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Can an observational field model enhance critical thinking and generalist practice skills?

THE NEWLY REVISED 2008 Educational Policies and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) identify field education as our profession's signature pedagogy. Students and faculty alike view the field experience as the critical step in the development of a social work identity. The opportunity to apply theory, to experience the wide array of client groups and neighborhood issues, to concretely identify presenting problems, to assess and intervene effectively, and to grow into a professional self is believed to crystallize for students when in actual practice situations.

Yet the past 2 decades have evidenced a growing discontent with traditional field models. An increasing body of scholarly work supports the need for change in field education structures arising from the number of intractable internal and external trends that create obstacles to optimal student learning (Frumkin, 1980; Jarman-Rohde, McFall, Kolar, & Strom, 1997; Lager & Robbins, 2004; Raskin, 1983; Raskin, Wayne & Bogo, 2008; Reisch & Jarman-Rohde, 2000; Wayne, Bogo, & Raskin, 2006). Therefore, it is important to understand more concretely the limitations in the current model and begin to identify alternative methods that can help strengthen field education as we move into the future.

This article examines how one baccalaureate program initiated an introductory field experience to attempt to improve two frequently identified impediments to quality field experiences, namely the lack of a complete generalist practice experience and the lack of opportunities for integration of theory into practice (enhanced critical thinking skills).

Challenges in Field Education

Lack of Field Sites Providing a Full Generalist Practice Experience

The 2008 EPAS has highlighted the importance of providing students with a full generalist practice experience, incorporating micro and macro field opportunities. Perhaps due to the complexity of micro level work, or a lack of creativity in helping expand students' understanding of full generalist practice, many agencies do not provide the range of placement opportunities for an integrated generalist experience. As a result, students are provided fewer and fewer opportunities to process and understand the macro level influences and opportunities for change. According to Poulin, Silver, & Kauffman, (2006), many social service agencies provide targeted, direct practice to certain sets of clients. A large percentage of agencies do not provide the range of placement experiences necessary for the baccalaureate and/or foundation year graduate student to have an integrated generalist experience (Abramovitz, 1998; Boehm & Staples, 2004).

Connection Between Theory and Practice: Critical Thinking

Critical thinking has been defined as "judging information, evaluating alternative evidence and arguing with solid reasons" (Ku, 2009, p. 70). Practicing self-awareness, tolerating ambiguity when faced with ethical dilemmas, and applying knowledge gained from multiple sources are all key components of critical thinking. For students to develop strong critical thinking skills there must be a balance of time and attention between the agency, the academic program, and the engaged student. As all three stakeholders interact, challenge, and clarify theoretical and practical understanding, critical thinking processes expand.

Plath, English, Connors, and Beveridge (1999) note critical reasoning is "a valued part of the social work curriculum" (p. 209), but recognize that achieving this level of thinking has become increasingly difficult due to the changing social environment. Overwhelming caseloads are more common, and the type and degree of multi-faceted, chronic client problems lead to more stress and less time for supervision (Wayne et al., 2006). This type of environment results in lost opportunities to process, to explore, and indeed to develop as critical thinkers.

Le Riche (2006) suggests that in traditional models of field education a significant amount of learning may be "taken for granted," including the development of core reflective and critical thinking skills. She highlights the importance of preparing students to become "observational learners" prior to "hands-on" learners, if they are to effectively develop needed critical thinking skills. Linking classroom theory to practical, on-site agency experience becomes more difficult to implement as external changes to both the agency and the academic program have occurred over the past decade. All of these challenges have left students with fewer resources/tools as they struggle to bridge classroom with field learning (Lager & Robbins, 2004).

Importance of Observational Learning

Recognizing the current challenges faced by social work field educators, the authors explored alternatives to the conventional field practicum process. Their goal was to identify innovative field models, which led them to search both within and outside of social work education. Innovations in social work, nursing, and education programs revealed possible starting points for addressing the aforementioned challenges.

Policies, procedures, and requirements of the nursing and education programs of one institution were reviewed and two key potential applications were identified: (1) a more consistent on-site presence of college faculty than is found in current social work models and (2) building skills through observational learning and a progression of field experiences. Teacher education begins with providing opportunities at schools for observation and reflection about professional practice. There is a clearer delineation between the (pre-internship) role as an observer/reflector and the time spent actually teaching (A. Cohan, personal communication, August 18, 2009). Nursing programs provide increasingly complex demonstrations of competence over a six-semester rotation at every available nursing practice site (med/surgical unit, pediatrics, intensive care, etc.). College faculty provide on-site supervision to a group of eight nursing students (R. Schecter, personal communication, August 26, 2009).

