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By Jill Manit and Gloria Messick-Svare
In social work, there has been a perception of a gap between the knowledge and skills needed to practice in the community and the textbook knowledge that students learn in school. “Textbook knowledge” is used in a pejorative way as idealistic, irrelevant, and only useful for test taking.
Knowledge based in the real world is often called “practice knowledge” or “practice wisdom” further suggesting the value of knowledge acquired in the real world in contrast to the less useful knowledge acquired in the classroom.
In 2008, the Council on Social Work Education, the educational accrediting body for social work, took a giant step to bridge that gap by moving from an educational model that is based on what academics believe graduates need to know to a competency-based model that defines what graduates need to be able to do in ever-changing and complex situations. Some of the concerns that prompted these educational changes in social work are similar to those described in other practice professions, including public health, medicine and public administration. Educators in these professions are grappling with questions about how to teach students to use knowledge to achieve the goals of becoming competent professionals.
In his 1987 book entitled Educating the Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schön talks about the problem of knowledge. Knowledge about a problem—as an accumulation of facts that a graduate remembers from class– is often useless when confronted with a complicated situation that needs to be resolved. This is because professionals in the real world encounter few “textbook” problems that can be solved with pre-packaged solutions. Most problems in social work as well as public administration are what Schön calls “messy” and without obvious solutions—often with multiple interrelated sub-problems.
When students move from the classroom to professional settings and are confronted with these messy situations, they frequently find it difficult to know where to begin. Sometimes their unsuccessful attempts at resolving a problem leave them feeling as if they “ran into a brick wall” and often results in a questioning of their knowledge.
Solving complex problems begins with structuring the problem in such a way that allows the professional to use the knowledge and skills of the profession. This essentially turns the messy situation into a solvable problem. This process requires that knowledge be used in what Benjamin Bloom calls higher levels of learning (analyzing, evaluating and creating) so that knowledge can be used flexibly, using information about one type of problem to generate ideas about another problem. Schön calls this process “knowing-in-action.”
As part of the changing curriculum in the graduate program in social work, we have developed a culminating project that is designed so that students use knowledge and skills flexibly, based on the evolving demands of a project rather than a course schedule.
The Integrative Project (IP) is a field-based professional project that results in a permanent product that “gives back” to a field setting. For the project, students are presented with a “problem” or a “need” by the agency in which they are placed for their practicum experience. The agency is instructed to give students little guidance on the “solution.” Instead, they provide the student with historical information, access to data and feedback on the project along the way. From there, the student must utilize their classroom knowledge to better understand the problem and then to develop and implement a solution.
The IP draws upon theories that emphasize reflective, engaged and problem-based learning. The project becomes a medium through which students demonstrate mastery of the program competencies and addressing real, complex, “ill-structured” and ever-changing practice situations. In traditional education environments, students are typically given a well-defined “end goal” and predetermined steps to achieve that goal. In contrast, the IP’s guidelines are broad and non-specific so that they may be applied to unique field-based situations. Students often begin with an end goal in mind and then have to change directions in order to meet new demands. Additionally, the project provides an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and the capacity to work autonomously in a complex and ambiguous situation—cross-cutting principles which define the graduate social work program.
Concurrently, students take a two-semester IP Seminar that provides a venue through which students are guided through the process of applying the knowledge, values and skills they have learned in their coursework to the project. The seminar provides a collegial forum for discussion, feedback, and problem solving where peer consultation is key. Importantly, students work independently on their projects—in consultation with their Advisory-Examining Committee (AEC). The AEC is comprised of a chair and one member from the School of Social Work and a third member who is outside of the School of Social Work.
As students develop their projects in collaboration with the field placement setting and navigate challenges that arise throughout the process, they also demonstrate the cross-cutting principles mentioned earlier–leadership and the capacity to work autonomously in complex and ambiguous contexts. The IP Seminar also provides a venue to teach skills to students that they are ready to use. For example, students learn to develop an “elevator talk” before they meet with their committee and that encourages them to talk about their project in a brief but articulate format. Students are required to leave a “product” at the agency.
Additionally, there are three required products associated with the university. Students are required to submit a professional paper to their AEC, complete a professional presentation at their field agency and a presentation/defense on-campus to their AEC. These requirements provide additional opportunities to integrate knowledge and skills of writing, PowerPoint presentations and public speaking.
Students completing the IP experience the challenges of professional practice while still in the “safety” of their educational environment. With built-in supports such as the IP seminar, the AEC and the student’s field setting they are able to uncomfortably work through the differences between ideal knowledge and real world practice. Our experience has been that, while students experience heightened anxiety around the perceived lack of specificity of the project (i.e. the absence of a “prescription”), they soon realize that they have developed core skills and values that can then be translated and applied to future complex problems that will arise in practice.
Gloria Messick-Svare, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor and MSW Program Coordinator ([email protected]). Jill M. Manit, MSW, Field Education Program Coordinator ([email protected]). Both teach at the University of Nevada Reno, School of Social Work.