Reforming social work education: the question of curriculum inputs

As a distance educator and someone who has been involved with learning technology for over twenty years I am a great fan of the Canadian educational researcher George Siemens. It was George who, along with Stephen Downes, developed the first Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC). However, the original MOOC designed by Siemens and Downes could not be less like the content driven MOOCs offered by the plethora of institutions who now occupy that space, theirs was founded on a connectivist pedagogy driven by the activity of learners and the networks they form, not by a pre-determined content driven structure.

For connectivists (and constructivists) it is not content that produces learning, it is the activity of learners. Siemens makes clear the role of educational content in a recent blog post on adaptive learning where he argues that:

Content is the least stable and least valuable part of education…the skills needed by 2020 are process attributes and not product skills. Process attributes involve being able to work with others, think creatively, self-regulate, set goals, and solve complex challenges.

He draws our attention to a distinction between product skills and process attributes, mirroring the distinction made by Biggs and Tang (2011) between declarative knowledge (or knowing what) and procedural knowledge (or knowing how). Although Siemens is referring to the skills required of all modern graduates, in my view, this argument is just as important for social work graduates entering complex human service organisations where the work is increasingly multidisciplinary and the human situations confronted are layered with social and cultural complexity. Moriarty and Manthorpe (2014), in their analysis of the content of the social work qualifying curriculum in England, refer to evidence that social work graduates can possess declarative knowledge of topics, such as social work law or assessment processes, but may still struggle to apply that knowledge in practice. The perennial problem of learning transfer (Macaulay & Cree, 1999) should draw our attention to three factors: firstly, the importance of teaching methods and assessment processes that develop and assess a student’s procedural knowledge; secondly, the pivotal role of the fieldwork placement as a context for the integration of declarative and procedural forms of knowing (know what and know how); and thirdly, that prescribing teaching content does not ensure that learners will know how to make use of it.

This argument about the role of content in the educational process, and the distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge, is an important one for Aotearoa New Zealand because we appear to be in the middle, or at least the opening stages, of an undeclared government reform of social work education, and part of that reform may include an emphasis on specifying content or curriculum inputs. I will argue here that an emphasis on curriculum inputs, although understandable, may hinder rather than help curriculum improvement.

In many jurisdictions, interest in reforming social work education is often driven by government efforts to be seen to be doing something to improve the politically sensitive policy domain of child protection. Recent rumblings of an interest in reforming social work education in New Zealand are associated with the wide-sweeping reforms of our Child Youth and Family (CYF) service. Part of the terms of reference of the CYF expert panel, established to conduct the review, was to review “the professional knowledge, skills and expertise required by Child, Youth and Family… and implications of this for providers of training, development and contracted services”.

Curiously, the interim and final reports of the expert panel make few mentions of “professional knowledge, skills and expertise” or of providers of training. The interim report does state that “There is currently fragmentation at a national level in social worker qualification and training, which is reflected in a lack of consistent practice within CYF” (Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel, 2015, p. 13). Although, what is meant by “fragmentation” or “lack of consistent practice” is left to the reader’s imagination. The final report mentions the key people shifts associated with a new operating model and describes a requirement for “new knowledge, competencies and skill requirements for social workers associated with the move towards multi-disciplinary, trauma-informed and evidence-based practice that builds children’s sense of belonging and identity, and recognises criminogenic factors and drivers of offending behaviour” (Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel, 2016, p. 29). Yet, in spite of an apparent commitment to evidence-based practice, no evidence is offered as to why this new knowledge is required or the extent to which it is present or absent in current qualifying programmes. Nor are there any plans suggesting how the new knowledge, competency and skill requirements are to be negotiated with current providers of qualifying programmes.

It is not uncommon for critics of social work education to point to the assumed content of the social work curriculum, or what is perceived to be missing from it, or the apparent lack of consistency between institutions in delivering it. This is a tempting trap and one that the former Children’s Commissioner fell into when, in his review of the State of Care (Office of the Children’s Commissioner, 2015), when he argued that:

CYF reports that many new graduates they employ lack the required level of knowledge of child protection, youth justice, child development, mental health, addictions and family violence. This means new social workers need to learn these skills on the job. (Children’s Commissioner, 2015, p.34).

That is a fairly damning indictment and, if true, should set off alarm bells for the Social Workers Registration Board (the regulator of social work education programmes in Aotearoa New Zealand). However, the reality is that although many commentators believe they know what is missing from the education of graduates (based on anecdote, opinion and generalisations from personal experience) we have no empirical understanding of the topics intended to be taught in social work education programmes, nor of how this relates to what is actually taught in the classroom, or what is learned by the student, or how any of the foregoing prepares newly qualified social workers for the realities of practice. The point is, if we are serious about reforming social work education, rather than rushing to construct a wish list of prescribed curriculum content, we need to take the time to discover – in a systematic, evidence-informed manner – the strengths and weaknesses of the current social work curriculum, we need to invest in increasing the evidence base (Burgess, 2004; Carpenter, 2005; Moriarty & Manthorpe, 2014; Taylor, 2015).

Very recently, the SWRB hired a consultant to review its programme recognition standards (SWRB, 2013). Since the programme recognition standards are what is used by the SWRB to recognise a programme, and to re-recognise it every five years, changes to the standards will change the settings used to regulate social work education. If changes are made as a result of the review, over time, the recognition and re-recognition process will reform social work education (for better or worse). The consultant has circulated stakeholders with an extensive survey form that includes questions on the graduate profile; the curriculum; requirements for fieldwork placement; admission criteria; modes of delivery; and staffing requirements. In this post I want to focus on one aspect of the review: the idea of specified curriculum content.

