Let Us Bring Back ‘Field’ to Fieldwork: An Overview of the Current Scenario of Fieldwork in Social Work Education in India
Field education has always been an integral component of social work education, recognized as having a major impact on graduates’ preparation for professional practice.
- Wayne, Raskin & Bogo, 2006:161.
Fieldwork in social work education is considered as its “signature pedagogy” and much has been written about its indispensability. Though all the social work educators accept it in principle, when it comes to practice, most often the quality of fieldwork training offered to the student leaves much to be desired. This situation needs to be corrected by taking urgent steps for achieving excellence in social work practice.
When the National conference of charities and corrections in Baltimore USA was organized in 1915, the main concern of the organizers was to have professional status to the products of schools of social work so as to lend credibility and recognition to their position as social workers. The social work educators of those days might have felt that, a word in support from Flexner (1915), the most influential individual at that time in the United States in the area of professional education, would bestow the much needed professional status for social work as his pronouncements were considered to be endowed with the “weight and authority of scientific truth” (Austin, 1983:357). But it was not to be. While proposing six qualities required for an academic programme to be recognized as a profession, Flexner (1915) felt that social work was not a full profession as it did not possess all those six qualities.
In spite of Flexner’s (1915) statement about social work not being a full profession, there have been efforts to establish the professional status of social work (Greenwood, 1957). In a way, Flexner’s comments prodded social workers of those times to attend to the lacunae pointed out by him with regard to the professional status of social work. As history has to show, fieldwork played a crucial role in validating social work education’s stance in seeking a professional status. As such, this article strives to bring out the importance of fieldwork keeping in view the objectives of social work education and the effects of fieldwork on the same not being taken seriously.
For this purpose, the article is divided into 3 sections. Section I relates the importance of the different components of fieldwork in social work training. In Section II, a critical analysis of the fieldwork scenario in contemporary social work education will be done which is followed by Section III that covers the conclusions.
One of the hallmarks of a profession is the transfer of knowledge and skills under supervisory guidance to its entrants. Social work since the beginning has been utilizing field instruction as a tool to train future social workers. When we look at the history of social work education, the two pioneering programmes that come to our mind are Chicago School and New York School. Both the schools had initiated training programmes for those engaged in social services and philanthropy in 1895 and 1898 respectively. The Chicago School, the then School of Social Economics (SSE) started informal conference sessions for settlement workers, and fieldwork was in the form of visits to Hull House and such similar organisations. The absence of an elaborate formal fieldwork may be because all the participants were practitioners. Coming to the New York Programme, fieldwork was always a part of its academic activity and is the foundation of professional education for social work (Lee et al 1931:184). In New York programme, the quantum of fieldwork was increased gradually, from 12 half days in 1898 to 10 hours per week for 6 months in 1916. The placement of the students was in the Charity Organisation Society. In 1919, it became New York School of Social Work (Coohey 1999: 420).
Two instances that highlight the importance given to fieldwork by the pioneers of social work education are: when efforts were made to make the New York Programme an academic unit of the University of Columbia, there was an initial resistance and the concern was that the programme might lose its emphasis on fieldwork and would become too theoretical. Similarly, when Chicago School planned to affiliate itself with the University of Chicago, Russell Sage Foundation withdrew a promised grant to Chicago School indicating its opposition to the proposed move (Austin, 1983).
The Place of Fieldwork in Social Work
The primacy of practice placements and learning by doing is well documented within the literature of social work education and reflected in the statements such as “the importance of field instruction is axiomatic” (Shatz, 1989, xxv), “it is indispensable” ( Bloom, 1963:3) “the quality of social work education is dependent on field education” (Jarman Rohde et al, 1997: 43).
Traditionally, the class room and field setting have been and continue to be the locus of social work education and the linkage between the two is its ultimate goal i.e. while class room teaching tends to emphasize the acquisition of knowledge and attitudes, teaching in field tends to stress primarily on the translation of these into learning skills (Lowy, Blocksberg and Walberg, 1971; and Devi Prasad and Vijaya Lakshmi, 1997)
What is fieldwork? Broadly, it can be defined as work in the field. However, in social work education, the definition focuses on what the field can do to learning. Thus, the field in social work can be identified as the context for practice, the context being the specific area/ the sector of social work operation. The work can be any act of a social worker that emanates from a conscious and purposeful use of his/her self, directed towards ameliorative and structured change within a context (Bodhi, 2012). Thus, fieldwork in social work education can be defined as the process of enabling a student to acquire skills, values and attitudes in the backdrop of knowledge covering a specific practice setting, with a social work perspective.
