Right from the inception of Social Work Education/Training, Social Work Practicum has been considered as its integral and important component. It has also been believed to be its signature pedagogy. However, most of its theoretical and practical content has been borrowed heavily from its West and very little has been done in terms of making it relevant to the diverse practice contexts in India (Midgley, 1981). Further, overreliance on the traditional modes of learning in the educational system in India in general and Social Work Education in particular has downgraded Social Work Practicum into a ritualistic practice. In such a context, the present paper argues that the complex nature of contemporary reality that the profession of Social Work wishes to understand and engage with, requires Social Work Education/Training to redefine and redirect its practicum content and pedagogy towards constructivist mode of learning so that the social work learner masters the art of creating and integrating knowledge into an action-reflection or theory-practice continuum.
Key Words: Constructivism, Pedagogy, Ritualism, Social Work Education, Social Work Practicum.
Social Work Practicum is a unique and useful component of Social Work Education/Training. In the backdrop of twenty first century where a Professional Social Worker is required to have highly reflexive and effective higher-order skills, abilities, and learning dispositions that have been identified as required for successfully understanding and engaging with the rapidly changing, digital society and workplaces, Social Work Practicum cannot be conducted in the same old, traditional, ritualistic fashion. In such a context, the present paper proposes a paradigm shift from the mode of ritualism to constructivism so that Social Work Practicum will be able to set the Social Work Learners on the path of creating and integrating knowledge into an action-reflection or theory-practice continuum (Cooper, 2001).
Social Work Practicum Today
Social Work Practicum is widely considered to be among the most important components of training for professional social work. Its diverse functions include grounding the theories and methods established in the core, “classroom” curriculum in the “real world” experiences of persons providing and receiving social services. As such, careful construction of field learning opportunities for the learner is among the most challenging tasks faced by social work educators. This is because in Social Work Practicum, just like their students, educators too are required to test what they have carefully constructed in the protected atmosphere of the university/college against the realities of practice environments and the providers and clients who work and seek services in them.
In some way, one can argue that the idea of Social Work Practicum is already based on constructivist ideas. For example, according to Moti Ram Maurya, Dewey’s idea of learning through doing has had a primary influence in the concept of field work . . . . It blends theory with practice. It facilitates fusion of thinking with doing. It combines philosophy with action. It integrates understanding about people and methods of helping them. Its techniques draw heavily on scientific knowledge about people and social phenomena. It is functional in nature and technical in process....It is an integrated approach that goes concurrently with the classroom instructions, to turn out workers of effectiveness and maturity (1962: 10).
Careful attention has been paid to the foundations for field education within the discourse of Social Work Education. A major example of this is the extensive process undertaken by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) to develop the field components in their document titled Global Standards for the Education and Training of the Social Work Profession (Sewpaul & Jones, 2005). To achieve these recommendations, the authors found it necessary to address standards first generated in the West (chiefly Europe and North America), and to critically assess their relevance across the diverse social and cultural settings encompassed by their organizations. The result was a set of guidelines covering curriculum, settings, supervision, and the responsibilities of all parties to the exchange. These guidelines were not viewed as rigid mandates, but as carefully considered recommendations to be adopted only after careful consideration of their usefulness in specific local contexts.
The authors of the Global Standards document proposed the following recommendations that Social Work Education programmes should consistently aspire to achieve:
The authors noted that, in some countries, the recommended links between schools and their agency/field placement settings take the form of independent student units established by schools in communities defined either by their locations, or by their specialized interests. These, too, could be acceptable field training sites. The larger goal with respect to international field education standards remains achieving a balance between universal recommendations to be adopted everywhere, and culturally relevant recommendations tailored to the customs and needs of specific sites.
In Indian context, the major components of Social Work Practicum, as also recommended by the UGC Model Curriculum for Social Work, are:
Issues Affecting Social Work Practicum in India
Some of the studies carried out researchers and my own observations find the following as the major issues affecting Social Work Practicum in India:
Firstly, although theory and practice are intertwined in Social Work, the nature of the relationship between the two is not always clearly manifested in pedagogy and that is why many educators and students view the relationship as problematic.
