Learning at Work week is an annual event in May. It aims to to put a spotlight on the importance and benefits of learning and development at work. This year it takes place from 15th-21st May and the theme is 'Curious & Creative'.

ScOPT are running a series of articles on the website to tie in with Learning at Work week, as well as highlighting appropriate resources each day.

Continuing our series of articles for Learning at Work week posts, Jo Finch talks about the importance of keeping up with the latest social work research.

 

Don't throw your books away!

The importance of research-mindedness in social work practice (and how to get your hands on research)

At a practice educators conference last week in Cambridge, I had a brief but one of those really interesting and thought-provoking conversations with Simon Bates from Kirwin Maclean publishers. Our conversation started off on the topic of cats, always interesting, but then Simon told me of his concerns when he had had recently observed some social work students, at the point of finishing their courses, putting all their social work textbooks onto various book selling websites. Simon, not a qualified social worker, raised an important question about whether that implied the now newly-qualified social workers would never have a need to refer to their books on theory, law, or ethics for example, to make sense of the situations they encountered in their practice? Did it mean, he asked, whether theory or research was never going to be used in their practice, or did it suggest they knew all there was to ever know?

I reflected further on this conversation, the book-selling not the cat one, on the journey home. On the one hand, I understood that undertaking social work programmes are incredibly demanding and I can imagine that a reasonable response to completing the course might be to never, ever want to look at a book or research paper ever again! I also understood that the financial situations of many, might mean there was no choice but to sell their books. I wondered whether the act of selling their books was based on a somewhat false assumption, that in the real world of practice, theory and research would assume less prominence or be of little relevance in the frenetic, fast paced world of qualified social work practice. This made me further reflect on what I perceive at times, to be a continuing divide between the university and the field, about the relative value, importance and indeed, necessity of social work research and theory.

The International Federation of Social Work, in their definition of social work, are very clear that social work is both a practice-based profession and an academic discipline, and should be informed by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge. Further, Croisdale-Appleby (2014) in his review of social work education, albeit in the context of England, nonetheless, emphasised the social worker as a "social scientist" and more specifically, recommended that:

"…qualifying education should equip newly qualified social workers with the capability to engage in research throughout their career, inculcating an understanding that the ability to carry out research is an essential component in their future professional capability in practice". (2014:87)

Of course, it may be argued that I am completely bias in this debate as I teach in a university, so am not in direct social work practice. I have taught research methodology and methods for about 15 years to pre-qualifying and qualified social work students at both undergraduate and post graduate level and I am also a researcher. Those who I have taught know that I really, really love teaching research methodology! No, I’m not being sarcastic, I really do enjoy it. I clearly have a vested interest therefore in promoting the importance of "research-mindedness", but I feel very strongly that utilising research, is one straightforward way for practitioners to reflect on, and continually develop and improve their social work practice.

Smith (2012) defines research mindedness as:

"…a term which is intended to capture a range of attributes comprising 'a critical understanding of the application to social work of research', demonstrated through awareness of the value of research, the ability to identify appropriate sources of evidence, an appreciation of the methods used to obtain research evidence, the ability to make sense of and interpret potentially complex and sometimes conflicting findings, and the capacity to apply research messages appropriately in specific practice settings". (2012, page unknown)

So in other words, it's about having distinct research skills, ie. being able to locate good quality research on a particular topic, understanding more broadly how research is "done" and appreciating the various approaches used in research; but also concerns how to use research findings to think about the implications for social work practice generally, and how it might then inform or change your practice. There is something else though, that is the very skills that such research-mindedness promotes; namely the tasks of analysing the relative merit of some "evidence" over the other, thinking about patterns found in data sets, quantitative or qualitative - in other words analysing data - are all vital in everyday social work practice. Indeed, there seems to me to be a strong resonance between the practices of undertaking social work research and the practices of social work - finding out sensitively the realities of peoples' stories and experiences, possibly thinking about "patterns" in peoples experiences and using all those lovely critical analytical skills to make sense of sometimes, contradictory and complex stories. There is also something of an ethnographer in social workers - the skills of observing, being sensitive to and reflective of the emotional climate, and in being both an insider and outsider. On a daily basis therefore, social workers practice "nearness" and immersion in the lives of services users and carer, telling and retelling their stories.

There is a political aspect to this of course, in that social workers see at first hand, the adverse impacts that social policies can particularly wrought on those who use social work services, and indeed, see first hand, the limitations of social work services. Knowledge production, in a research sense, is not politically neutral. Who sets the research agenda within social work (and across disciplines), who is being researched and how they are being researched, has resonance with wider issues of social work values that concern social justice, empowerment and equality. The concern is of course, that whilst practitioners who are closest to the daily realities and lived experiences of service users, they are not necessarily setting the research agenda, or indeed, reading the research.

