Podcast episode 12: crisis – what crisis?… an interview with social work academic Shirley Ledger on the place of field education in social work

Shirley Ledger started her working life as an enrolled nurse in a small hospital in rural Queensland. Realising that nursing was not for her she became involved in youth work and domestic violence services. Years later ironically, she found herself back at the same rural hospital as a social work student on placement.

But the focus of our interview was on social work field education.

For some years Shirley has been a university field education co-ordinator. In this role, she was heavily involved in training, curriculum development, supervision liaison, and placement breakdown.

She became deeply interested in academic claims that field education ought to be the “signature pedagogy” of social work. This then has become the work of her PhD in progress.

Lee Shulman, the academic who popularised the term “signature pedagogy”, held that in professional training it comprises the central form of instruction that prepares students for future professional practice.

Consequently, Shirley’s research questions are,

  1. How does the current model of field education connect with the three dimensions (surface, implicit and deep structure) of signature pedagogy?
  2. How does the current model of field education connect with the temporal patterns of signature pedagogy (initial pedagogy, capstone apprenticeships and the sequenced and balanced portfolio)?
  3. How and where are social work programs incorporating the pedagogies of formation, engagement and uncertainty into curriculum design?

This led to a fascinating discussion on a range of issues, including the lack of evidence for the efficacy of current fieldwork practices, questions about the sustainability of current arrangements, and questions about the social justice implications of mandating 1000 hours of unpaid placement, plunging students into poverty and hardship.

And so we dreamt about how necessary changes might be achieved.

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4 Responses to Podcast episode 12: crisis – what crisis?… an interview with social work academic Shirley Ledger on the place of field education in social work

  1. Julie Morgan King says:

    Just listened to the latest episode re placement issues and practical problems with social work education in our current very complex modern context. Whilst Shirley’s rural experience differs to mine, in some ways the issues she explores have been mine. I left practice in my late 20s after a brush with teaching at uni and TAFE level which hooked me in. After 12 years as a tenured academic at tertiary level I left social work to explore other options. I re-emerged some years later with a wealth of writing experience and recommended teaching social work and providing field supervision at a private institution with a fully accredited course MSW level, as well as engaging in clinical practice in the private health sector. Whilst the private sector nature of my work causes concerns for public sector practitioners (who have been very vocal re this!), writhing this context I have noticed greater creativity and new modes of practice which are more responsive to a changing work landscape and the complex needs of urgent mature age students. Flexible external supervision, broader options re placements etc has made for a more interesting journey for them, certainly better than that which I experienced all those years ago when I was trained at one of the sandstone unis who had no commitment to change, creativity or flexibility. My field ed experiences were crap compared to those experienced by students I have supported over the past few years. Thanks for the podcast!

  2. Georgina Purcell says:

    Thank you VC and SL. I’ve been curious about how social work placement is an unpaid expectation of our budding social work students. My daughter completed her SW studies last year in Sydney and I know how stressful it was for her to juggle casual work, pay rent/bills and meet 1000 hours of unpaid placement. This is the reality for social work students however, engineer students and others are paid placements. Do we simply put this down to ‘competition’? Social worker student contribution is often constructed as a ‘drain’ on departmental/organisational staff rather than what their departments get in the long run, after their initial training. Those receiving social work student placements may quickly expect to rely on the free labour of our students in often understaffed, stressful and under-resourced areas. The need for students shouldn’t be underrated. It is an expectation that professional SWrs work toward ongoing training and scholarship. That students aren’t paid anything is a complete denial of their hardship and sets them up to fail unless they have a lot of material backing in their networks. This potentially implies that SW pedagogy will cater toward a more socially upward economic student demographic unless these considerations are given the gravity they deserve. Is that socially just? Also stories of finding social work students being relied on at the coalface is a reality. If we can’t support what is fair for our students, what does it say about our capacity to strive for “a better world for the powerless and disadvantaged”? In the very least, our students should be acknowledged in a way that is meaningful to them.
    So, is a volunteer workforce sustainable? The more voluntary work is provided the more it is expected but what does that mean in a (hyper) capitalist society…? Over to you VC :)

  3. Judy D'Arcy says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed Podcast 12 – thank you Vittorio. Shirley was most engaging. From my experience, unpaid placement hours adds such pressure in an already stressful framework for most students. I was very fortunate that my Manager and CEO highly valued my Master of Social Work by supporting a change of my part time hours to full time hours for the six month period leading up to my placement. This enabled me to complete my placement hours within the time period. My placement setting was DFV – so different from my permanent PT tenure of School Practitioner! Nevertheless, I soon realised that my skills, knowledge and reflexive practice proved transferrable within this new practice field. My external supervisor was brilliant, and, similarly, my Agency Task Supervisor. I concur just how tough it is to undertake unpaid placements at any stage of life.

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