Constructing Training for Human Services Professionals: A Commentary

The question of what knowledge, skills and values are needed for competent social care is one that is constantly debated both in the field and within training institutions. Having taught social work for some ten years, and seen in place three variations of curriculum, I’m aware of how passionate teaching staff can become when it comes to making decisions about what content and training outcomes should take priority. There are also debates about the sequencing of content teaching and the mode of delivery.

And my colleagues in the field have their priorities too. Requests for more knowledge and expertise in mental health, child protection, disability and family violence are not uncommon. Add to such dilemmas the shift to a business culture in tertiary institutions, and the challenges become considerable, with fees, class sizes, number of hours of face to face teaching contact, nature of the learning approach to be implemented and assessment being but a few of the issues.

As a teacher in the provincial and rural sector, with a particular interest in environmental issues and the impacts of climate change, I no doubt bring to bear my own biases in my teaching and writing. However, my core concern is the nature and content of training courses that will prepare social care practitioners for a world that is complex and rapidly changing; both socially and physically.

It is easy to make lists of characteristics we want in graduates from our training courses. Indeed, many universities now publicise the graduate attributes which students are to attain, with concomitant pressure on staff to educate for these outcomes. The difficulty is that educating to achieve attributes such as flexibility of thinking, high levels of literacy, tolerance of diversity and commitment to lifelong learning as a professional practitioner is actually quite problematic.

A comment made to me recently concerned someone who had clearly known what to say in academic assessment tasks, but as a practitioner lacked flexibility, tolerance, the capacity to build productive interpersonal relationships and was unable to use supervision constructively-all of which I would consider essential capacities for social care work. While it is easy to point the finger at the educational sector under such circumstances, it is harder to establish training and assessment processes that eliminate the passage of ‘unsuitable’ graduates into the field.

This commentary raises a few of the issues associated with the training of social care practitioners with a particular focus on the dilemmas we already face, and the likely exacerbation of these in a climate-changed world. While not attempting at this point a fully referenced, research-based article, my comments are designed to stimulate the sharing of ideas, theories, speculations and knowledge drawn from innovations in education. My point of view comes from working in regional and rural settings, but may well resonate with the observations of metropolitan-based educators.

In delivering an elective subject Social Work Practice into the Future during 2008 and 2009, I had the opportunity to work with two groups of 20 to 24 social work students. It was this experience that brought home to me the potential impacts of climate change on the delivery of training, because this issue became integral to discussions about lifestyle and social work practice in coming decades. Of the many issues that arose, three warrant closer attention, though I appreciate the inter-connectedness of each with an array of others that would no doubt be considered equally important. I will refer to these as the socialisation effects of training, the use of technology in training and the development of a commitment to curiosity.

Socialisation Effects of Training

The idea of socialising students into a professional discipline has existed over centuries, whether this was achieved through apprenticeship to a master and subsequent guild membership, college membership and alumni relationships or academic scholarship with subsequent professional association registration or membership.

Over recent decades, aspects of this socialisation process have been challenged by the delivery of distance education, online subjects and ‘block’ teaching (sometimes referred to an ‘intensives’), all of which have the effect of limiting the face to face contact and relationship formation with teaching staff and fellow students. These modes of teaching may have served to increase accessibility to training that had been previously reduced by such factors as geographic distance, disability, child care responsibilities or the need to maintain an income.

And it is likely that the increasing impacts of climate change-the need to reduce transport emissions, more extreme weather conditions and potentially increased isolation of some rural communities-will result in greater promotion of education and training approaches that progressively embrace flexible delivery modes, further reducing the interpersonal exchanges in real time and space.

However, one of the disadvantages of these developments is the loss of interpersonal exchange in training which includes the debates and subtle challenge that take place as relationships develop in the campus setting over time. Associated with the interpersonal is greater awareness of diversity of values, lifestyles, choices and the variations of practice style to which students are exposed. These processes of interaction serve to balance the ‘insiderness’ effects that can prevent a student from stepping outside, metaphorically speaking, of their local cultural milieu because studying through distance, online or ‘intensive’ modes limits the interrogation of established values, attitudes and assumptions.

Developing interpersonal relations and being exposed to a range of perspectives is something akin to the impacts of the ‘grand tour’ taken by young men and some young women of means in earlier eras. The ‘tour’ was a way of providing experiences and insights into how others in the world live, as well as providing the learning opportunities that become available when one becomes an ‘outsider’.

Ironically, staying away too long can have the effect of becoming an outsider to one’s former social group (as sometimes happens with students who do not return to their communities of origin on graduation) and becoming an insider to a new one, but I think we all recognise the benefits of education that moves us beyond our home base and the reading packs and computer-based learning packages that so easily exclude exposure to the outside world.

In summary, the socialising aspects of training and the interpersonal factors that contribute to the development of knowledge, understanding and skills might lack sufficient strength in courses in the future, undermining the very benefits of earlier approaches to education in the social care disciplines.

Technology and Training

Over the last decade or so the veritable explosion of technological developments impacting on communication and access to information has made its mark in the delivery of training in the human services sector. It has also changed the expectations and, to some extent, the approach to learning for some students. At times, student expectations have been much higher than what the technology and learning mode can provide; in other instances I believe it might have changed the nature of information intake and ‘attending’ capacity.