Fieldwork plays a critical role in social work education by providing initial opportunities to the students for them to engage in the applied use of their newly acquired knowledge, skills and abilities (Spitzer et al, 2001). According to Manshardt (1985:3):
“the purpose of fieldwork is ... to clarify technical instruction. Just as the botanist goes into the fields to study plants and flowers to supplement his text book knowledge, and just as the geologist turns from a study of books to the study of rocks, so the social worker goes from the classroom to the appropriate fieldwork activity, using the fieldwork as a means of clarifying and adding point to the class room instruction.”
While this statement is true, we have to elaborate it a little further to explain the nature of fieldwork in social work education, as fieldwork in social work encompasses this and more. Social work being a human service profession, the practitioners should also essentially possess a professional, self-embodying, appropriate attitudes and values along with the required knowledge and skills. In other words, education in social work takes into account not only the technical knowledge and skills but also the attitudes of the practitioners and their philosophy of practice (Banerjee, 1975). Fieldwork facilitates the development of this orientation in the student.
Components of Fieldwork in Social Work Education and their Significance
The three essential components of fieldwork are: i) The School/Department of Social Work, ii) The Student, and iii) The Field /Place.
i) The School/Department of Social Work
The principal actors in the school setting are the social work faculty members who simultaneously act as class room teachers and field instructors. Their quality and characteristics are vital in creating a conducive learning environment in the school.
While there are three criteria for classifying a school as excellent (TFQGSE1, 1986, 77), the foremost among them is indicated as the transmission of knowledge, skills and values to the students so as to transform them into professional social workers. The other two are - the development of knowledge through systematic enquiry (research), and the application of knowledge to deal with social issues (practice). Many a times, during the accreditation of schools, the second aspect i.e research takes precedence too often at the expense of the first criterion i.e the mentoring aspect. It has been observed that when there is emphasis on scholarly work such as research publications, faculty members’ interest on and commitment to field training activities seem to lessen as a result of which there is a diminished engagement of faculty members with fieldwork (Kilpatrick et al, 1994).
The school plays a pivotal role in ensuring the quality of fieldwork being offered to the student. The goal of a social work school is not just transferring knowledge but creating opportunities for the students to experiment with it. Apart from understanding the meaning of a theoretical concept, the student has to examine it in a practice situation. The degree of preparation of the students in terms of mastering the specialized bodies of knowledge, identifying the tasks to be performed and the best way of performing them depends on the educational environment of the school.
Such a learning environment is created by social work faculty supervisors having knowledge of and skill in the use of social work methods, critical and up-to-date information on changing socio-political trends, social policy and programmes for the needy. They can be role models to the students, and inculcate values of the profession among the students. By hands on demonstration, guidance, and encouraging critical assessment, the supervisors help the students acquire practice skills. According to Banerjee (1975), social work profession emphasises the cultivation of four competencies (if they can be termed so) among social work practitioners i.e. knowing (acquiring professional knowledge), feeling (awareness of emotion), doing and being. While training the students, inculcation of competencies in these four areas is the responsibility of the fieldwork supervisor.
ii) The Student
Students are important stakeholders in an academic institution. The students of a professional discipline are its flag-bearers and they need to possess certain qualities to carry on that responsibility. The first is the aptitude to serve people in the absence of which they may not be able to develop the other attribute, empathy which is essential for a social worker. The most desired status of being a member of a profession is attained by undergoing a long course of instruction and supervised practice. The neophyte in any profession goes through a series of rites de passage before becoming a full-fledged member. These rites de passage consist of a series of instructions, ceremonies and ordeals through which those already in the profession initiate the new entrants into their circle. By this, the initiators turn the initiated into people fit to be their own companions and successors (Becker, 1961:4). According to the Task Force on Quality in Graduate Social Work Education (1986:78), in seeking excellence, a school must bring into its programme students with strong academic background reflecting specific knowledge, skills, and abilities. Accordingly, it recommended the following five factors for consideration while admitting the students into the programme. They are:
• Capacity to learn and participate in and contribute to the education process
• Diversity of backgrounds
• Potential to grow into an effective practitioner
• Analytical and communication skills, and
• Personal and technical skills for making use of the educational experience offered by the school.
