Our intention is to offer a potential road map or pathway that can integrate our full human experience, with multiple ways of knowing, and use all of this moment by moment to ultimately practice social work authentically. Although there is always significant suffering to be faced in social work practice, the possibilities in each of us for human growth are remarkable. If we could be fed by our challenges in the moment, nurtured by our mistakes, and reassured by what we do not fully understand, we could experience the most challenging aspects of social work as the platform for lifelong growth and development, thwarting burnout and affirming self-care in ways that the current social work literature on these subjects is only beginning to touch upon (Christopher et al., 2006; Lee, Ng, Leung, & Chan, 2009). Furthermore, Tsang (2013) highlights the crucial role of the integration needed for constructive use of social work students' life experiences, education, and work experiences and encourages social work educators to facilitate integration as part of pedagogical practices. This is especially important as we educate students of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students, and other students of marginalized backgrounds so that these students can bring their whole selves to the class and their practice, thereby embodying the aspirations of democratic and transformative social work practice.
The attunement we described previously, the integration of all sources of knowing, from both holistic engagement and traditional sources of information, to inform and shape professional practice, sculpts a trail for just this type of ongoing evolution. As we synthesize and integrate all these ways of knowing from and about ourselves and others, we use it in ever-changing ways each time we engage again. Each experience we integrate changes us, gives us something different to draw from the very next time. If in that perpetually evolving engagement we could use all of the ways of knowing to actually improve professional practice, all of our moments offer the potential to cultivate professional growth.
We created a new construct to capture this process, termed integrative capability, defined as using the dynamic process of engaging fully, responding, and learning through attunement, experience, and context to continually improve professional practice. Integrative capability relies more on self-awareness than professional ideals; it goes beyond competencies. It is not a set arrival point; integrative capability is a process that is as dynamic as the nature of practice, and it needs to be developed during professional education and continue to be developed throughout lifelong learning.
Integrative capability fundamentally impacts the responsibilities of the social work educator in that we are now invited into this same type of professional growth, of using all of these sources of data synthesized through attunement to actually improve our practice. This includes our development as educators, as we invite students into a different kind of observation and ourselves to a different level of accountability for modeling the skills of holistic engagement in the name of integrative capability. Whereas competence, our current standard, means being able to do something well, capability means we continue to be competent and we take the fullness of each experience and funnel that into improved practice. Setting integrative capability as a new standard of professional accountability will require two fundamental shifts in how we prepare professional social workers. First, social work educators must embody, model, and teach the skills of holistic engagement, attunement, and integrative capability. Second, social work pedagogy must include student exposure to, and practice of, holistic engagement skills, attunement, and integrative capability. In the final section, we begin to articulate what these pedagogies can look like.