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. Whenever possible, we have provided links to freely available fulltext articles.

Duffy, J., Das, C., & Davidson, G. (2013). Service user and carer involvement in role-plays to assess readiness for practice. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 32(1), 39-54.

The authors evaluated an initiative at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland that included service users and carers in assessed role-plays with social work students as part of the students’ preparation for field placement. The Northern Ireland Social Care Council requires that all students successfully pass a Preparation for Practice module before starting their first practice learning experience. One required element of this module is a positive assessment of a recorded 10-minute role-play. In this initiative, three service users and three carers agreed to take part in and help assess the students’ role-plays. Previously, drama students played the role of client in the staged role-plays. Eight staff members taught the module, and fifty students participated in the role-plays. Students and staff reported via questionnaires before the role-play assessment that they believed the inclusion of service users and carers would bring authenticity to the process and aid in power sharing between the service user or carer and the student. Respondents also indicated concern that service users and carers could be negatively emotionally impacted by the role-plays if unresolved problems came up and that students would feel increased pressure to perform out of fear of saying the wrong thing to an actual service user or carer. After the assessment, students and staff reported that the role-plays were more realistic and including the perspective of the service user or carer was beneficial for students’ understanding of the role of social workers in practice. Overall, service users and carers reported that their participation in the role-plays was positive and allowed them to realize how everything they have to share can help shape future social work professionals. The authors suggest that service user and carer involvement in the preparation of students for social work practice should be more widespread, with particular attention to how service users and carers can provide valuable feedback to students directly.

Finch, J., & Taylor, I. (2013). Failure to fail? Practice educators’ emotional experiences of assessing failing social work students. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 32(2), 244-258.

New gatekeeping structures and practices were recently instituted in the UK because of concerns about students graduating with the social work degree who are not competent or suitable to practice: the General Social Care Council to regulate social work education, a Social Work Reform Board, a Professional Capability Framework, Standards of Proficiency under the Health Professions Council, and new qualifications for practice educators. The authors review five key themes in practice assessors’ experience of failing students: 1. Lack of understanding and inappropriate application of the assessment framework; 2. Fear of litigation; 3. Confusion between the roles of nurturer/enabler of learning and of assessor/manager; 4. Difficulty in defining minimum standards of practice; and 5.Emotional responses of the practice assessor to working with failing students. The authors describe a qualitative research study in which 20 practice assessors from 10 English universities were interviewed about their experiences working with a failing student. The stories fell into several categories: the guilty story, the angry story (angry at the student and/or university), the story about role conflict, the idealized learner story, and the internalizing failure story. The authors conclude that the difficult emotions of the practice assessors should be used to help them understand how the student is feeling and to reflect on the triadic dynamics with the student and university tutor. Even appropriate assessment frameworks cannot guarantee protection of practice assessors from these feelings. The authors recommend that practice assessors be trained to address role conflict and supported by agencies and universities in dealing with failing students. The authors also underline the need for reflective practitioners who can make sense of intense feelings. They applaud the new frameworks, which set clear expectations for practice educators and enhance continuing professional development.

Gursansky, D. & Le Sueur, E. (2012). Conceptualizing field education in the twenty-first century: Contradictions, challenges and opportunities. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 31(7), 914-931.

The authors discuss current challenges to field education. Integration of theory and practice has been found to be haphazard, in part because of the lack of qualified field instructors and appropriate practice sites to offer a quality experience to students. Although there are a variety of partnerships between schools and agencies, the authors question whether this collaboration is “necessarily authentic and in the best interests of student field education”; for example, the dearth of placements can lead to collusion to protect an inadequate field agency. The authors also point to the limitations of supportive practices such as the field visit and critique the use of portfolio presentations and university tutorials. The authors question schools’ ability to assess how students are taught in reflective practice and whether the students have the capacity to employ reflective practice in their work. The authors question as well the assessment of what constitutes good supervision. They propose that schools of social work provide greater support to agencies (i.e. collaborative research or seminars) and give greater attention to practice-learning methods in other disciplines and literature on how and what adults learn in the workplace.

Harrison, G., & Ip, R. (2013). Extending the terrain of inclusive education in the classroom to the field: International students on placement. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 32(2), 230-243.

Many schools of social work are reporting a rise in enrollments of international students. The authors of this article concentrate on students from the Asia-Pacific region studying in Australia. Inclusive education is touted as the goal when working with international students, as it builds upon the different experiences, interests, and backgrounds of students instead of pushing them to fit into existing practices. It is unclear how inclusive education can be practiced in the field when students are expected to adhere to the norms and regulations of their agencies. The general approach of schools of social work is to wait until problems arise with a student in a placement to offer support, instead of utilizing a program to prepare international students for work-based placements before they enter the field. Some supervisors are hesitant to take on international students because they fear that the students will not be able to communicate effectively if their first language is not English. International students need to increase their cultural capital if they are to be successful in placements in Australia. This means they need to be proficient and familiar with the dominant cultural codes and practices of Australian society, such as proper methods of dress and appropriate topics for workplace conversation. International students need to learn colloquial language as well as the jargon of the social work profession. The students are expected to perform at the same level as domestic students. The authors suggest that it is the university’s responsibility to provide support and information to field educators on typical problems that international students face in the field and strategies for resolving these issues. If a student is assessed by the university as suitable for entry into the program, it then has an obligation to ensure that a level playing ground exists for that student both in the classroom and in the field.

Hughes, M. (2013). Enabling learners to think for themselves: Reflections on a community placement. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 32(2), 213-229.

