Staying current with scholarship enriches the work of field educators: it teaches us innovative ways to solve perennial field problems, suggests new readings for field seminars, keeps us abreast of current debates in social work education, and even inspires us in our own writing on theory and research. “What We’re Reading” presents our brief summaries of the findings of recent publications in field education. Our emphasis is on implications for practice. Readers are encouraged to suggest articles or books for future review.

Austin, A., Craig, S. L., & McInroy, L. B. (2016). Toward transgender affirmative social work education. Journal of Social Work Education, 52(3), 297-310. doi:10.1080/10437797.2016.1174637

The authors outline the ways in which social work education programs fall short of addressing the needs of their gender minority students and do not adequately prepare future social workers to provide competent and sensitive services to gender minority clients. The authors highlight social workers’ commitment to combatting discrimination on the basis of, and educating themselves as to the impact of marginalization related to, gender identity and expression, paradigms that are highlighted in the National Association for Social Work Code of Ethics and the Council on Social Work Education Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards. Despite this, a substantial literature review revealed a lack of support for faculty around content relating to transgender individuals, notable transphobia toward students, an absence of transgender inclusivity in both curricula and in campus policies, and conflation of gender identity and expression with sexual orientation in various domains.

The authors analyzed both qualitative and quantitative data collected from the Social Work Speaks Out Study (n=1,310), which was developed and implemented by a working group of the CSWE Council on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. Focusing on students self-identifying as transgender from this sample, the authors’ investigated both implicit curricula (e.g., perceived transphobia, perceived support, and gender-identity-inclusive non-discrimination policies) and explicit curricula (course work) at schools of social work included in the study.

Findings revealed that almost half of students experienced overt transphobia in their respective schools, including resistance to preferred pronoun use. A third of students reported that faculty did not intervene when other students displayed transphobia, and over half of students experienced conflict in their field placement related to their gender identity and/or expression. Additionally, over half of students indicated that trans issues were introduced into courses by students rather than instructors, indicating that a “lack of faculty knowledge, awareness of, and commitment to trans issues” resulted in an unfair burden placed on gender minority students. Qualitative data underscored the prevalence of transphobic microaggressions, including “trans invisibility,” intentional harm and victimization, and trans-affirmative experiences as exceptions to the norm.

While the authors highlight several important implications of this data for social work education, including “making the T in LGBQ&T” more visible and comprehensively integrating sexual and gender minority issues throughout the curriculum, two of these recommendations relate directly to field education. These include: improving faculty competency in gender identity and expression, and ensuring an adequate number of field placement options working with sexual and gender minority communities. Field education departments straddle institutional policies of their respective schools of social work and policies of the agencies in which students are placed. Given the high percentage of gender minority students who experienced conflicts in their field placements relating to their gender identity and/or expression, field faculty should be adequately versed in issues concerning gender minority students to better support them. Additionally, field departments should look to expand agency placements to include those that specialize in working with sexual and gender minority clients to develop important practice skills and knowledge.

Buck, P. W., Fletcher, P., & Bradley, J. (2016). Decision-making in social work field education: A “good enough” framework. Social Work Education, 35(4), 402-413. doi:10.1080/02615479.2015.1109073

Social work education, particularly field education, is directly impacted by changing demographic, economic, academic, societal, and political contexts. During the Annual Program Meeting of the Council on Social Work Education in 2014, field directors and social work educators from 50 social work programs across the United States convened to discuss current challenges in field education. Four main areas of concern emerged from the summit: 1) imbalance between supply and demand of adequate field sites; 2) diverse and complex student needs; 3) recruiting and maintaining high-quality field sites and field instructors; and 4) economic trends and pressures.

Using this as a foundation, the authors conducted focus groups to examine the process by which field directors make decisions about field practica in the face of competing demands and challenges. Participants responded to four vignettes that mirrored plausible and demonstrable situations faced by field directors: 1) students who demonstrated obvious bias; 2) students whose own recovery process was unstable; 3) field instructors who were not providing consistent supervision; and 4) administrators who overruled field education decisions. Results indicated that field directors focused on key dimensions to guide decision-making, utilizing a “good enough” framework. Dimensions included: the importance of student learning, ethics of field education, agency relationships, and administrative expectations/degree of autonomy.

By illuminating the challenges experienced by departments of field education at schools of social work, a dialogue may emerge for field directors to talk more openly about their respective experiences and foster validation. The authors propose that research highlighting a “good enough” framework of decision making that demonstrates the compromises made by field directors may initiate a conversation whereby more support is afforded to them by program administrators and accrediting bodies. Moreover, they assert that the efficacy of field requirements must be evaluated if they are to continue to be required in dynamic and challenging environments. Finally, the article highlights the adoption of a “good enough” framework in other professional fields, stating that “good enough” is not equated to mediocrity, but to a rational response to reality, that adequately prepares field directors to balance various benefits and consequences that result as they juggle competing priorities.

Chen, Q., & Fortune, A. E. (2016). Student perceptions of the learning process during undergraduate field practicum: A qualitative study. Social Work Education. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/02615479.2016.1224830

The authors introduced the challenges of developing and implementing field practica in China, given its unique social, political, and economic contexts. The authors cited that social work education in China was established without a clear concept of “the scope and methods of practice” and utilizes curricular content (concepts, theories, and practice models) developed in western countries. Content and implementation of field practica varies greatly across undergraduate programs of social work. While national guidelines were established by the Department of Higher Education of the Ministry in 1998, they did not establish parameters to guide the development of consistent learning and practice experience across sites. For example, required field placement hours can vary from less than 200 hours to over 800 hours. Three major challenges to the development of field practica were identified: the lack of field learning opportunities, a lack of professional experience in the provision of field instruction, and the translation of social work knowledge and practice into China’s context.