Secondly, at the master’s level the students of Social Work come from diverse academic backgrounds. There are students from the social sciences, the natural sciences, Social Work, commerce, etc. who have their own diverse understanding of social work and have different expectations from the programme. When they are taught theories and concepts (borrowed from the behavioural and social sciences), they develop their own subjective understanding about them. So, the context in which the educator explains the theories is not uniformly or similarly understood by all the students. Thus, it becomes difficult for the educator to cater to the needs of all the students in the classroom as the courses need to be taught in a limited time-frame. As a result, many students are not able to develop a sound theoretical understanding of the theories and are not able to relate them to the field.
Thirdly, the field engagement of Social Work educators has minimised in recent times due to various issues such as allocation of too many students or too much of administrative responsibilities. Since the educators are not able to continuously engage with the field, they are not able to relate with the field experiences of students today.
Fourthly, in matters of administrative workload of the educators, UGC treats Social Work at par with other academic disciplines. It fails to recognise that in most of the institutions of Social Work, educators perform the dual role of both teachers and fieldwork supervisors. Thus, the educators are not able to continuously engage with the field as much as they want to or should.
Fifthly, most institutions of Social Work are facing an acute shortage of teaching staff.
Sixthly, students are not able to relate theory with contemporary field situations they face in their fieldwork placements as the field examples given by their educators are either outdated or drawn from the western experience. Even in classroom teaching, and in the reading list that is circulated to the students, there is heavy reliance on foreign literature (Moorthy 1952; Nagpaul 1972). This makes the problem further acute as it creates a contextual gap both at the classroom-level and at the field-level.
Seventhly, as the educators have individual viewpoints about social issues which are based upon their ideology, many a time the students feel that, if they do not share the same perspective, their questions are either dismissed or ignored. This discourages self-reflection on the part of the students and impacts their outlook on Social Work.
Eighthly, the voluntary organisations, where students are placed for fieldwork comprise of individuals from different academic backgrounds (especially at the management level). Therefore, practitioners, many a time, do not understand the relevance of education and training in Social Work. This leads to a debate between the academicians and practitioners and creates a gap between education and training on the one hand, and fieldwork, on the other, in Social Work. The students end up perceiving this gap as the gap between theory and practice in Social Work.
Ninthly, we find that most of the Social Work Educators themselves are not ‘liberated’ from the caste-class-gender discriminatory ideologies as they themselves would have undergone Social Work Practicum from a ritualistic mode and hence find it difficult to adopt the facilitator and co-learner’s mode demanded by constructivism.
Finally, for Social Work Practicum to be successful it is desirable that the academicians, the practitioners, and the students are simultaneously and collaboratively engaged with the field reality. Ideally, the academicians and practitioners are expected to maintain close contact with each other to benefit both education and training, and practice in social work. Only this can help in developing congruence between theory and practice which has important implications for fieldwork training of the student of Social Work. However, due to the issues discussed so far this type of synergetic engagement is rarely observed.
Basics of Constructivism
‘Constructivism’ is a philosophy of education that believes that learning occurs as learners are actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction as opposed to passively receiving information. In other words, it states that knowledge is constructed based on personal experiences and hypotheses of the environment. Learners continuously test these hypotheses through social negotiation. Each person has a different interpretation and construction of knowledge process. The learner is not a blank slate (tabula rasa) but brings past experiences and cultural factors to a situation (Ertmer, P. A., & Newby 1993 & Cooper 1993). Parker J. Palmer (1997) suggests that good teachers join self, subject, and students in the fabric of life because they teach from an integral and undivided self, they manifest in their own lives, and evoke in their students, a capacity for connectedness. Dewey and Piaget are the major proponents of this theory.