In relation to the curriculum the survey asks respondents the following questions:

The current curriculum is fairly general and does not specify particular content. This approach leaves it up to the education provider to develop a curriculum and demonstrate to the SWRB how it prepares the graduate to meet the entry-level competencies.

  •  Is it specific enough? Is there a place for further specification of what should be included in a core curriculum?
  • If so, what content should be specified?
  • Should any current content be amended or removed?

I sincerely hope I am proven wrong, but in my view, the questions in this section are likely to invite a wish list of curriculum content topics based on the current opinions of the stakeholders completing the survey. An opinion survey is a quick and relatively inexpensive way of providing a snapshot in time of survey participant’s current satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a state of affairs. However, in relation to the reform of a nation’s requirements for social work education it will leave some fundamental questions unanswered. A stakeholder opinion survey teaches us nothing about the strengths and weaknesses of the current social work curriculum, the differences between curricula, the impact of current curricula on social work students, or the readiness to practise of students.

This is not intended as a criticism of the consultant. I have often worked as an educational consultant and one’s work is always constrained by the time and resource limitations of the client. Nor is it a critique of my colleagues at the SWRB. I am proud to be a Registered Social Worker, support the regulation of education and practice, and admire the work they do to keep the good ship social work afloat with the limited resources at their disposal. The work of the SWRB is also, sometimes, driven by political imperatives that are not of their own making. However, although it will be fascinating to read the results of the survey, it is vitally important to recognise that the evidential weight of the findings cannot and should not be used as a valid or reliable basis for alterations to the current curriculum requirements. If anyone in government believes that this is a reliable, evidence-based approach to the reform of the social work curriculum they are deeply mistaken.

It is not just that we need more data to justify specifying particular curriculum content (Moriarty & Manthorpe, 2014; Taylor, 2015), it is also the case that an emphasis on curriculum inputs may be entirely wrong headed and have unintended consequences for the learning of students. Taylor (2015) has argued that an emphasis on inputs and content specification in UK and US social work programmes stifled innovation, overloaded the curriculum and led to students feeling pressured by the sheer amount of content to be covered. Covering content is a phrase often used in tertiary education, and yet the prevailing view of educational researchers is that an emphasis on content coverage lies at the heart of the problem of achieving deep learning in all educational settings. The educational researcher Howard Gardner makes the point very succinctly when he states that: “The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage”.

Focussing on content coverage can lead to cognitive overload and undermines the time and space necessary to think deeply, solve problems and reflect critically on case situations or the student’s own development as a beginning practitioner. Emphasising lists of declarative knowledge (or what is to be learned) detracts attention from the more fundamental pedagogical issues of how we design effective learning activities for students, how we construct authentic assessment tasks, and what the outcomes of social work education should be.

The risk of focussing on inputs rather than outcomes, and the tension between a wish list of content and the effective design of educational programmes, is made clear by Moriarty and Manthorpe (2014) who cite a point of view expressed by Coulshed (1988) over a quarter of a century ago:

Perhaps as a result of the uncertainty about the nature and purpose of social work we seem to be unsure about what to include and what to leave out of the curriculum …The present-day curriculum on some social work courses has become overloaded and…In an attempt to mirror agency developments we have sometimes over- tilted curriculum content towards … [agency concerns that are] short term and subject to rapid change. We may need to ensure that training does not become something of a world tour around indiscriminate subject domains. (pp. 156–157)

It is the question of the nature and purpose of social work that requires our attention, and from a social work education perspective, we need clarity about the capabilities of our graduates at the point of qualification. If we want to improve our social work education programmes in Aotearoa New Zealand then we must focus on the outcomes of qualifying programmes, not curriculum inputs.

References
Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university (4th ed.). Maidenhead, England: Open University Press.

Burgess, H. (2004). Redesigning the curriculum for social work education: complexity, conformity, chaos, creativity, collaboration? Social Work Education, 23(2), 163–183.\

Carpenter, J. (2005). Evaluating Outcomes in Social Work Education. Social Care Institute for Excellence/Scottish Institute for Excellence in Social Work Education, London. Retrieved from https://www.scie.org.uk/publications/misc/evalreport.asp

Modernising Child Youth and Family Expert Panel. (2015). Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel: Interim Report. Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/work-programmes/cyf-modernisation/interim-report-expert-panel.pdf

Modernising Child Youth and Family Expert Panel. (2016). Expert panel final report: Investing in New Zealand’s children and their families. Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/work-programmes/investing-in-children/

Moriarty, J., & Manthorpe, J. (2014). Controversy in the curriculum: What do we know about the content of the social work qualifying curriculum in England? Social Work Education, 33(1), 77–90. doi:10.1080/02615479.2012.761689

Taylor, I. (2015). Discretion or prescription? Exploring confidence in qualifying social work education. British Journal of Social Work, 45(2), 493–510. doi: 0.1093/bjsw/bct124

Macaulay, C., & Cree, V. E. (1999). Transfer of learning: concept and process. Social Work Education, 18(2), 183–194.

Social Workers Registration Board. (2013). The process for recognition/re-recognition of social work qualifications in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.swrb.govt.nz/doc-man/policies-1/232-recognised-qualification-policy-october-2014

Office of the Children’s Commissioner. (2015). The State of Care 2015: What we learnt from monitoring Child, Youth and Family. Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.occ.org.nz/assets/Publications/OCC-State-of-Care-2015.pdf

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