Some of the issues with which I have been confronted include: requests for lectures and seminars to emailed due to student absences from class (not just the PowerPoint and notes that are already made available);  students who use only websites for developing discussions and essays because they believe it is too hard and takes too long to read articles and texts; students who give scant regard to the importance of class-based activities based on the assumption that only the teacher’s notes are required to pass the subject; students’ assumptions that information equates to knowledge, understanding and skill; and the tendency for some students to want knowledge to be delivered in ‘two minute grabs’, without requiring concentration and application of analytical thinking on their part. On the other hand I have had a parent, whose adult child was underachieving, accuse the university of being unsupportive because of the university’s expectation that students take responsibility for their learning in terms of accessing available databases, electronic readings and other technology-based activities!

One of the arguments one hears in universities is that students can now educate themselves at times convenient to their home and work routines. This assumes all students have access to sophisticated communication technology and broadband, and are adept at using it; but even if they have-and many don’t-this raises concerns about the nature of the learning taking place. Is it, for example, focussed and sequenced in a manner that maximises the retention of information and linked, in the student’s mind, to the development of action-based skills; or is it constantly interrupted because of ‘multi-tasking’ behaviours? Worse still, does this encourage students to gloss over material, and to pick and choose the bits they think are interesting to the detriment of their learning?

Do we really believe that human service professions can be taught predominantly through the vehicles of technology, or is there much more to the development of what some refer to as emotional intelligence, reflective capacity, and interpersonal helping expertise? How do we balance the need to make education accessible, while ensuring that the knowledge base and expertise are, indeed, evident at the conclusion of training? And are we prepared to pay the additional costs of personal coaching for students training at significant distances from tertiary campuses, which may well be required as the impacts of climate change become a more potent force to reckon with?

These are questions which are vexing, but won’t go away. I wonder if we need to embrace the use of technology, but make it work for us through learning to teach more skilfully over communication links, being much better at making choices about which technology works well for specific subject delivery, and ensuring that students have access to the technology they require for training purposes through locating such facilities within local libraries, schools, community centres and major employing organisations (eg local hospitals).

And we might need to make shifts in assessment of knowledge and expertise matched to courses that are more strongly technologically based, for example, by demanding much more performance-based assessment with commitment to analytical feedback and reflective processes: time-consuming, but perhaps the equivalent to that ‘saved’ by the use of the technology in the first instance?

A Commitment to Curiosity

My final concern in this commentary is the development of what we have traditionally called ‘taking the initiative’-the capacity to respond creatively using contemporary evidence and knowledge to craft appropriate responses in complex and unique circumstances. With lives replete with myriad demands, students appear to have an increasing tendency to want swift training outcomes that lead directly into suitably renumerated employment, with minimum commitment of time and attention to going beyond what is contained with the course and subject outlines. On many university campuses students are only present for designated class times and rush away to fulfil other responsibilities. A significant number of students have also told me they find reading and digesting texts, articles, report and government policy documents unfulfilling and of limited interest. It appears many prefer to be engaged in the ‘doing’ of social care activities as this acts as a trigger to investigation and knowledge building.

We all learn in different ways but such comments, coming as regularly as they do, suggest that training may need closer alignment with being on-the-job and, dare I say it, that ancient apprenticeship model? The necessity to deal with situations, based as they are in interpersonal relationships when engaged in social care practice, appears to be a stronger stimulant for eliciting curiosity and initiating investigative learning than is class-based learning. The human service sector wants more than ‘greenhorns’ being paid to learn on the job, of course. But some of the initiatives to more strongly linking practice with the development of professional knowledge and expertise-the development of ‘clinical school’ models, for instance-may provide the vehicle to encourage students to appreciate the need for curiosity and initiative, as well as the capacity to turn this into creative and unique practice responses.

A key difficulty is the tendency for many government and government-funded organisations to be constrained by policies, rules, regulations and accountability regimes, all of which can have the effect of stifling initiative and diversity of practice responses. The constraints reported to me by some of our graduates and mature age students who have worked in the sector are worrying, as it appears easier to survive in such workplaces by avoiding challenges to the status quo.

And this brings me full circle to the power of socialisation forces in organisations and disciplines, in communities and training institutions. Do we want to have graduates who are able to work, unconcerned and unquestioning, in regulated and constrained workplaces, or do we want professionals who are perceptive, strategic and able to challenge values and beliefs in a constructive way? This fundamental question might act as a driver for decisions about what training is required, when, in what format and at what level.

I would like to see more emphasis put on training that promotes flexibility in thinking, encourages creativity and ongoing learning, promotes the confidence and courage to challenge, and to meet the challenges of swiftly changing demands in a context of uncertainty and complexity. I feel confident that information on such topics as child or adolescent development, family violence and disability is available from many reliable sources, but less sure that we are adequately preparing social care personnel for the interpersonal aspects of professional roles, critical thinking and reflective capacity. Perhaps we should be clearer about what the technology can provide and use it to its best effect; and focus our teaching efforts on the cognitive and social/emotional development of graduates who can integrate information through critical reflection in flexible and emotional intelligent manner.

Dr Jennifer Lehmann is Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University, Bendigo Campus, Victoria, Australia.


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.