Since values are considered by many social work authors to be central to educating students, there should be a conscious effort to inculcate such values in the student (Merdinger, 1982:12). In social work, fieldwork, a structured experience provides experiential learning. It is a ‘deliberately arranged experience’ (Singh, 1985). The students have to be provided with appropriate opportunities to be aware of the values that are indispensable for professional practice so that they internalize those values and develop skills in adhering to them in their practice.
By providing explicit focus on building values during fieldwork training, the students are helped to develop a professional self. The fieldwork supervisors play the role of initiators of the students into the profession. At the end of the training, the students develop an expertise which is reflected in the form of their capacity to understand a situation located in history, ability to collect relevant information, substantiate one’s arguments, see and differentiate between right and wrong in a given circumstance, and inculcate the capacity to make valid conclusions about a situation vis-a-vis their position (Bodhi, 2012). In other words, these values would guide the students to consistently choose particular types of behaviours, - behaviours appropriate for a professional social worker, whenever alternatives are offered.
All the important players in social work education - the schools, faculty supervisors and agencies have to keep in mind that as in the case of medical education, education in social work is not an end in itself. Most students who join in social work institutions do so not just to get a degree but to join organizations dealing with vulnerable groups, provision of welfare services, and programme planning or administration. As these students, after leaving the school are required to work with institutions and systems to make them work for the marginalized, they have to develop a perspective for practice. It is necessary to enable the students to use the theoretical knowledge to be “plundered and fragmented” (England, 1986: 35) so as to understand the varied situations faced by them in the field. This would enable them to develop skills in relating with field practice which includes exploring, summarizing and clarifying what is observed.
In the process, care has to be taken not to expose the students to the three objectionable types of fieldwork supervision (Secker, 1993). They are - constrictive (supervisors’ imposition of their own theoretical perspectives on the students’ work), unsupportive (exhibition of coldness and hostility toward the student) and being aloof (giving too little direction to the student). There must be a balance between too much and too little direction as a student needs optimal direction.
Secker (1993) aptly captures the dilemma of a social work student while trying to relate theory to practice.
...you get sociology thrown at you, you get psychology thrown at you, you get social policy thrown at you,... and then you get twenty-seven client groups thrown at you. Now there may be a lot of information there that’s useful and valid, but there’s no way of linking it together. It’s all divided up separately and I find it difficult to learn from that. I needed a map, something to make it make sense (p.108).
This shows the need of the student to have direction in relating class room teaching to field situation, and it is the supervisor who provides this direction.
iii) The Field
The field can be an organisation, or a community. It is the space where the whole action of field training takes place. Ideally the professional social workers on the pay role of these organisations are expected to be acting as supervisors for the students placed in their organisations and they are termed, agency supervisors. In instances where the practitioners are non-social workers, social work schools have evolved criteria (such as for ex. five years of continuous service in the related social field) to confer eligibility to be the agency based supervisors to guide students. Being in practice and in close touch with the field, they are in a position to impart the skills needed for a social worker in the training. Hence, they form an important component of the training milieu provided to the student.
While selecting the field setting, the school/department and in particular the faculty supervisor needs to see to it that the institution/ community identified to be a fieldwork setting does provide the opportunities required for training. The students’ training needs have to be matched with the opportunities in the field on individual student basis. Further, the environment in the field impacts the quality of training given to the student. It comprises of two types: a) Inter-personal, and b) Physical.
a) Inter-personal. Secker (1993, 131) suggested that a helpful interpersonal learning milieu consists of 4 aspects. They are:
• The contribution made to the students’ learning by staff members.
• Pressure of work in the institution concerned
• The ethos and the way things were carried within those institutions, and
• The availability of role models.
b) Physical. Placement physicality can be a factor in the success or failure of the students with regard to their fieldwork. It has been observed that the significance of place for students, practice assessors, and tutors are deeply enmeshed with personal values, beliefs and identity (Wilkinson and Bissell, 2005, 285). When students perceive the place in a positive manner, they feel ownership of the place and it becomes the first step toward the creation of an atmosphere which is conducive for students’ learning. Taking into consideration Schilpp’s (1957) view, one can assume that when there is harmony between the students and the place, they feel at home because the students fit into the landscape. The place should prevent the need for confrontation and be student-friendly so that the students do not feel alienated and intimidated. It has been reported (Godkin, 1980) that if a person feels that s/he does not belong to a place, that place will be perceived by him/her as threatening as it interferes with the person’s integrity and identity. While selecting organisations for placement, the fieldwork coordinators need to ensure the safety and security of the students.