Within the social work literature, several field innovations provided interesting potential models. Problem-based learning, used in medical training programs for years, was adapted and piloted by one social work program (Lam, 2004). This model helps students integrate social work theories with practice through a series of paper cases, skills workshops, and a field project. Preliminary findings were positive in building student competence in self-directed learning and integration of social work theories with practice (Lam, 2004). Another recent adaption of field education was undertaken by the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. The intention was to better connect the contemporary demands of generalist social work with how students are prepared for the field. Collective learning and macro projects were two key changes that broadened students' understanding of the complete range of settings and populations in social work, as well as expanded their understanding of the full scope of micro to macro generalist experiences. Early findings indicate that these programmatic changes had small, positive effects in broadening students' experience of generalist social work (Teigiser, 2009).

Le Riche (2006) cites a new social work program in the United Kingdom that recognizes the value of observational learning as a preliminary stage in the development of practice skills among students. She identifies the benefits of "shadowing" an experienced practitioner as enhancing critical thinking and self-awareness skills among students who experience this preliminary stage of learning.

The use of a preliminary observational stage of field learning in the United Kingdom was also explored by O'Connor, Cecil, and Boudioni (2009). Using workshops, virtual reality placements, and on-site shadowing of social work staff, they found a benefit in providing more structured opportunities to process and engage critical thinking skills. They found that "being able to actually see how qualified professionals interacted with service users and applied skills and knowledge in real-life interventions, facilitated students' reflection and deepening grasp of the complex and diverse nature of social work" (O'Connor et al., 2009, p. 448).

An Alternative Field Model--One Program's Response

The program described here, modeled after innovations in other social work, nursing, and teacher education programs, implemented an introductory, observational field model with on-site faculty guidance. A goal was to attempt to enhance opportunities to build critical thinking and full generalist practice skills. It was designed as a pilot experiment and offered in the spring semester as a 4-credit elective to any social work major in the junior year of the program. It provides 75 hours of on-site observation and entry-level practice. The course is conducted on site at the designated agency. It is guided by a full-time faculty member. Five to eight students are placed at one site and are able to learn and observe as a group throughout the semester. Faculty and agency directors meet to review the expectations, identify potential problems, and work out logistical/practical concerns. Coordination of experiences for shadowing, observation, and attendance at weekly staff meetings need careful attention.

Daily Schedule

Students were on site for a 5-hour day, once a week for 15 weeks. Each week time slots were blocked for specific activities, which included case conference meetings, opportunities for shadowing/observing, agency lectures on specific domains of practice, and connecting them to specific course curriculum. Each day ended with a debriefing session, providing an invaluable opportunity to discuss observations, explore challenges, and apply classroom curriculum to their "real life" experiences in the field.

Curriculum: Self Awareness and Core Values

Being on site allowed students to continually reexamine their own ideas and judgments about the many social work roles and the complexity of decisions made in practice. Both assignments and observations were geared toward helping students think more deeply, applying how they might intervene when in specific professional situations. Frequently assessed ethical dilemmas allowed students to consider the ambiguities that are present in this complex field (see Table 1). For example, over a period of weeks during the case conference meetings at one site, students had observed one staff member's interactions with colleagues and perceived her as cold, disconnected, and abrupt. As this staff person was in charge of medical decision making, her recommendations and interventions often varied significantly from the other members of this agency. On one occasion students were given the opportunity to shadow this worker. Students reported feeling transformed as they watched her engage both staff and clients in ways that embodied a true valuing of human relationships in all of the complex roles she performed. They cited a much better understanding of not only the challenges faced by this staff member, but also of the complexity of work roles. Furthermore, students cited better understanding of themselves in their judgments and expectations of hands-on field work.

