Concepts, contexts, connections and contradictions
Social work education occurs at the intersection of 3 crucial sometimes coherent, sometimes contradictory conceptual and contextual demands that the teacher and students must navigate. Different but interrelated expectations arise from the requirement for professional accreditation, the functional necessities inherent in the field and the critical analytical approach to university education. Graduate Qualities may prove to be a useful bridge between roles and realities.
The Professional Association
A graduate social worker gains professional recognition if they hold a degree accredited by the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), which in turn entitles them to membership of the AASW. The AASW, taking a mainly instrumental approach, sets out curriculum content areas and other requirements such as supervised field placements that establish a baseline for social work training. Students are required to assess and report against a set of standards developed by the AASW to guide all social work practice in Australia. The requirements for ethical practice are elucidated through a Code of Ethics last updated in 2002. Every five years an external AASW team reviews each course offered by the University. The AASW expects that covering these areas will equip the graduate social worker with the skills, knowledge and capacities to enter the profession as a competent novice.
Employers report being under pressure to place new graduates into roles requiring capacities beyond what might normally be expected of a beginner. Employer surveys indicate a demand for autonomous, highly skilled and knowledgeable graduates with a range of critical and creative capacities to step into professional and organisational life with independence, integrity and the ability to integrate knowledge and theory into practice. In many respects this accords with a functional approach - graduate social workers need to now how to work in the so-called ‘real' world, which is characterised by complexity and compromise.
Within an academic environment students are encouraged to bring a critical analytical approach to their studies. A focus on critical reflective learning and practice means that they must be able to probe the history of the profession, to analyse and understand the operations of social policy and the interactions of social work within the welfare state and human services, and critique contemporary social work practice frameworks, with the related ethical complexity. They are guided to explore the social change potential of social work, not simply to adapt to its traditional role within human service delivery and coordination. In this sense, social work is understood as primarily a complex thinking enterprise, not solely a feeling and doing activity.
Clearly, within this context The University can find its broader educational aim at odds with a more narrowly focussed vocational/professional training expectations imposed by the AASW and ‘The Field'.
Graduate qualities - a bridge?
Therefore, the designated Graduate Qualities could make available an uncontroversial educational bridge that will assist graduate social workers to take up their roles with:
- increased capacity to access, appraise and build up a relevant and growing knowledge base in their field of practice, including contributing to the evidence base for practice
- more confidence in their professional skills, especially in understanding and dealing with systems complexity and ethical issues
- an interest in and ability to contribute to crucial social policy debates
- sufficient communication skills to engage effectively with clients and colleagues alike.
Tools to think by - a dedicated program and skills template
Within a first semester, first year (in a 2 year program) topic aimed mainly at exploring the research and policy base for work with vulnerable populations across the lifecourse, the GQ are used to guide the development of a specific skills training series to assist students both academically and professionally. The rationale relies on the recognition that it is impossible to offer comprehensive enough content about all these fields of practice to set a social worker up for ongoing practice. However, it is possible, alongside skills training in interviewing, counselling and ethical reasoning (which the students gain through other dedicated topics), to link the topic learning outcomes with learning opportunities (including assessment) that focus on essential professional skills, linked to the GQs.
All students are required to attend 6 sessions named ‘Tools to think by...' which includes:
- understanding academic integrity
- thinking critically
- finding and appraising high quality research resources
- understanding the nature of evidence including reading and writing an annotated bibliography
- concept mapping and building an argument
- appreciative questioning
At each session the students are encouraged to build links to the lecture and tutorial series (which focuses on content) and to their assessment tasks, which are marked on a published rubric incorporating these areas of learning. All feedback relates to these areas as well as the substantive aspects of the student's argument. Assessment tasks are designed to reflect real world tasks such as writing policy-briefing papers.
Does this work? Will we continue it?
Ultimately the test of the value of this approach is whether graduate social workers demonstrate the Graduate Qualities and can more confidently and competently enter their professional life. However, without such test results available, we rely on initial feedback from students who in high numbers report increased understanding of what critical thinking requires, increased confidence with accessing, appraising and applying the research base and using concept mapping as a way to develop better arguments in their written work. On the basis of this we consider the approach worth continuing and consolidating.
Finally, the question remains, ‘are Graduate Qualities developed by taking a skills training focus within a wider academic topic?' I am reminded of the (blindingly obvious) comment of a member of the Staff Development and Training Unit who, in response to my concern three years ago that students did not seem to be able to develop an annotated bibliography, retorted, ‘You know you can't ask it of them if you don't teach them how to do it!'
AASW (2003) Practice Standards for Social Work: Achieving outcomes http://www.aasw.asn.au/document/item/18
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