Before sending the students to the organisations for fieldwork, they need to be briefed about the organisation both by the faculty supervisor and by the student placed there earlier. It would be beneficial to the students if a map indicating the location of the organisation is provided to them. The training opportunities identified for the students need to be such that they are provided with a perspective - the perspective of social work. More often than not, in India the organisations identified as fieldwork agencies have no professional social workers on their pay role and sometimes though they are there, these social workers are not in a position to spare time to guide and supervise the students due to their heavy workload. In such a context, the faculty supervisors have to take additional responsibility to fill the void.
Fieldwork in Social Work Education in India-
So far, we have examined the nature of fieldwork, its components and the role of fieldwork in the transformation of a student into a professional social worker. To a large extent, the above narrative presents an ideal situation. However, a look at the current scenario of social work education in India portrays a different picture. Evidence shows (Nadkarni and Desai 2012; Nair, 2014) that there has been a sharp decline in the standards of both class room teaching and fieldwork training, much more so in the latter. Many factors contributed to such a situation. Noteworthy among them are the changes that took place in the constituents i.e. i) the students, ii) the schools/departments and iii) the field settings. To my mind, this is the order in which the changes which took place in one constituency, affected the remaining in that order. Therefore, I prefer to discuss the changes in the same order.
i) The Students
For an educational institution which is committed to the task of teaching and training its students, the quality of the students who apply and are admitted is an important factor as it will, to a large extent, determine how effectively they could be trained. Therefore, there is always competition on the part of the educational institutions to get the best students. But, as the best students have an advantage of getting admission in academic institutions of their choice, where they enrol themselves depends on the status enjoyed by the institution and the job opportunities available after graduation.
Of late, an overriding importance is given to the STEM (Science, technology, engineering and medicine) disciplines because of the employment opportunities available in those areas. As a result social sciences in India are unable to attract good students to their fold. Also, as education sector became an area for profitable business, whenever a discipline opens up higher job opportunities for its entrants there is mushrooming of colleges offering courses in those disciplines. The same happened in the case of STEM disciplines especially the discipline of engineering. As a result there is a rapid increase in the number of engineering colleges which are offering seats at times over and above the available number of eligible candidates. Under these circumstances any student who clears the engineering entrance examination with a minimum score is assured admission in a college.
Further, there has been an overwhelming demand for engineering education and because of this ‘craze’, over the last few years, better students were drawn into its stream leaving the leftover pool of students to be chosen from, by the other disciplines. Though the situation of social work is slightly better compared to most of the other social science disciplines and humanities, here too mushrooming of colleges offering social work led to admission of all and sundry into the social work colleges offering mediocre training. The quality of education in many of the newly established social work colleges leaves much to be desired. Another aspect that contributed to the trend of indiscriminate admission of students is the policy of fees reimbursement to certain students by governments in states such as the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu etc. Most of the social work programmes started in private un-aided colleges are interested in the fee reimbursement given to these students rather than providing adequate training to them. There are instances where students are attracted with a promise from the college management that they need not attend fieldwork, and classroom attendance is manipulated. Thus, fieldwork became the casualty of these changes.
This would also explain why the quality of the students admitted into most of the schools/departments of social work is not up to the mark. Further, many of them lack the motivation needed to develop themselves into professional social workers. While talking about the professional socialization of medical students and their anxiety to gain hands on training while being posted in the clinical settings, Becker et al (1961) indicate that these students strive to learn by doing and this desire in these students is due to their awareness from the beginning that after they graduate from the medical school they have to perform. They also reportedly appreciated teachers who gave practical tips from their experience of dealing with cases than those giving mere theoretical lectures, however eloquent they may be.
ii) The Schools/Departments of Social Work
This covers three areas - the faculty, mode of teaching, and the fieldwork evaluation process.
