Social Work Education in the 21st Century

Higher education institutions (as primary educational sites of professional social workers) arguably hinder transformative learning opportunities for the change agents soon-to-be. Operating in the context of increasing financial constraints and relying more heavily on a neoliberal efficiency model (Reisch & Jarman-Rohde, 2000), universities often seek to achieve measurable results (predominantly equated to the quantity of knowledge transmitted and regurgitated) quickly and cheaply. Such quantitative outcomes (Reisch, 2013), however, through “a rote, assembly-line approach” (hooks, 1994, p. 13) arguably produce like-minded automatons rather than progressive critical thinkers and culturally versed practitioners. In this chapter, we seek to make a case for critical holistic education as an antidote for the assembly-line production of helping professionals. We argue that teaching to the holistic self, although neuroscientifically and pedagogically valid, is not always structurally viable.

In this regard, at the beginning ofthe 21st century, Reisch and Jarman-Rohde (2000) started the discussion about how globalization, technology, demographic changes, and the changing nature of social services and American universities would affect social work education. The central question of their discussion was whether social work schools are “educating students for the changing practice environment or to change the changing practice environment” (italics in original, p. 210).

Later, Reisch (2013) problematized the influence of neoliberalism on social work education and the profession itself. Regarding educational content, he criticized its digression from social justice, emphasis on “individual rather than structural transformation” (p. 718), “reliance on practice theories and methods that emphasize equilibrium rather than change” (p. 719), promotion of evidence- based practice, and preference for quantitative research methods. Reisch critically appraised measurable “quantitative ‘outcomes' as indicators of students' performance,” the micro/macro divide, and the depoliticized learning experiences of aspiring social workers (p. 716). Following Reisch, we further argue that linear, one-dimensional theories of, and hence prescriptive technical solutions for, complex problems teach social work students to fit into and reproduce the established social order turning/co-opting them into agents of social control.

As doctoral students, we certainly have experienced firsthand the prevailing positivist ideation, depoliticized learning, and the lack of attention to human interaction, processes, and empowering outcomes. In our educational experiences, the intuitive and emotional lives of students have been undervalued. Having qualitatively oriented mindsets, through our required doctoral course- work, we have often felt like misfits while being immersed into the exclusively positivist research agenda. We felt deprived of an in-depth discussion of what counts as knowledge, evidence, and knowing. As agents of our own fate, we had to seek such opportunities elsewhere. Being trained by older faculty members who themselves were trained in a strictly quantitative school of thought may partially explain our experience.

Reisch (2013) proposed that “questioning assumptions, reawakening curiosity, sitting in uncertainty and deconstructing discourse” serve as “exercises in liberation” in the classroom that can be “transferred into student's practice techniques” and action toward social change (p. 724). Similarly, we argue that creating opportunities for praxis, or practical application of theoretical learning, can serve as a vehicle to integrate fractured feelings and thoughts that a social work student may face when approaching complex problems. The inherent and ever-growing complexity of social problems that prospective social workers are charged to solve calls for comprehensive, interdisciplinary, and innovative thinking as well as practice skills. We argue that alternative approaches to pedagogy and multisensory learning through dialogue, participation, and practical application of theory allow teaching to these skills and to the development of a holistic self. In this chapter, we understand the holistic self of the learners as a balance of cognitive-rational and emotional-creative ways oflearning and knowing. When simple processing and storing of information is paired with instant creative application, we believe that a learner's cognitive-emotional well-being is stimulated and enhanced (Zull, 2011).

We also argue that experiencing a distant, rational interaction in the classroom, it is not easy to replicate compassionate attention and build empathetic connections (both constructs developed in this text) with clients when out in the world of practice. We argue that the traditional social work education system leaves the initiative of cultivating compassionate attention and empathetic connection to the student or the educator. Conceiving of learning as the process of co-construction, educators must not forget, however, that instructional methods and classroom environment leave imprints on, and model real-world interactions for, the learners. Yet current typical social work classroom experiences offer limited opportunities for exploration of student emotional selves and provide minimal exposure to the real-world interactions.

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