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


Traditional social work education incorporates knowledge, values, and skills, currently understood as building competencies. In the United States, this is upheld by the 2012 Educational and Policy Accreditation Standards ofthe Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and it is upheld in Canada by the 2014 Commission on Accreditation Standards of the Canadian Association for Social Work Education (Canadian Association for Social Work Education—l'Association Canadienne pour la Formation en Travail Social, 2014; CSWE, 2012). As articulated in Chapter 1, social work has historically focused on theoretical knowledge, including such approaches as ecological systems theory and the person-in-environment perspective (Robbins, Chatterjee, & Canda, 2011). Social work theories try to explain human behavior, the nature of relationships, and the interactions people have with each other in their environment. Furthermore, social work education prioritizes the strengths perspective, acknowledging the role of individual, family, and community strengths in overall functioning and managing challenges (Saleebey, 2012). Research is of clear concern, especially with the focus during the past two decades on evidence-based practice and practice-informed research, in social work education (Grinnell & Unrau, 2010). These three areas—competencies, theoretical knowledge, and research—currently combine to construct what it is to be a competent social work professional. These are the areas we currently emphasize in social work education as we prepare students to practice successfully in the field.

However, although there are enhanced accountability activities for demonstrative competencies upon graduation, something is clearly missing in social work education. At a recent social work conference in Canada, we presented the main components of this model; one of the audience members who identified with our critique and embraced our approach bemoaned the current state of social work education, with great emotion, “We are taking the heart out of social work!” Many others around her nodded in agreement; the griefin the room was palpable. Despite increasing emphasis on field-based practice as the “signature pedagogy” of social work education, and the attendant competency-based evaluations of students' practice in the field, there are ongoing disparities in social work service and outcomes (Larrison & Korr, 2013). Despite values-driven, social justice-prioritizing, ethically informed efforts, we often still fall short in basic human connections. We believe that this has less to do with the content of social work education and more to do with the paradigm in which it is taught, specifically pedagogies that fail to develop human connections, self-reflection, and the whole person. As well, social work practice and interventions tend to preserve the status quo of society, offering initiatives that alleviate poverty rather than working toward changing social systems and perpetuating oppressive hierarchies between social workers and clients, as well as between management and staff (Reisch, 2013; Van den Berk & Pyles, 2012). We argue that this is, at least in part, because we fail to democratically engage students in their education. Democratic education demands students' (and educators') whole self participation, invites authentic exploration and analyses of the current social system, and encourages students to examine their roles in perpetuating and/or changing it (Mezirow, 1991).

Furthermore, we still see increasing rates of stress-related illnesses, vicarious traumatization, and burnout among social workers (Grant, Kinman, & Baker, 2013; Kim, Ji, & Kao, 2011; Sanchez-Moreno, Roldan, Gallardo-Peralta, & Lopez de Roda, 2014;). We continue to see, sometimes in our graduates and sometimes in ourselves, that there are limits to our current skills; there are limits to the well- intended competencies and to the knowledge that we bring, even with all of the research we now routinely access. There is still something missing.

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