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: