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Shaking Foundations – A Team-based Approach to Personal Supervision in Social Work Education during a Pandemic

By Dr Lisa Revell, Lecturer in Social Work and Faculty Lead for Student Experience, Wayne Buckton, Lecturer in Social Work and Programme Director, Social Work Apprenticeship and Hannah Feeney, Principal Social Worker for Adult Services, East Riding of Yorkshire Council.

This blog builds on our previous piece ‘100 days of my sofa’, which charted the experiences of social workers in training, undertaking their final practice placement during the Covid Pandemic. In contrast, ‘Shaking Foundations’ explores the support and guidance offered to new students, who commenced their studies at the University of Hull in 2020, amidst continually shifting government guidance and directives, which aimed to suppress transmission of the virus.

Year 1 of the BA Social Work programme provides the theoretical foundations of knowledge required to prepare students for their first placement the following academic year. Two semesters worth of academic delivery, culminates in a watershed review of their learning, to assess ‘readiness for practice’. In the academic year 2020/21, all taught content and assessment was delivered remotely, via zoom, Teams or Big Blue Button. Teaching staff found creative and responsive ways to teaching ‘practice skills’ remotely. One approach, Professional Learning Teams, will be outlined here. We will firstly discuss the evolution of professional learning teams, before exploring their application during the pandemic.

Setting the context:

The term ‘remote learning’ became ubiquitous following the onset of Covid-19, as Higher Education establishments across the UK and beyond worked hard to respond to the ever-changing context brought about by the pandemic. The word remote is defined as distant – cut off – with little connection or relationship to; and so, it is clear to see why remote teaching or digital learning practices may pose particular challenges for social work, a discipline premised on connection and relationship. Whilst we have learnt that remote learning does have benefits for some, providing a forum for creativity and inclusivity (Archer-Kuhn et al, 2020), for others, online learning has resulted in feelings of isolation and anxiety, an impediment to students realizing their practice skills (Buckton and Revell, 2022; Zuchowski et al, 2021).

As a professional programme of study, social work employs group-based activities on a regular basis to explore problem-based learning tasks, that is: small group or team-based learning as an active learning approach which involves a subset of a larger cohort (Robinson et al, 2013). There are particular benefits to this approach for social workers in training, aiming to enter a profession based on collaborative working with services users, carers and the wider agency network. In particular, team-based learning has the potential to promote critical thinking, professional development, group cohesion and a commitment to diversity, inclusivity and anti-oppressive practice (Garret, 1998; Gillespie, 2012). In this context, team-based learning recognizes that expertise is not solely located with the educator, there is a joint commitment to sharing ideas, facilitating discussions and task distribution.

Transforming Personal Supervision through Team Based Learning:

In 2018, in conjunction with the Humber Social work Teaching Partnership, the Social Work Programme embarked on a transformation of their approach to personal supervision. Feedback from students and practice partners indicated that the first year of the degree felt too far removed from the realities of practice, leading to subsequent feelings of unpreparedness. In response, we sought to create a professional team around the student from their very first week at university, to imbue teaching and learning with the voice and experience of practitioners.

The creation of ‘Professional Learning Teams’ (PLT) provides a platform for students, academics and practitioners to come together to consolidate learning in the pursuit of developing professional, confident, resilient, independent thinking graduates. Undertaking PLT across the three years of students’ undergraduate degree, enables learners to explore the realities of the social work profession, the daily challenges facing social workers and the coping strategies which could be marshalled, either individually and collectively. The aim of a PLT is to develop learner’s openness, creativity and emotional intelligence, alongside honing their practice skills and recognising the benefits of working in a supportive learning team; ultimately preparing students to become productive members of their future social work team (Robinson et al, 2013).

Akin to the University wide commitment to Personal Supervision, each student is allocated to a named PLT, led by an academic member of staff (the personal supervisor) and a practitioner from a local agency. PLTs meet twice per trimester for 2 hours per session. Meetings follow a curriculum, thematically exploring aspects of the following:

  • Team formation, establishing boundaries
  • Individual’s emerging professional identity and role
  • Values and beliefs
  • Balancing human rights and risks
  • Considering the factors which impact professional judgement and decision making.