The Faculty. Majority of the schools of social work in the private sector are driven by profit motive than by their commitment to social work education. Added to the poor quality of the students being admitted, these colleges are also understaffed. As the faculty members are underpaid, these colleges could not attract the best of the faculty. Coming to the Departments of social work in the state universities, the vacancies arising regularly due to the retirement of the senior faculty members are not filled because of the financial constraints and the teaching is done by the teaching assistants – ad-hoc teachers appointed on contractual basis on a consolidated pay. This again is a limiting factor in terms of the quality of the faculty and their continued commitment for excellence in social work education.
Because of the above circumstances, in most of the social work schools/departments, the focus at best is on class room teaching to the neglect or abandonment of fieldwork training. Fieldwork to be effective as a curricular programme needs focus on important aspects such as placement of students in the agencies, overseeing of agency school liaison, regular conduct of supervisory conferences, and going through fieldwork reports submitted by the students. In the absence of proper planning and organization of these activities, fieldwork training becomes inadequate. As a result, the required professional socialization of the students does not take place. As pointed out by Smalley (1969), abandoning individual supervision in field instruction is likely retard social work’s development as a profession. Once, I had the ‘fortune’ of being an external examiner of fieldwork of students belonging to a certain university department. Majority of these students presented their day’s fieldwork (of 3 hours duration!) in a paragraph consisting of not more than six sentences. The first and the last sentences of the recording stated the reporting and departure timings of the student to and from the fieldwork agency. The middle 3 or 4 sentences were about their work. This was the pattern followed throughout their records. One can imagine the ‘depth’ of such reports and the ‘purpose’ they serve!
Students should be encouraged to write reflective records indicating their progressive learning of complex interactional processes and their increasing awareness of the use of self in working with the people (Desai, 1975). When students’ records are not meticulously gone through by the supervisor and appropriate linkages between the theoretical knowledge and field situation as per the documented information is not discussed, how can the students relate theory to practice and consequently translate theory into practice?
The supervisory conference has a dual purpose. On the one hand it is aimed at enabling the students to identify the practice skills, and on the other it helps the teacher to monitor the student’s journey toward the attainment of a professional self. It is quite unfortunate that fieldwork in general and fieldwork conferences in particular became rituals and lifeless routine activities defeating the very purpose for which fieldwork is made a mandatory curricular activity in social work education. At times, it seems that the faculty supervisors themselves neither appreciated the philosophy of fieldwork nor inculcated its spirit. Most often the inability of the supervisors to inculcate in the students the indispensability of fieldwork and the seriousness and commitment with which they have to engage with it results from this apathy and indifference of the faculty supervisors toward fieldwork.
A social work educator becomes an effective supervisor only if s/he has an up-to-date knowledge of social work skills, and their application in the field practice. In other words, s/he should be a practitioner too. Secker’s (1993) study emphatically brought out the importance of having practice teachers as role models for the students. According to one of her respondents, a final year student of social work:
Working with elderly people was not something I had experience of. So my supervisor arranged for me to ‘shadow’ a member of the elderly team. That was very useful...When we went to the day care unit, it was really interesting of watching the interactions and how he tackled that. It was very illuminating to see that you can actually bring up some quite touchy subjects...The way he handled that I thought was excellent. I learnt a lot there that turned out to be very useful... (pp.135-136).
According to another student respondent:
...My joint supervisors were wonderful. Every time they saw a family, the whole team watched, so I got to see a lot of work, and seeing that, and seeing it actually work, that has really been helpful with this placement. In this placement I have been able to put into practice what I learnt... (p.136).
Unfortunately, most of the social work educators in India are not practitioners in the sense that they do not actively intervene in field situations. Hence, to that extent they lack practice knowledge. Such teachers cannot effectively relate theory to practice and vice-versa. Generally, the agency based supervisors themselves being professional social workers engaged in field practice are expected to fill this gap by guiding the students placed with them in the agency. However, in India most often than not we do not have trained social workers in the field settings where we place our students for training. On rare occasions though they are present, their case load prevents their effective participation in the training of the students.
One way of rectifying this situation is the participation of the faculty supervisors in the agencies’ work in terms of taking cases for direct practice (Banerjee 1975). Another important way is that the faculty supervisors practice through the students placed under their supervision, which I found useful to the supervisor, to be in touch with the changing field realities. This is possible only when the faculty supervisors encourage their students to do process documentation, themselves participate in the intervention sessions, go through the students’ records meticulously, take weekly supervisory conferences and enable the students to link the theoretical knowledge to field situation.
