Social work is an international profession. It has an international definition, a global agenda and values based on principles of social justice and a commitment to the world wide promotion of equality and dignity.
For social workers practising in the UK where much of our work has a local authority focus, awareness of international social work (ISW) can offer a wider perspective and a reminder for busy practitioners that social work is more than the tasks completed for their agency.
Lalayants, Doel and Kachkachishvili’s research is on different teaching and learning approaches employed for ISW, gives an overview of the literature that highlights the relevance of ISW then identifies and evaluates some of the teaching approaches used from the differing perspectives of students from three different countries.
The global impact of poverty and oppression, the prevalence of issues such as human trafficking, homelessness, HIV/AIDS and the need for social work support for people seeking refuge or asylum are well documented. These are all obvious issues for ISW but will be of equal interest and relevance to social workers practicing within their home countries. Learning about approaches used elsewhere can develop appreciation of difference and cultural sensitivity. It can challenge values and beliefs biased to a practitioner’s home country. It can introduce new and innovative ways of thinking and promote collaborative relationships for practice, education and research.
Universities are responding to this by developing ISW perspectives in existing curricula and offering specialised ISW courses. Literature about the teaching methods used is limited but examples are offered.
One example is the ‘reverse mission’ student exchange programme. This is a much adapted version of the Christian missionary model but instead of conversion to Christianity, the goal is to ‘search for subjugated knowledge’ by listening to the experiences and views of marginalised people. Reverse mission’s aim is learn from local people about how problems are solved thus avoiding ‘professional imperialism’; the imposing of own approaches and methods onto local populations.
Students value international placements but unfortunately there are few opportunities. This gap could be filled by attendance at conferences and workshops as well as development of electronic communication with international colleagues. The example of a week-long colloquium on ISW practice and research is offered.
What the literature review doesn’t offer is an understanding of student’s preferences for ISW teaching approaches (pedagogy) and the study attempts to address this.
The study took a comparison of the pedagogical approach to ISW courses in The City University of New York, USA, Sheffield Hallam University, UK and Tbilisi State University, Georgia. This formed part of a larger project exploring student’s views of international social work.
530 student email addresses were initially contacted. 285 students responded and were surveyed. 194 from USA, 52 from UK and 39 from Georgia. The same survey questionnaire containing quantitative and qualitative elements was used across the three universities.
Students were asked to complete the sentence
- ‘For me, what will make a class on ISW successful is…’
Responses were grouped under the broad headings that are set out below along with an indication of the themes presented in the answers. The percentage in brackets indicates the percentage of students whose answers fell into that category.
The different themes, specific responses and response rates were are as follows:
Information and knowledge
American students (32%)
- …comparisons of social work practices and international policies across different countries
- …how to develop reciprocal relationships that are mindful of America’s history of dominance
- …impact of global events and how these affect practice
- …job opportunities in global social work
UK students (14%)
- …awareness of current issues in global social work
- …interesting and understandable content
- …lessons well organised
Georgian students (42%)
- …current international issues
American students (11%)
- …collaborations, first-hand accounts and guest speakers from social work from other countries ‘going abroad’
- …Skype connecting with another class
UK students (19%)
- …views from different countries; lecturers/social workers/students/service users
Georgian students (4%)
- …exposure to ISW professionals
American students (9%)
- …well organised course, well informed, engaging teachers
Discussion and debate in small groups
UK students (33%)
- …open and honest discussion and debate in small groups
Georgian students (11%)
- …student discussions re global social problems, their consequences and the role and involvement of social workers
American students (9%)
- …experiential and practice based examples of ISW and how to get involved
- …films/interviews with people involved
- …concrete examples of the challenges involved
UK students (21%)
- …video clips/role play
Skills to translate theory to practice
Georgian students (31%)
- …skills to translate theory into practice; practice based approaches, real life application of theoretical concepts
Printed materials in native language
Georgian students (9%)
- …reading materials in Georgian
Georgian students (3%)
- …statistical tables, film clips
The authors conclude that
While there were different preferences for content- and process-driven approaches in teaching, students’ common interest was in gaining practice examples and exposure to real-life practice of international social work in their own and other countries. The findings suggest that international social work education needs to be more experiential and practice-based.
Strengths and limitations
As just three universities are included in this study, findings can lead to suggestions rather than conclusions. The significantly higher number of American respondents mean that more individual American views were represented which makes it harder to understand what might be a US perspective and what might just be a louder voice because of more respondents.
If national pedagogic trends are represented though these three universities, student’s expectations may already be shaped by their experience of these and respondents may not have been able to make the leap of imagination required of the open ‘what would make it better’ question.
The study identified differences in pedagogical expectations; Georgian and American students highlighted the importance of a content driven delivery with little reference to opportunities for discussion. UK students highlighted emphasis on small group work with little reference to content. Georgian responses tended to be more focussed on professional rather than personal concerns.
The authors suggest significance here for cross-national teaching; a UK lecturer shouldn’t assume that because UK students expect and prefer small group discussions, the same could be said of students in Georgia.
Pedagogical similarities were found in the common requirement for clear practice examples and understanding of what social workers in other countries do.
The study also identified a call for students to have contact with social work students in other countries and the authors suggest that international student alliances could be embedded into ISW courses using Facebook and other social networking tools.
There was some interest from US and UK students in the creation of an international community of social work students.
The authors identify the need for future research to explore the outcomes of different pedagogical approaches and international exchanges as well as the need for a systematic comparison of the effectiveness of the different models of ISW.
The interest from students in the work of international colleagues could be an important message for social work teaching in the UK. Although many of our students will become local authority social workers when they graduate, the study may indicate a wider understanding of the social work role.
Encouraging social work students to connect as suggested here with colleagues in other countries may help to maintain focus on the broader value and skillset of social work even when faced with the processes of many domestic social work tasks.
Lalayants, M., Doel, M. & Kachkachishvili, I. (2014) Pedagogy of international social work: a comparative study in the USA, UK, and Georgia. European Journal of Social Work 17 (4) pp. 455-474 [Abstract]