In developing their model for an observational stage of fieldwork, O'Connor et al. (2009) incorporated the core values from the Professional Code of Conduct for social workers in the United Kingdom (p. 447). They found this to be a successful way to enhance critical thinking skills with regard to power, discrimination, and oppression. In the present program each week, one of the six core values of social work (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 1996) became the lens through which students observed the assigned practice experience. Assignments required students to identify the presence or absence of each value as they processed the challenges and ethical dilemmas that arose when observing those who engaged in social work practice (see Table 1). For example, on one occasion students and faculty observed the team discuss the plan of intervention for an aging resident who had recently demonstrated signs of early dementia. Although this client still maintained most of her cognitive functioning, several staff encouraged the immediate placement of this client in a secured facility. It was the social worker who repeatedly advocated for including the client, the health care proxy, and several family members in this discussion as "they are the ones who know best the wishes of the client." Later, students processed how this social worker's advocacy demonstrated the "Dignity and Worth of the Person." They also processed the recommendations of other staff members and how difficult ethical challenges such as these rarely include an easy solution. They were able to consider alternative ways of understanding what might previously have been outside their expected "pre-internship level" awareness of practice.

Curriculum: Practice Recordings

The practice recording, designed by a faculty member and modeled along the lines of the more traditional process recording, is a two-page outline that provides a professional lens within which students analyzed and processed what they learned (Newland, 2008). Students chose the particular experience that was most salient to them that day, and following its framework, recorded any perceived opportunities and challenges presented to the worker or client, how it related to the assigned core value of the day, and any particular area of curriculum (human behavior, policy, practice, research, etc.) that applied to their understanding of what they observed. Their cognitive, behavioral, and affective reactions to the observation itself were also recorded. The practice recording is a critical tool for processing observations, allowing on-site faculty to view the students' critical thinking skills as they integrated classroom theory to observed practice.

Curriculum: Interdisciplinary

Presentations and Case Meetings

Each week students were also assigned to observe and/or participate in a case conference meeting. During this time multidisciplinary staff from the agency discussed challenges they were facing with particular clients and developed collaborative intervention plans. Students not only learned about cases and professional roles, but also observed relationships among colleagues and the application of core values at this level of practice. These meetings were often cited by students as a highlight of their day.

Additional opportunities for learning about full generalist practice and work within complex systems were provided through weekly presentations to the students from various interdisciplinary agency-based staff.

Through those presentations, students learned the intricacies of various programs within the agency.

Curriculum: Final Assignment

At the end of each semester students were required to submit a portfolio of all resources and information they had compiled throughout the semester. They were also required to conduct a presentation of their experience in the field. Presentations focused on demonstrating their ability to compare, contrast, and synthesize data from multiple sources over a period of time. These were not simply reports of observations, but rather displays of critical thinking in applying classroom learning to the "real world." They were complex discussions of the challenges faced by multiple stakeholders (clients, families, staff, agency, community, etc.) involved in social service delivery.


Recruitment of agencies open to this experimental field model was fairly uncomplicated. Agencies were willing to allow student observers to attend their weekly staff meetings, to observe agency procedures, to shadow social workers in their daily routine, and to provide space for faculty and students to convene. Knowing that a full-time faculty would be coordinating/supervising the entire experience allowed agencies to creatively participate, offering expertise and insight, without stretching their resources and encroaching on precious time constraints.

A total of 23 students have participated in this observational learning experience. Six students participated in the 1st year, and 15 students participated in the 2nd year at two different sites. In the current semester another 20 students are placed in three different locations. A comprehensive evaluation tool was designed for research purposes. It has both process and product components and examines various dimensions of this model's permanent applicability to our program.

In addition, the authors are initiating an examination of the differences (if any) in student performance of competence among those who participate in the pre-internship experience in comparison to the students who did not participate in this experience. The current field evaluation tool, designed to evaluate all 10 competencies identified by the 2008 EPAS (CSWE, 2008), was implemented the same year that the first group of five students was involved in this project. As the number of students involved in this alternative field experience grows, it will hopefully allow us to examine level of competence among the two groups.

Final Reflections

Although needing further validation and replication, this program appears to have had modest positive effects on enhancing readiness for full generalist practice and critical thinking skills. Exit interviews with all student participants, agency partners, and faculty noted an endorsement of its benefits in preparing students for the conventional senior year internship. Field faculty noticed a "readiness for field" among these students in comparison to the nonparticipating students. Portfolio presentations suggest that skills in critical thinking and self-awareness may begin developing sooner when students are given the opportunity to observe, question, and apply classroom learning without the additional responsibility of hands-on practice.


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Boehm, A., & Staples, L. (2004). Empowerment: The point of view of consumers. Families in Society, 85, 270-280.

Council on Social Work Education. (2008). Education policy and accreditation standards. Retrieved from Accreditation/41865.aspx

Frumkin, M. (1980). Social work education and the professional commitment fallacy: A practical guide to field-school relations. Journal of Education for Social Work, 16, 91-99.

