I Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Holistic Engagement

Educating Transformative Social Workers. The Case for Holistic Pedagogies



At a time when there is an increase in social disparities throughout the world, more severe fiscal austerity in policymaking, greater frequency of environmental disasters, overreliance on technology for problem-solving, and intensified fear and isolation, social workers are questioning the fundamental assumptions about the project of modernity and its impact on the individuals, organizations, and communities with which they work (Coates, 2003; Lee, Ng, Leung, & Chan, 2009; Pyles, 2014; Reisch, 2013). Contemporary thinkers, including economists, environmental scientists, neuroscientists, religious leaders, social work scholars, and others have observed that society is moving toward a tipping point and that new strategies are necessary for environmental sustainability, social equity, global peace, and public health (Coates, 2003; Hawken, 2007; Jones, 2010; Korten, 2006; Macy & Brown, 1998). As such, social work students and educators are inquiring into and interrogating the socially constructed assumptions of modernism, including a growth-oriented economic paradigm, mind-body dualism, positivistic science, and linear, mechanistic thinking about interventions and outcomes (Coates, 2003;Jones, 2010; Lee et al., 2009; Mishna & Bogo, 2007; Vick-Johnson, 2010). Importantly, social work educators and their students are also beginning to explore more deeply the causes and consequences of, as well as prevention of and solutions to, high rates of social worker burnout and stress (McGarrigle & Walsh, 2011; Moore, Bledsoe, Perry, & Robinson, 2011; University at Buffalo, n.d.).

Because of the multileveled (micro, mezzo, and macro) and multilayered (biological, psychological, social, and spiritual) dimensions of 21st-century social problems, social work educators require a unique set of knowledge, values, and skills that approach these challenges holistically. Furthermore, given the severity of the challenges faced, such as hypercapitalism and privatization of public services (Reisch, 2013), environmental devastation (Jones, 2010), and chronic, debilitating stress (Koopsen & Young, 2009), social work educators must address these challenges in manners that not only alleviate the negative effects of the problems but also tap human strengths in ways that have the potential to transform individuals, communities, and systems. This means that educators must craft opportunities that help student social workers understand and reflect on their own relationships to these issues and all of their complexity, in addition to imagining and embodying new solutions in the classroom. It is clear that social work practice and education in the 21st century demand new paradigms, innovations, and risk-taking.

We believe these transformational processes can be nurtured in the classroom through deliberate cultivation of deeper levels of questioning, awareness, and human connection. This necessitates participation of the whole self in relation to other whole selves in the context of the environment we inhabit. Such processes and practices require the creation of trusting, compassionate relationships within the classroom community so that students feel safe enough to go outside of their comfort zones. Such processes are phenomenological; there is a felt, experiential sense of the body-mind and environment (Hocking, Haskell, & Linds, 2001; Lynn, 2010). By engaging holistically in the classroom, student social workers can take their new insights and skills into the community as they practice transformative social work (Pyles, 2014).

Transformative social work is grounded at the unique crossroads of integrative healing modalities and democratic social change movements, including feminist organizing (Pyles, 2014). It seeks to bring awareness to and unravel the knots ofpersonal suffering and social oppression, reveal individual and collective strengths, and empower people toward personal and social liberation. This kind of social work practice requires the development of holistic engagement skills and an integrative capability that allows practitioners to respond dynamically in a globalizing environment.

This chapter strives to lay the foundation for what we call “pedagogies ofholis- tic engagement,” teaching methods that affirm the skills we argue are required to transform social work education, practice, and the people with whom and communities in which we work. These skills—presence with the whole self, whole self-inquiry, empathic connection, and compassionate attention—have a growing empirical base and provide the foundation for our overall conceptual framework for holistic social work education. This framework will be explicitly articulated in the next chapter. We begin this chapter by describing and analyzing the current state of social work education, followed by an argument for why social work education is in need of transformation. We conclude this chapter by presenting some of the scholarly foundations of a holistically engaged approach to social work practice and education.

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