Another way to deal with the issue of faculty supervisors’ lack of practice experience is to invite social work practitioners to the class room to address the students. They may be requested to explain to the students how they have dealt with a specific field situation using social work knowledge, practice principles, and under what circumstances there are exceptions, if any, to the application of theoretical knowledge to practice situations. Screening videos of interviews/practice sessions conducted by practitioners and role plays will also be quite useful.
The University Grants Commission (UGC) is sanctioning Research support programmes to social work departments under which financial assistance is given to start field action programmes. These can also be put into good use to train the students.
Mode of Teaching. The entry of distance mode of learning to impart social work education has a serious impact on field instruction in social work. While distance education enables a large number of students to be benefitted, adaption of such educational practices in professional social work has to be gauged with caution. In social work education, the face to face interaction with the fieldwork supervisor and the regular supervisory guidance which the supervisor provided during the conferences are necessary for lay students to transform themselves into professional social workers. Therefore, the regular face to face contact with students cannot be done away with. For most of the universities, one of the noble motive for offering education through distance mode is to reach out to a large number of students who cannot otherwise attend regular classes due to time and distance constraints. In some instances, this mode became a great source of income - an income many times more than these universities get from their regular students.
If the courses offered through distance mode do not need any practical training aimed at the transformation of the student to become a professional, then there is not much the university can lose in terms of quality of education. However, social work being a profession, the educational programme needs to be organized in such a way that it facilitates appropriate transfer of knowledge and skills through field instruction. Field instruction is thus indispensable and it is only through closely monitored fieldwork guidance that the students attain professional socialization and acquire skills, values and attitudes required of a human service professional. Social Work education has a mandate to prepare future practitioners by enabling them to undergo professional socialization in an atmosphere of anticipatory socialization. Anticipatory socialization, according to Merton (1968:319), enables the individuals to imbibe the values of a group to which they wish to belong but do not belong.
The distance education programmes in social work being offered by most of the Universities are following the same mode of academic activity as is done for other social sciences i.e. arranging class room instruction for a short duration and providing learning material prepared by subject experts. In addition to the above, the students of social work are placed in the agencies situated in their geographical localities after providing certain guidelines. The reports prepared by the students on the basis of their fieldwork are sent to the concerned coordinator which are evaluated by examiners. There is no active guidance to and supervision of the students while they are in the field. Hence, it is a question mark about the acquisition of the needed skills, values and attitudes.
Even in the west where the distance mode of education seems to be prevalent, the most frequent courses offered via distance learning are ‘non interactive’ courses such as social welfare policy, and research. This is because the context of these courses lends to lecture presentation and easier to be launched. However, courses which emphasise the development of students’ relationships and interaction skills are not offered through distance education (Siegel et al, 1998). These, include methods or practice courses. Irrespective of the enthusiasm of the universities to offer courses in social work through distance learning, the quality of social work education and the way the programme has to be delivered cannot be compromised.
In the USA, where the distance mode is popular, offering social work through distance mode was not embraced by a majority of social work educators (Siegel et at 1998). Difficulty in having student-faculty contact is one of the important reasons. There are also arguments in favour of distance education. However, this can be done only by using advanced technologies like TV studio, satellite transmission, fibre optic transmission, and educational platforms such as moodle, Skylab etc. A majority of the distance education programmes in social work offered by the Indian universities neither possesses these technologies nor their faculty are trained in it. Under these circumstances, offering social work through distance learning is nothing but compromising on the quality of social work programme especially in relation to fieldwork.
Fieldwork Evaluation. The seriousness with which the evaluation of an activity is done would communicate to the person being evaluated the importance of the activity. While our classroom teaching and evaluation of class work have developed well, there still exists a great chasm between the way fieldwork is done and being evaluated. It has been argued that ’the failure to develop the later at a corresponding tempo and to theoretically conceptualize to provide adequate opportunities to transform theory into practice and the consequent measures on the basis of which the final evaluation is done makes the whole process of fieldwork evaluation a mere exercise in futility’ (Mehta 1975:335). In most of the schools/ departments of social work, the fieldwork evaluation of the student is carried out at the semester/year end. If the fieldwork is meant to inculcate skills and attitudes, and develop ability to use knowledge at the field level, continuous evaluation is necessary so that the students can make efforts to improve their performance. In the absence of regular feedback on their performance in the field through supervisory conferences, evaluation only at the end of the year/semester is of limited value.
