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

Social work academic programs are forever being created, re-created, and modified. With an opportunity to be intentional about this creation, curricula evolution can begin by moving from a preoccupation with setting expectations and evaluating (Barter, 2012) to focusing on creating experiences within the classroom that will allow students to become more self-aware, connected social workers. This can involve setting program content to include experiential activities beyond analyzing thoughts in reaction to something done in class. Similarly, with a focus on holistic engagement, course work can balance traditional writing assignments with assignments that emphasize doing and experiencing (Christopher, Christopher, & Dunnagan, 2006).

Curriculum planning can grow to include a designated class or classes to develop these skills, such as a required generalist course on “Self-Care” or “Holistic Engagement,” in order to set the stage for their integration in diverse ways across the program. Furthermore, as social work grapples with online or other distance methods for teaching traditionally, the potential for incorporating holistic pedagogies complicates planning further. Although there is only a very small body of research devoted to integrating holistic methods within the distance environment (Henderson, 2010), scholars have argued that there are several ways that instructors can create more connected online communities of learners. This requires attending to the cultivation of a mindful relationship with technology, addressing the presence/absence of the body in online courses, responding to issues of social isolation, nurturing interactivity, and enhancing the aesthetic environment of online education (Douglass, 2007). The last consideration, for instance, can be addressed by something as simple as changing the computer desktop background and playing music on the computer to reflect the kind of environment that the instructor and students want to foster together.

Curriculum changes need to be addressed at the doctoral level such that doctoral students practice teaching this way from the beginning. Indeed, in our experience, doctoral students appear to be quite eager and driven to find different ways of doing pedagogy and to forge paths that invite them to make teaching a meaningful part of their lives. This is consistent with findings by

Oktay, Jacobson, and Fisher (2013), who explored doctoral social work student needs in transitioning into the teaching role. Learning through experience, utilizing everything that happens as a learning experience, recognizing the emotional component to receiving feedback on teaching, reflecting on experiences, and discovering that “what might feel comfortable to them was not necessarily effective for their students” (p. 213) were all emphasized throughout their study results. Creating a course, or perhaps a series ofworkshops, in social work doctoral programs that invites doctoral students to learn about and develop their own skills related to teaching in a holistic, transformative way could help to create the kind of momentum that such a major shift in social work pedagogy requires.

Often, shifts in curricula are driven as much by what is not working as by what is, and holistic pedagogies are no exception. As the curriculum teams grapple with students' perceived lack of investment, or texting in class, for example, key strategies in holistic engagement offer antidotes that can solve problems as well as enhance skills. Instead of the traditional dictum of “no cell phone use in class” or “please refrain from texting,” holistic methods could position this as an activity. As the instructor invites each student to hold a phone or other object in hand silently and examine it intently—the buttons, the screen, its texture, its color, its weight, considering its relationship with the person, and so on—the phone becomes a part of connecting with the self, each other, and the environment rather than a tug of war. Furthermore, assessing student evaluations from the recent past can also be helpful because students often cite versions of disconnection in courses they evaluate poorly.

It is important to remember that integration of holistic pedagogies at the program level also implies a certain level of buy-in from faculty. Sharing stories about the impact of using holistic pedagogies can make the methods more palpable. Organizing a subset of faculty to explore integration of holistic pedagogies in core courses or electives can be a beginning point in the journey. Not every faculty member will be interested or even tolerant, and that is fine. When we greet these faculty with the same presence and empathic connections as our supportive colleagues, we have opportunities to build our own skills.

Finally, the implications for curricular change also include faculty identification of and advocacy for realistic workloads to support holistic pedagogy efforts. Revamping curricular activities takes time, and purposively engaging in change to one's teaching does also. This may initially mean the need for designated course planning time and increased time designated for office hours or advising. The model emphasizes connection between teacher and student and sometimes results in more direct requests for individual mentoring. Similarly, programs with multiple faculty engaged in this level of self-awareness and selfcare may result in different personal limit setting. As faculty increase their awareness of their stress or fatigue, the result may be a needed shift in program expectations.

 
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