The authors interviewed first-year undergraduate-level social work students at Bournemouth University in England who participated in a 20-day community placement. Students were assigned a population and area of need and instructed to explore the local community while performing scholarly research into the topic. Weekly group sessions were held to bring students, service users, and practitioners together to discuss findings and share different perspectives. The author evaluated these community placements by soliciting written and verbal feedback from students and group facilitators from the community. The students were asked to reflect on their community placement experience directly after completing the placement, one year later, and another year after that. The group facilitators and students at all time points reported that the community placement was an overwhelmingly positive experience. Students were able to develop professional skills that served them well in further learning and in their subsequent placements in a traditional social work role. Students evaluated information from both informal (service user perspectives and personal experience) and formal (research, policies, and literature) sources. They developed as reflective, analytical, and autonomous thinkers able to exercise professional judgment instead of repeating what a lecturer instructed them to believe. The group meetings prepared students to work as part of a team in their future field placements. Group facilitators and students agreed that the lessons learned in the community placement were instrumental in the development of skills necessary for personal and professional success in the social work field during university and beyond. The author notes that further work is needed in encouraging students to treat the knowledge of people with firsthand experience as service users with the same respect given to knowledge provided by a social worker or lecturer. In addition, the university needs to develop a more comprehensive support program for group facilitators so they are sufficiently aware of what students should be learning.

Liu, M., Sun, F. & Anderson, S. (2012). Challenges in social work field education in China: Lessons from the Western experience. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 32(2), 179-196.

Since 1988, social work has been a recognized discipline in China. The authors surveyed 15 MSW programs in China with respect to several facets of US field education that might be pertinent to China. They found that the Chinese schools have a variety of field education requirements and agency characteristics. These schools shared the challenges of recruiting collaborators to develop field placements and of finding motivated faculty and qualified agency supervisors. Related challenges included insufficient incorporation of field education in the curriculum, mismatches between students’ interest and agency needs, and a lack of connection between internships and future careers. The authors suggest that some students were unprepared due to these structural factors. They posit the need for international collaboration in continuing education for Chinese social workers, for increased professionalization and career development in Chinese social work, and for supportive environments to enhance student competency.

Malihi-Shoja, L., Catherall, D., Titherington, J., Mallen, E., & Hough, G. (2013). We aren’t all winners: A discussion piece on “failure to fail” from a service user and carer perspective. Journal of Practice Teaching and Learning, 11(3), 8-16.

The authors, members of a writing group of service users and carers based at a North West Higher Education Institute, summarize findings of research on failure to fail interns in several professions. Many factors have an impact on failure to fail, from tutor/practice educator attitudes and beliefs to skills/knowledge, to environmental constraints like shortages of practice teachers and lack of support from agencies and higher education institutions. The authors conclude that there is inadequate attention in research to the “detrimental effect on professional values of allowing inadequate students into professions…and its effect on their work, the community in which they work and the colleagues with whom they work” (p. 14).

Poletti, A., & Anka, A. (2013). ‘They thought I wasn’t good enough for social work practice’: The views of students who failed their practice learning opportunities. Journal of Practice Teaching and Learning, 11(3), 17-35.

The authors interviewed eight social work students who had failed or had a refer decision in practice learning opportunities. The students attributed the reasons for their failure to personal problems and ill health, lack of experience and high expectations from practice educators, lack of clarity about assessment criteria, and lack of support from higher education institutions. Analyzing the findings according to the concepts of field, capital, and habitus, the authors conclude that the students, most of whom had English as a second language, had difficulty with the “feel of the game,” i.e. they had to adapt to cultural and social expectations that were second nature to students with English as their primary language (p. 31). The authors suggest skill development in preparation for field, improved support for students with English as a second language, and clear information about available supports and the implications of failing.

Scholar, H., McCaughan, S., McLaughlin, H., & Coleman, A. (2012). Why is this not social work? The contribution of non-traditional placements in preparing social work students for practice. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 31(7), 932-950.

Researchers from the UK investigated social work students’ and educators’ perceptions and experiences in non-traditional field placements. Non-traditional placements were defined as ones that do not employ social workers or provide a social work service. In the UK, students are expected to be prepared for statutory social work, which is practice in a public social service agency that regularly involves legal interventions. Students and educators are often concerned that students in placements outside of these agencies will fail to learn the skills necessary for their continued professional success.

The researchers sought to assess the effectiveness of non-traditional placements in enabling students to meet the National Occupational Standards for Social Work and preparing students for statutory social work. Two studies were conducted at several non-traditional organizations in the UK, including schools, charities, and employment agencies. In the first study, the organizations’ team leaders were supported by social work consultants who helped clarify the student’s role and provided assistance with practice development and assessment. In the second study, off-site practice educators were used to support the students in their professional development and conduct all assessments of their practice, while the team leaders concentrated on day-to-day supervision. Researchers interviewed the students, consultants, practice educators and team leaders at the end of the 100-day placement. Overall, students reported that they had exposure to ethical dilemmas and risk-awareness training while learning communication skills, organizational skills, and professional standards. However, educators reported concerns about students’ ability to conduct formal assessments, connect legislation to practice, and understand the role of a social worker. Suggestions to amend these shortcomings of non-traditional placements include the introduction of a formal assessment tool and requirement of written formal assessments, inclusion of information on how laws affect the agency and its practices, explicit description of how what the student is doing links to the National Occupational Standards for Social Work, and greater collaboration between the team leaders and social work consultants or educators. The researchers advocate for more attention to be paid to how service users of non-social work organizations benefit from working with social workers. They suggest that the success of social workers in non-traditional placements could result in the role of a UK social worker being expanded in the future.