Jarman-Rohde, L., McFall, J., Kolar, P., & Strom, G. (1997). The changing context of social work practice: Implications and recommendations for social work educators. Journal of Social Work Education, 33, 29-46.

Ku, K. (2009). Assessing students' critical thinking performance: Urging for measurements using multiresponse format. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 4, 70-76.

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Le Riche, P. (2006). Practising observation in shadowing: Curriculum innovation and learning outcomes in the BA social work. Social Work Education, 25, 771-784.

National Association of Social Workers. (1996). Code of Ethics. Washington, DC: Author.

Newland, L. (2008). Value-centered practice recording. Unpublished document, Molloy College, Rockville Centre, NY.

O'Connor, L., Cecil, B., & Boudioni, M. (2009). Preparing for practice: An evaluation of an undergraduate social work "Preparation for Practice" module. Social Work Education, 28, 436-454.

Plath, D., English, B., Connors, L., & Beveridge, A. (1999). Evaluating the outcomes for intensive critical thinking instruction for social work students. Social Work Education, 18, 207-217.

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Accepted: 08/10

Maureen E. Carey

Molloy College

Melissa McCardle

Molloy College

Maureen E. Carey is professor at Molloy College and Melissa McCardle is assistant professor.

Address correspondence to Melissa McCardle, Molloy College, Department of Social Work, 1000 Hempstead Avenue, Rockville Centre, NY 11571; e-mail:

DOI: 10.5175/JSWE.2011.200900117
TABLE 1. Curriculum Overview and Assignments

                            Goals                Practice Recording
Curriculum (a)    Students will be able to           Assignment

Service           Distinguish service to      Identify concrete
                    others versus self-         examples of service to
                    interest in                 others in practice;
                    professional practice       observe discrepancies
                                                between self-interest
                                                and client needs

Integrity         Understand the mission      Observe examples of, or
                    of the profession and       discrepancies between,
                    the agency                  agency mission/social
                  Evaluate ethical              work mission; identify
                    dilemmas at the             ethical dilemmas in
                    personal /professional      practice situations
                    levels of practice

Social Justice    Identify micro, mezzo,      Identify and evaluate
                    and macro                   empowering and
                    components to               disempowering
                    practice                    interactions between
                  Develop an ability to         clients and staff,
                    observe the nature of       observe the impact of
                    power imbalances            macro influences on
                    that clients experience     client experiences and
                  Develop strategies for        service provision

Dignity and       Develop culturally          Observe and reflect on
  Worth of the      competent practice          the cultural
  Person            skills                      competence of agency
                  Understand the                services; observe
                    importance of, and          opportunities for the
                    limitations to, client      promotion of (or
                    self-determination          inhibition of) client

Importance of     Identify the factors that   Observe and reflect on
  Human             inhibit or facilitate       the types of
  Relationships     the development of          engagement skills that
                    human relationships         enhance positive
                  Identify engagement           regard for the client
                    skills in practice

Competence        Identify how social         Observe evidence-based
                    work knowledge              interventions
                    (evidence) informs        Identify knowledge
                    practice                    base/theoretical
                                                orientation from
                                                which interventions
                                                are derived

Curriculum (a)         Assignment (b)

Service           Describe your personal
                    goals; how will they
                    reinforce and/or
                    social work practice

Integrity         Identify qualities that
                    enable social
                    workers to provide
                    empathic and
                    effective service to
                    clients; reflect on the
                    extent to which you
                    possess these

Social Justice    Make a list of all
                    populations in your
                    community and
                    describe in detail the
                    observed impact of
                    that oppression

Dignity and       Describe an experience
  Worth of the      of personal
  Person            disempowerment;
                    reflect on your
                    thoughts and
                    feelings at the time
                    and how you reacted

Importance of     Discuss the positive
  Human             and negative
  Relationships     relationships that
                    have had the
                    strongest impact on
                    your development

Competence        Identify your strengths
                    that will help you to
                    grow as a
                    professional; identify
                    the challenges or
                    biases that may
                    impede your social
                    work practice

(a) Curriculum based on six core values found in NASW Code of
Ethics (1996).

(b) Activities based on exercises in Rothman (1999).
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Title Annotation:FIELD NOTE
Author:Carey, Maureen E.; McCardle, Melissa
Publication:Journal of Social Work Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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