Group facilitators utilise reflective questions, case studies and pre-meeting tasks as way of engaging students in their own learning and development, contributing to the wider understanding and advancement of the group as a whole. In addition, Personal Supervisors meet with students on a one-to-one basis at least twice per semester, to augment PLT discussions and address/offer support with pastoral or academic issues.

…and then there was covid:

 

covid

When the national lockdown was announced, all teaching and assessment transferred rapidly to online platforms, including skills orientated topics; our PLT groups also had to adapt to online delivery. The immediate challenge was to engender the same team dynamic via an online platform, enabling students to continue to benefit from a close team-working identity, through remote relationship building. We were mindful that PLT group members had never met one another, and some had never ventured on to campus. Nonetheless, the established model and format adapted intuitively to the online presence, mirroring in fact, the current context of practice for social workers, who were finding creative ways to engage children, parents, carers and vulnerable adults through remote means.

With a cohort of 70 plus students, PLTs provided a facilitative space to build connections and encourage students to share their hopes and fears for the forthcoming year. Moreover, it enabled some students with caring or work commitments the flexibility required to engage with their own learning and development. PLTs provided a protective and regulated space for students to interact, juxtaposed with examples of student led social media platforms i.e., face book and a cohort wide WhatsApp group, which on occasions served to heighten anxiety and encroach on student’s private spaces, without boundaries or moderation. In contrast, PLTs had academic oversight, providing a safety net.

Our established PLT curriculum proved easily transferable to MS Teams based discussions, with students undertaking pre-meeting reflective tasks in preparation; an example from Meeting One can be seen in fig. 1.

 

Fig 1

In addition, students were asked to negotiate responsibility for team-based tasks, which strengthened their confidence and employability, such as acting as chair for the meeting, taking minutes, recording and completing agreed actions, contributing to discussions and sharing their views and experiences. In contrast to larger teaching groups, participants were more inclined to appear on camera and actively participate in the discussions that ensued.

From a Personal Supervision perspective, we have found that PLTs also facilitate our relationship building with students; we know our students better as we are engaging with them more, and for longer. We are also better placed to highlight issues of non-engagement at an earlier juncture and put measures in place to retain students on programme where a little extra support and guidance is required.

The profession of Social Work is often likened to a chameleon in that it adapts to take on the colour of its context (Pierson, 2011). Professional Learning Teams have provided us with a useful and adaptable approach to social work education, which has allowed us to be responsive to students needs and the context of the global pandemic – digitally enhancing a tried and tested approach to team based learning, and supporting students to prepare for future ‘collaborative efforts in their collegiate and professional lives’ (Robinson et al, 2013:780).

Archer-Kuhn, B., Ayala, J., Hewson, J. and Letkemann, L. (2020) ‘Canadian reflections on the Covid-19 pandemic in social work education: From tsunami to innovation’, Social Work Education, 39(8), pp. 1010–18. 10.1080/02615479.2020.1826922.

Buckton, W. & Revell, L. (2022) ‘100 days on my sofa’, University of Hull Online

Garrett, K. J. (1998). Cooperative learning in social work research courses: Helping students help one another, Journal of Social Work Education, 34, 237–246.

Gillespie, J. (2012) Enhancing Social Work Education through Team-Based Learning, Journal of Social Work Education, 48:2, 377-387

Pierson, J. (2011) Understanding Social work: History and Context. London: McGraw-Hill.

Robinson, M.A; Robinson, M.B. & McCaskill, G.M. (2013) Teaching Note—An Exploration of Team-Based Learning and Social Work Education: A Natural Fit, Journal of Social Work Education, 49:4, 774-781 

Zuchowski, I. Cleak, H., Croaker, S. and Bentley Davey, J. (2021) It’s up to you: The need for self-directed learning for social work students on placement during Covid-19, British Journal of Social Work, 00, pp.1-19 accessed online on 25th November 2021.

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