The idea of bridging theory and practice sounds daunting, but it is imperative for integrated learning. However, this has been a long-standing, chronic problem in social work education. In The Journal of Teaching and Higher Education, the article “Enhancing Learning by Integrating Theory and Practice” by Jan Wrenn and Bruce Wrenn, explains the importance of bridging this gap and how it enhances not only the work of the student, but of the teacher and the field in general. Imagine a world wherein students actually learn how to apply a theory to a field situation within the classroom, through the supported use of case models, role plays and video feedback.
Educators in degree programs are charged with multiple responsibilities in the classroom and in practice settings. We apply our professional knowledge in a variety of settings to serve our communities; we reflect on how to improve practice from our experiences in these settings; we observe our students engaging in learning experiences in the classroom; and we share with our students the knowledge we’ve gained from our experiences and our scholarship within our profession. To accomplish these actions we must serve as both teacher and learner in both classroom and field. Moreover, we want our students to also benefit from the active learning processes of applying, reflecting, sharing, and observing both in and out of the classroom while also functioning as both learners and teachers.
As I had been meditating over this predicament and how to better serve my students not only as a field instructor, but also as a field advisor, I was invited to attend a Field Education symposium at Fordham University, March 11, 2016. I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Terry Wolfer present on Case Dilemmas, particularly a case that was written for field instructors. He had created a case study that showcased some of the obstacles that present themselves within a challenging field placement. This spurred my interest in speaking with Dr. Wolfer about his thoughts on the state of field practice today and how he foresees the future of social work education bridging that gap.
On Monday, September 19 at 1pm I made that very call …
AC: Hi Dr. Wolfer, thanks for taking the time to discuss your thoughts on bridging the practice and theory gap in social work education.
TW: This is a long-standing fundamental problem. Classroom learning tends to be heavy on content and light on outcome and there is a lack of learning application. Content is overly cognitive and it does not translate well to practice skills.
AC: What are some suggestions that you have seen or should be considered to bridge this gap?
TW: I have been able to teach some case method courses where students are presented with a concrete practice situation and that they are encouraged to work through the dilemma of the case in a supported classroom environment. This is the place where the student can apply some of the techniques that they have read about.
AC: This sounds like a great way to really help the students practice some concrete skills that they may not be sure how to use when faced directly with these issues in a field situation.
TW: It is important to model for the students not only in the classroom setting, but in the field setting. It would be helpful if more educational settings would adopt a bi-weekly or weekly case study from the field that can be taught in the classroom.
AC: I like the idea of more experiential learning in the classroom and less didactic styles. I think the students would benefit greatly if they worked through a case situation either as a class or in small groups. The use of role play, one-way mirrors and video feedback are great tools for practice learning as well, but are left outside the classroom.
TW: I also feel that context is very important when it comes to learning. The classroom context is much different than a clinic context, and so this should be taken into consideration when bridging the gap as well. It would also be helpful if schools of social work would narrow the focus of what they are trying to teach to ensure that the students have the time to apply its use within the classroom setting.
Now, this is just a taste of the flavorful conversation that I was able to have with Dr. Wolfer. It was exciting and motivating to talk with someone who is out there trying to integrate practice and knowledge together not only for students but also for field instructors. Thank you Dr. Wolfer and keep up the great work!
It does appear that courses have become too content heavy and that they are missing the whole application of a theory. But in order to apply a theory we first have to understand the different types of learning in the classroom setting. With that in mind, and as field and classroom educators, we need to go back to the basics of pedagogy. There are various types of learners such as kinetic, auditory, visual or a combination of the above. By appreciating and getting to understand the student learner the experience of field can be enhanced and integrated into that student’s learning style. This should also be considered when integrating both theory and practice in and outside of the classroom. Some of us have experienced this ourselves as students, and as Dr. Wolfer notes above, classrooms tend to be lecture heavy and do not provide enough time for other types of learning such as experiential, kinetic, and visual.
I think it is important to include more case study material and ethical dilemma situations that a student may be faced with in the field as well as the profession in general. I like the idea of incorporating activities that accompany a case study, such as writing a bio-psychosocial assessment or role playing a technique in the classroom (i.e., Active Listening and Reflection Skills.) However, many educators may feel that this activity should be left for the field instructor in field placement. If that’s the case, however, we are missing the opportunity to bridge the theory practice gap that continues in the classroom.