Using purposive and theoretical sampling strategies, 27 undergraduate students were selected to participate in face-to-face semi-structured interviews that were guided by the Critical Incident Technique (CIT) framework. This approach allowed the authors to identify important learning moments, or “critical incidents” relevant to the students’ experiences in field practica. Of 26 individual critical incidents that were identified, six major themes emerged, including: motivation, planning, exploring, reviewing, reflecting, and applying.

The authors identified several important findings from their research. First, they found a lack of sufficient field instruction, where students are often forced to rely on peers for learning. Secondly, despite students being assigned into social work majors through national college entrance exams, 26 of the 27 participants expressed motivation to engage in field learning; this demonstrates a commitment to social work as a profession, despite its nascence. Additionally, students’ reflection on field experiences and application of learning to other contexts was limited and not universally identified among respondents, suggesting that additional structure is needed to help students capitalize on learning in the field. Ultimately, this research underlines the importance of a field practicum as not only an “opportunity for doing,” but a “site for learning.” The authors assert that it serves as a crucial starting point for gaining a more fundamental understanding of how social work students learn and grow as professionals in the context of field education in China.

Hemy, M., Boddy, J., Chee, P., & Sauvage, D. (2016). Social work students ‘juggling’ field placement. Social Work Education, 35(2), 215-228. doi:10.1080/02615479.2015.1125878

As the diversity of the student body at schools of social work continues to grow, so too will the diversity of students’ life experiences and circumstances, including those who must continue work, who are supporting children and families, or who have community responsibilities. The authors assert that these students may experience barriers to progress as they “juggle” myriad responsibilities, particularly in their field education. If students must remain in paid employment or have caring responsibilities, these responsibilities may result in decisions to abandon plans to become a social worker or temporarily disengage from the degree. These responsibilities may complicate students’ ability to fully engage in and ultimately complete their field work. This article summarizes what is already known about the challenges that these students face, and underscores strategies commonly used by students that promote success and helps them to complete their field placements.

The literature review demonstrated that students who report not having enough money to manage or who are employed while in school, experience more significant levels of psychological distress and stress, fatigue, and emotional exhaustion than those who do not need to work. These factors can influence grades and persistence. Additionally, parenting or family responsibilities have been demonstrated to have an adverse effect on learning; caring for children and relationships with partners were identified among the top five sources of psychological distress for MSW students. Moreover, students with family obligations may experience a higher level of anxiety and stress, which can have an adverse effect on learning. Conversely, relationships with partners and families have also been documented to provide needed support for MSW students as they navigate various stressors in their graduate studies.

The authors documented that strategies such as active problem-solving, engaging support, and personal expectations were critical factors that helped students successfully “juggle” field placements and other responsibilities. Problem-solving strategies included effective time management and prioritizing, and choosing field placements based on practical requirements or opting for a work-based or part-time placement. Students also drew significantly on social relationships for support, and redefined and renegotiated roles to help manage their multiple responsibilities. Finally, students who were able to reframe and modify personal expectations for their education were better able to cope with the associated stressors.

The authors propose several important implications. First, students who are “juggling” additional responsibilities may require institutional support to aid in their completion of field placements. In terms of learning, students who choose field placements for practical reasons may also be forgoing opportunities to optimize learning. Second, the authors highlight the importance of field advisors in supporting students in placement, even though research indicates that students may sooner turn to peers and family for support. Regarding field placement agencies, the authors suggest that supervisors might agree to flexible hours and include time management skills as part of the student’s learning plan. Finally, they call for the expansion of paid internships and employment-based placements to alleviate the stress associated with needing to work while pursuing an MSW.

Jones, B., & Phillips, F. (2016). Social work and interprofessional education in health care: A call for continued leadership. Journal of Social Work Education, 52(1), 18-29. doi:10.1080/10437797.2016.1112629

The authors assert that social workers are uniquely positioned to become leaders in the burgeoning field of interprofessional education (IPE) in health care. Social workers are trained in skills that are well-suited to the development of interprofessional practice including: assessment, communication, group facilitation, empathy, engagement, and community building. Additionally, the core values and code of ethics of the social work profession, and standards published by the Council on Social Work Education and National Association of Social Workers address the need for collaborative practice, which intersect with competencies laid out in guiding the field of IPE.

The authors illuminated the nuanced differences in terms used to describe health care teams that are often used interchangeably: multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary. They exist on a continuum from least collaborative (multidisciplinary) to most collaborative and holistic (transdisciplinary). Regardless of the level of collaboration, the authors described effective communication, positive interpersonal relations, shared goals, understanding of other member’s roles, team composition and structure, and organizational factors as elements that are essential to successful team functioning. Effective collaboration is demonstrated to improve patient outcomes by several studies cited in the article.

As interprofessional practice in health care is evolving in response to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, students are being exposed to IPE initiatives to help them develop the requisite skills to succeed in these novel environments. “Training students of medical, nursing, pharmacy, social work, and other health professions together while they are still pre-professionals has the potential to teach the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for true collaborative practice” (Jones & Phillips, 2016). While the potential benefits of establishing IPE opportunities are manifold, potential challenges include: physical separation of campuses, scheduling conflicts for interdisciplinary classes, limited administrative resources, and rigid curricula.

Despite these challenges, several graduate schools of social work have established IPE initiatives preparing social workers to become effective partners and leaders of interprofessional health care teams. The authors explored initiatives at several schools of social work, medical schools, and other allied health degree programs that have incorporated IPE into the existing curricula, including The School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas Medical Branch School of Medicine, University of New England, Westbrook College of Health Professions, and University of South Carolina. Participation in several of these IPE case-based learning activities developed a deeper understanding of the role of social work in health care for students across disciplines, and enhanced interprofessional role knowledge, communication, and openness to collaborative practice.