Fieldwork in Social work education is not task centred but process centred. Many a times, during fieldwork evaluation, the teachers list out the tasks performed by the students under their supervision without looking into such details as the use of social work knowledge and skills and the steps taken to perform the tasks. Such evaluations are of little use in terms of assessing the student’s growth as a professional social worker because what is important is whether the task is done keeping in view the social work perspective or not. To be of advantage, the whole process of evaluation has to direct itself to achieve this goal.
Applying the 4 broad categories developed by Hunt and Kogan (1950) for assessing the clients’ movement during the social work process, Tangavelu (1975, 364) proposed the following criteria for the evaluation of students’ fieldwork.
a) Verbalization: How the students talk about their clients, groups and their experiences with them, progressing from lay description to more interpretation of problems and peoples’ reactions.
b) Habits: The students’ approach to their obligations and assignments; how they function, what they do; and reasons for their actions.
c) Attitudes and Understanding: (stress-tolerance components). The students’ reactions to pressure and capacity to resist deteriorating effects of stress, how they cope with frustration; and their ability to make use of new relationships and experiences.
d) Changes in Environmental situations: Readiness to contribute, to build rather than destroy, and to view the world as a friendly, not hostile place. The assimilation of a set of values in keeping with fundamental ideals of a ‘good society’.
iii) The Field Setting
As already pointed out, the field setting is a place where the whole activity of fieldwork takes place. Earlier the field settings are generally the institutions. For the schools/departments of social work in smaller towns, where private colleges are started it may be difficult to find a correctional institution, a mental hospital etc. Complaining that such institutions are absent for placing students is futile. The faculty supervisors have to be ingenious in the identification of the appropriate agencies for placement of students. A yearly survey of the geographical locality where the school is located is necessary to identify the agencies. For e.g. it may be a school, a PHC or a colony of people belonging to disadvantaged groups. By discussing with the key stakeholders the important areas needing social work intervention can be identified and students are appropriately placed. Placing students in agencies without proper pilot survey may be of no help and does not meet the goals of fieldwork in social work.
Because of the inability to identify appropriate institutions for the placement of students, the faculty members tend to feel that there are not enough agencies to place the students and hence more than one student is placed in an agency leading to difficulty at the time of evaluation when their area of functioning is not demarcated from the beginning. When individual placements are not possible, the areas of work may be clearly demarcated and the students be placed under the same faculty supervisor to prevent overlapping of work.
It is advisable to take up yearly review of the agencies in terms of their suitability to train the students and delete those agencies which are not meeting the training needs of students, from the list of placements. The present tendency of some of the schools to place the students for decades in the same agencies without evaluating them is clearly a bad practice. Because of the changing scenario of the functioning of NGOs due to the decline in foreign funding on which many NGOs depend, the very existence of these NGOs is threatened. This is going to have an impact on the selection of agencies.
Conclusion and what can be done?
Fieldwork, though hailed as social work’s signature pedagogy and an indispensible component of social work curriculum, did not receive the attention it deserved from social work educators. The planning and evaluation of fieldwork as a curricular activity continue to elude us since the origin of social work education. Abbotts (1942) reflections on our inability to make fieldwork truly educational in spite of the acceptance by all social workers of its importance and also the failure of social work educators to analyze its educational content and the method of securing proper education results continue to hold good even after more than seven decades of the existence of the profession. As pointed out by Jenkins and Sheator (1982):
Social work education has been unable or unwilling to submit the field instruction process to disciplined evaluation and therefore, it has not generated adequate literature to become an appropriately creditable part of higher education (pp. 3-4).
The absence of a standardized syllabus for fieldwork and its evaluation resulted in flaws that allow deviations to such an extent that without going through the rigour of the most important aspect of social work education - the fieldwork- the students are awarded degrees in social work. It should not be allowed for any longer as these half baked products bring down the academic and practice excellence of professional social work. Hence let us bring back ‘field’ to fieldwork in social work education.
I thank Prof B Devi Prasad for his helpful comments on the paper.
B. Vijaya Lakshmi
Dr. B. Vijaya Lakshmi, Professor of Social Work (Retd.), Andhra University.
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