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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century


Critiques of traditional pedagogies invite social work educators to consider how methods utilized in the classroom communicate how the profession conceptualizes change—in the learner and in how the learner is ultimately able to impact the world. Although social work continues to emphasize a systems perspective, prioritizing interdependent practice influences at the macro, mezzo, and micro levels, traditional pedagogies do not bring that level of emphasis to the classroom system, to the complex and layered interaction of multiple aspects of the learner with multiple aspects of the educator. By excluding vital parts of the learner, the educator and the ways these interact, we teach them to understand systems outside the classroom by ignoring the ones inside it.

Since the scientific revolution, the Academy has privileged cognitive learning in the “banking” style (Freire, 1970, 2000) as a primary method to facilitate student achievement. In this traditional educational system, which social work has largely embraced, the teacher is a disembodied, all-knowing, cognitive being depositing information into the disembodied minds of students who are empty vessels. Such an approach perpetuates the social narratives that undergird oppression, and it breeds a hegemonic, or power-over, dynamic between educators and students. This dynamic marginalizes students by failing to recognize and develop their personal power while also oppressing educators by disallowing them to bring their whole selves to their work (Barbezat & Bush, 2014; Kelly & Horder, 2001). In short, it undermines student preparedness for macro-level impact. A “banking” approach (Freire, 1970; Pyles, 2014) to cognitive learning, however, arguably produces what postmodern theorist Michel Foucault (1975) called “docile bodies,” which serve to maintain the status quo of the socioeconomic order. These docile bodies are produced by controlling and disciplining people through, for example, specific physical arrangements and ordering in the classroom, such as students sitting in rows and a teacher standing at the front of the room. The problem of such docile bodies becomes perhaps even more of a challenge in this era of online and hybrid learning, as we are confronted with more barriers to human connection (Henderson, 2010). While educators grapple with blatant disconnection that this distance learner brings, there may be less dissonance with classroom pedagogy if the same “banking” styles are utilized. If both student and teacher are disembodied, with one delivering content to another, we must consider how distance pedagogies and class-based ones actually differ.

Emerging from a critique of primary/secondary education and adult education, there is a large body of literature advocating for transformative and holistic approaches to education (Hart, 2014; Hocking et al., 2001; Mezirow, 1991). Some social work educators have also been critiquing traditional approaches for many years, arguing for transformative learning and anti-oppressive education (Jones, 2010; Ross, 2007). These alternative approaches emphasize the importance of rethinking fundamental assumptions and also the facilitation of dialogic learning that can result in new paradigms and action. Although many of the approaches to transformative education have done a good job of developing social justice-oriented classrooms, we find that many, although not all, tend to emphasize the cognitive (and to some extent the emotional) dimension of students and fail to acknowledge the body, heart, and spirit dimensions (Ross, 2007). Recent literature has begun to include more holistic and integrative orientations to education, such as the approach put forward by education scholars Ryoo, Crawford, Moreno, and Mclaren (2009), who propose an educational process that “acknowledges the way students and teachers are exploited, fragmented, and Othered in schools while advocating for curricular and educational practices that are based in love and integrity in an interdependent classroom community” (p. 132).

Certainly necessary to social work education, cognitive learning often entails learning new theories; studying empirical evidence; and engaging in the important, although often elusive, practice of “critical thinking” (Gambrill & Gibbs, 2009; Kirst-Ashman, 2012). Cognition, however, especially when developed in traditional ways, represents an incomplete attempt at developing the key elements of holistic engagement. Although cognition is crucial in information management, it cannot fully account for connections between people and between people and systems. As a profession, social work purports that these relational connections facilitate health, growth, development, and healing and are crucial to mezzo and micro practice. For example, empathy requires connection with some element of one's experience emotionally and/or spiritually beyond the messages of the mind—it is a felt process that the mind can recognize but not genuinely create in the absence of body, heart, culture, and soul data input. By fostering classroom spaces where students learn and practice methods of attention, self-reflection, and conscious communication, student-practitioners have the opportunity to experience the effects that such techniques can have on their own ability to engage holistically (Lynn, 2010; Ross, 2007). In so doing, students learn the skills they need through pedagogical methods that reinforce and model the skills needed to practice at multiple levels.

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