories in their practice throughout their professional practice. These models, and this “practice wisdom” is necessary to create a framework where theories will make sense and be able to work together. However, “social work practitioners and academics develop many approaches, sometimes rooted in conflicting theories. In practice, some practitioners adopt a specific approach and use it exclusively while others blend multiple similar approaches” (Scott, 2016, p. 421), bringing all the complexity inherent to the profession a step forward and this can only be sustained and based in scientific knowledge and experience, in order to avoid, or at least reduce, the risks and its potential negative impact in clients. 

If this is a reality to social workers, it is even more evident for social work students.

“Teaching is only demonstrating that it is possible.  Learning is making it possible for yourself” (Paulo Coelho, 1999)

In the British context Social Work Practice Educators are registered social workers with the ability to supervise, teach and assess social work students in their placements. This must be based on the Practice Educator Professional Standards, having in consideration the Professional Capabilities Framework (British Association of Social Workers, 2018), besides all the social work values, ethics and professional skills.

The Practice Educator has, thus, a fundamental role in the student learning process of implementing theories in the social work practice and, if (as presented above) the difficulties to articulate a consistent knowledge base are clear in the social work field, amongst professionals and academics, more complex is this task for social work students and even more evident is the need of the supportive, empowering and facilitating role of the Practice Educator towards the social work students in their placements, having a crucial role in shaping future social workers (Poletti, 2014).

Complementarily, research shows that the importance of the Practice Educator in the development of reflective practice, especially as the “students need a reflective and lifelong approach to learning because social work is everchanging” (Stone, 2016, p. 711)

The definition of what a Practice Educator is, as someone that supervises, assesses and teaches the social work student, brings a clear understanding of the methods that must be used in its practice. 

The Practice Educator must teach the student, showing how to implement strategies, skills or, in the definition presented above, demonstrating how to apply social work theories in the professional practice. The Practice Educator must be a role model (Golia, 2015) demonstrating “through their interactions with their clients and with social work students themselves, competent, effective, and ethical social work practice” (p. 329). 

However, these teaching moments are also intrinsically connected with the other two aspects presented in the definition, as supervision and assessment of the social work student must be, and are, teaching and learning moments.

The Practice Educator assesses the student at all moments, observing the development of the practice, the application of the social work skills and values, and the ability to integrate “knowledge, skills, personal qualities, behaviour, understanding and values used appropriately, effectively and confidently, not just in familiar and highly focused specialist contexts but in response to new, complex and changing circumstances” (British Association of Social Workers, 2018, p. 3). Observation is also “an activity which can add value, focus and new insights into the supervision” (Davys & Beddoe, 2016, p. 216)

Supervision assumes here, thus, a primordial importance in the teaching/learning process, as it is the moment where guidance is given, where the student anxieties are discussed and where the student is invited to reflect on his practice, values and skills (Davys & Beddoe, 2016; Hawkins & Shohet, 2012)

However, the professional relationship between Practice Educator and Social Work Student, must not be understood as a learning moment only for the student, but also for the Practice Educator (Mark & Steven, 2005), as the student is also a change agent, that has new and fresh perspectives and the acknowledge of this by the Practice Educator is fundamental build a positive learning environment (Wilson & Kelly, n.d.).

“You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right“ (Rosa Parks)

The role of the Practice Educator is fundamental for the development of the profession and to guarantee (as possible) that future social workers have the knowledge and skills necessary to practice and to promote the credibility of the profession. The intentionality of the use of theories in practice and the possession of the strategies to allow to overcome its complexity is of primordial importance.

For this, the Practice Educator must invest in training and in the development of their own skills and abilities. The social work values that are in the case of our profession are also primordial in the relationship created between the Practice Educator and the student. Also important is the existence of a two-way communication between academics and front-line professionals, between universities and agencies, supported in:

  • Increase the hours of contact between social work students and front-line professionals, achievable by increasing the number of hours/settings of mandatory placements, or promoting workshops centred of professional practice as part of the Social Work Curriculums;
  • Require a yearly minimum of hours of Continuum Professional Development, specifically focused on theoretical knowledge, teaching and supervision, for all Practice Educators, in order to allow them to continue taking students on placement (renewable fitness for Practice Education).

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