Social work is also ever changing, for example, repeated "developments" in the delivery of social work education, constant changes in legislation and policy guidance, and of course, the emergence of "new" practice areas, such as online child sexual exploitation or concerns about radicalisation. It is also the case, that practitioners will always be presented with situations in which they have limited experience or knowledge of, and the research literature can help fill this gap. I recall being a newly-qualified social worker working in a children with disabilities team, which meant I urgently needed to get familiar with the wide range of diagnoses the children had, not least when a child had a relatively rare disability or condition. Similarly, when I changed jobs, I found myself often working with parents who had complex mental health conditions and again, I needed to fill in some big gaps in my knowledge, and in terms of how to intervene effectively. I turned again to social work research to help me.

There are some very real barriers for practitioners in terms of accessing the latest research, as cash strapped local authorities have long since stopped subscribing to academic journals, and not many universities allow their qualified practice educators for example, associate status to enable library facilities. What is without question, is that all social workers are required by their respective regulatory bodies to evidence continuing professional development, and so it is incumbent upon us all who hold the title of "social worker" to invest our own time and resources into this activity. After all this is to ensure, those who use social work services get the best possible response.

In terms of our own resources, ie money, our online world has made accessing research easier, although caution is required to ensure the information accessed, is of the appropriate quality. There are some simple ways however, in which research can be accessed without financial cost.

  1. Acknowledging the ethical issues associated with a certain search engine company, Google Scholar nonetheless often turns up full copies of articles.
  2. If the above doesn't provide free copies, then one strategy might be to contact the authors directly and very, very politely ask for a copy. When I have enquiries, my ego is so stroked that people out there might actually be interested in my research, I am of course, always happy to oblige with such requests.
  3. ResearchGate is a great way to find out what research there is on particular topic a well as getting to know the authors writing on your particular topic. I just went in as a guest - you do not need to be a student or an academic to have access - and managed to download an interesting article on micro-aggression in social work (Spencer, 2017). You can see details of co-authors, and suggestions for further reading are given. If articles are not available to download, there is a function to enable you to contact the author. Top tip though - do make sure you say you are a practitioner, and therefore don't have access to these journals via a university library.
  4. University institutional open access repositories collate their staffs' original versions of articles (original meaning before the journal has been edited, proof-read and typeset by the publishers) and subject to copyright embargos, are generally open access. So, I just searched for Braun and Clarke's (2006) article on thematic analysis and could download this directly from the University of the West England. Indeed, I even just found one of my own articles this way (Finch and Taylor, 2012) which I could download from UEL's institutional open access repository.

So that should certainly get you started. Do make sure you keep a log of what you have read, and reflect on the implications and subsequent positive changes in your practices, or how you develop services, or indeed, your thoughts and values about a particular topic. This will come in useful when evidencing your CPD/PRTL record.

So please, don't throw your books away, but instead try and embrace the ever changing and uncertain world that is social work. At the very least your books are a reminder of your journey through social work to date, and at best, can serve to validate your day to day practices. Practices, of course, do and should change as our understanding about the causes of social problems, or the emergence of new social issues and concerns inevitably arise. We all need to keep up with the latest research as the norm, not the exception.

 

Bibliography:

Braun V. and Clarke, V. (2006) 2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology , 3 (2). pp. 77-101. ISSN1478-0887 Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/11735 (accessed 10/05/17)

Croisdale-Appleby, D. (2014) Revisioning Social work Education: An Independent Review. Available from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/285788/DCA_Accessible.pdf (accessed 13/05/17)

Finch, J. and Taylor, I. (2012) Failure to Fail? Practice Educators' Emotional Experiences of Assessing
Failing Social Work Students, Social Work Education, 32(2), pp. 244-258. Available from http://roar.uel.ac.uk/4747/1/Finch_Failure%20to%20fail%20.pdf (accessed 13/05/17)

Smith, R. (2012) The College of Social Work Curriculum Guides: Research and Research Mindedness. Available from https://www.basw.co.uk/resources/tcsw/CG%20-%20Research%20and%20research-mindedness.pdf (accessed 13/06/17)


About the author:

Dr Jo Finch is Reader in Social Work, Programme Director for the Professional Doctorate in Social Work and Deputy Director of the Centre for Social Work Research at the University of East London. Jo has research interests in widening participation, practice learning and assessment, practice-near research methodologies and social work and radicalisation. Jo has also been part of a research team that has undertaken evaluations of suicide prevention services in East Sussex. Jo's new book entitled Supporting struggling students on placement, a practical guide has recently been published by Policy Press.

Policy Press have set up a discount code for ScOPT members to get 30% off any of their books. You need to order at www.policypress.co.uk and enter the code POSCOPT at the checkout.

 

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