In recent decades, constructivist theorists have extended the traditional focus on individual learning to address collaborative and social dimensions of learning. It is possible to see social constructivism as a bringing together of aspects of the work of Piaget with that of Bruner and Vygotsky (Wood 1998: 39). Further, this theory can be seen in relation to ‘Social Development Theory’ proposed by Vygotsky (1980) which argues that social interaction precedes development; consciousness and cognition are the end product of socialization and social behavior.
Constructivist teachers encourage students to constantly assess how the activity is helping them gain understanding. By questioning themselves and their strategies, students in the constructivist learning environment ideally become “expert learners.” This gives them ever-broadening tools to keep learning. With a well-planned learning environment, the students learn ‘how to learn’.
David Jonassen identified three major roles for facilitators to support students in constructivist learning environments:
Modeling – There are basically two types of modeling: behavioural modeling of the overt performance and cognitive modeling of the covert cognitive processes. Behavioural modeling in Constructivist Learning Environments demonstrates how to perform the activities identified in the activity structure. Cognitive modeling articulates the reasoning (reflection-in-action) that learners should use while engaged in the activities.
Coaching – For Jonassen a good coach motivates learners, analyzes their performance, provides feedback and advice on the performance and how to learn about how to perform, and provokes reflection and articulation of what was learned. Coaching naturally and necessarily involves responses that are situated in the learner’s task performance (Laffey, Tupper, Musser, & Wedman, 1997).
Scaffolding - Scaffolding is a more systemic approach to supporting the learner, focusing on the task, the environment, the teacher, and the learner. Scaffolding provides temporary frameworks to support learning and student performance beyond their capacities (Wood & Middleton, 1975).
Most constructivist education programs have following qualities in common:
Some Possibilities for Adopting Constructivist Ideas to Social Work Practicum
As discussed there are many aspects within Social Work Practicum which are already inspired by the spirit of constructivism. However, there is a need for making a total – attitudinal, philosophical, and pedagogical – change from ritualistic practice of Social Work Practicum to constructivism. In order to achieve this firstly we should break the dichotomy between Social Work Theory and Social Work Practicum. Both, the classes in the university/college and fieldwork work in the agencies or open communities should be treated as a ‘open classroom’.
Further, attitudinally and philosophically we should make a bold and total departure from:
• On the part of the Educator:
- Readiness to move from ‘status’-orientation to ‘role’-orientation,
- Readiness to move from ‘I know all’-attitude to ‘I too am learning’-attitude,
- Readiness for participatory and collaborative approach, and
- Researcher’s attitude and skill-set.
• On the part of the Leaner:
- Readiness to move from ‘degree’-orientation to ‘learning’-orientation,
- Readiness to move from ‘cozy’-attitude to ‘socially conscious’-attitude,
- Readiness for risk and failures, and
- Readiness to ‘unlearn’ and ‘unload’ given wisdom and psycho-social burden.
Further, it needs to be stated here that the management of the educational institution as well as Agency too needs to play a supportive and complementary role as it has been observed that Social Work Practicum is highly influenced by these two factors.
Some other considerations for constructivist Social Work Practicum are ‘goal-oriented’ and ‘progressive’ practice of the Practicum.
• ‘Goal-oriented’ Fieldwork Practicum involves:
- Practice Skills
- Professional Development
• ‘Progressive’ approach has to be planned:
The following are the major phases in Fieldwork Practicum that have to be planned and executed from a constructivist perspective:
In order to understand the theory–practice linkage and bridge its gap, it is important to have an interactive content and pedagogy for Social Work Practicum (Yelloly & Henkel, 2002). This can happen only when we create a space in our class rooms to debate on social issues that are focussed on the feedback of learners from their respective fields of practice and also enable the learner to freely and critically explore the meaningfulness of theoretical concepts deliberated in the class room back in their fieldwork settings. Constructivism can help us to develop such an integrated and progressive approach to Social Work Practicum that would enable our educators and learners to be relevant to the complex times of twenty first century India.
Dr. Ashok Antony D’Souza
Associate Professor of Social Work, Rani Channamma University, Belagavi, Karnataka.
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