In our experience, many practice assessors and placement supervisors are concerned about supporting students to develop their skills in linking social work theory to practice. Whilst it is not the practice assessor’s role to directly ‘teach’ a student about social work theory, it is an integral part of their role to support students in understanding the links between the theory they have been taught in University to their practice learning experiences. In order to effectively assist a student to develop their understanding of theory informed practice, practice assessors need a level of confidence about theory. However, as stated, many practice assessors can be anxious about social work theory.
Practice assessors and supervisors have often been qualified themselves for some time. They may well think that they no longer use theory in their practice – they may think that they have forgotten the theory, that they no longer have the time to consider their theory base and that they now work on "common sense" principles. We would challenge this by saying that everyone in social work and social care is using theory on a day to day basis. They may simply not recognise this as the theory has seeped into their "common knowledge" or "practice wisdom".
In terms of the claim to work on ‘common sense’ principles – whose sense is common? Is your sense the same as everyone else’s? Just because someone cannot imagine another way to view something doesn’t mean that they aren’t using theory. It just means that their one or two theories are their entire world or "sense".
Where placement supervisors are not social work qualified, they may have even more significant concerns about social work theory and practice. However, in many ways social work theory is drawn from a range of areas and disciplines. In fact workers from other backgrounds are often surprised at how familiar they are with many aspects of social work theory.
We have also heard practice assessors and placement supervisors express concerns about supporting a student in relation to social work theory through statements such as "the student will know more than me!" Whilst this may be true in terms of the student having an up to date understanding of theory in an academic sense (it isn’t always!), the student is unlikely to have the experience which their practice assessors/placement supervisors have – or the ability to relate their academic theoretical knowledge to practice. We have observed practice assessors in their work with students where both the assessor and the student have avoided talking about social work theory. In subsequent discussions, both have expressed the view that the other "will know more than me!" There is merit in informing a student that as a practice assessor you feel a little out of date with theory and that you can both learn from each other. This will go some way to equalising aspects of the power differentials which always exist in practice learning situations.
Whatever the reason that practice assessors and placement supervisors are concerned about social work theory and its links to practice, the fact remains that students need to be supported to make the links and this is a key role for practice assessors.
Whilst there has been some debate about what actually constitutes a theory, in scientific terms a theory is seen as helping to:
-- Describe a situation
-- Explain how the situation came about
-- Predict what is likely to happen next
Sometimes, theories are also seen as helping to control a situation and bring about some form of change.
In supervision discussion, placement assignments, portfolios etc students should be able to describe the situation they are working with, explain why they think this came about, predict what might happen next and analyse how they can intervene and bring about some form of change. In doing so, they will clearly be drawing upon some form of theory. They may however, not be aware of this, or not be able to articulate this. This is where the practice assessor’s skills in questioning and supporting a student to translate theory into practice are vital.
Students need to be able to describe the actual application and use of theories rather than just getting into a habit of listing theories when asked about their decision making. Experienced practice assessors will know how it can go: In supervision, the student and practice assessor are discussing a situation the student has worked with and the practice assessor asks the student "what theories were you using?" once the petrified look has gone from the student’s face, they say "task centred practice and attachment". The practice assessor says "OK". Box ticked. Nothing further. That’s not applying theory to practice – it’s plucking a few phrases from a book.
The aim should be for the student to be able to describe:
-- What they did
-- Why they did it
-- How they applied each theory
-- What worked and what they might do differently in their application of a theory in future
-- What other theories may have been relevant to a situation or individual and why they chose not to use these
This is what makes the difference between someone who is studying for a professional qualification in social work and one who acts on instinct or "gut". If someone is professionally qualified, there is an expectation that they act ethically, with knowledge of why they make certain decisions, and that they are able to justify these, to managers, other professionals, vulnerable people and their families.
There needs to be scope within supervision sessions for reflection on decision making processes in relation to the use and application of theory. This is essential so that students can discuss their choices and means for coming to a decision. There also needs to be scope for theory to be something dynamic which is open to critique, as a worker who accepts everything which is "known" is not one who is thinking through application fully. A competent practitioner is one who makes informed choices with knowledge, understanding and conscious reasoning.
It is important for the practice assessor to ensure that students have opportunities to observe other workers putting theory into practice through their assessments and interpretations of need. This will enable the student to build their own confidence to try what works for them and to move away from the concept of theory as something purely academic and taught, to something which is used by everyone in the field.
Every single learning opportunity provides some scope for facilitating a student’s learning about theory. A skilled and reflective practice assessor will make full use of coaching questions to enable a student to fully consider the theoretical approaches used. Theory needs to be constantly on the practice assessor’s agenda to model theory-informed practice for the student.
A good working knowledge of theory is based on the perspective that each service user is a unique individual and that different approaches will be suited to individual circumstances, needs and cultural requirements. Students need to have a well equipped "toolkit" and a good understanding of the application of various approaches to ensure that this anti-oppressive, individualised approach is something they continue in their future career.
Students need to be able to move quite quickly in their ability to transfer the skills of learning about theory to future placements and work contexts. Allowing a range of activities and experiences, and focusing on building the student’s confidence in discussing theory should work to achieve this.
Supporting students to understand theory will support the development of critical thinking and analytical skills, which are again relevant to the professionalisation agenda and part of every degree course. There will also be benefits to the agency and the practice assessor in seeing things from a different point of view when a student is enabled to offer a well-informed critique. Finally, and arguably most importantly, allowing students to reflect on the best theory can offer and its application to different contexts will ensure future social workers are radical, creative and challenging professionals.