Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education
The SCIE practice review: Teaching and learning in social work: Communication - a summary
This practice review addresses the area of communication skills with children, adults and those with particular communication needs, although it is, of necessity, a general review within its remit and further research could focus more specifically on each group identified.
The work reviews current practice in teaching and learning of communication skills in social work from the perspectives of all the stakeholders: academics, practice assessors, students, service users (including adults and children) and carers.
How are communication skills currently taught and how are they delivered?
- Current provision centres primarily around dedicated modules in communication, taught using an experiential learning approach, and focusing on verbal and nonwritten forms of communication. There is a concurrent commitment to the integration of teaching and learning in this area across other non-dedicated elements in courses.
- However, these tend to emphasise generic communication skills around interviewing, drawing on counselling models, especially Egan’s(8).
- There is no explicit emphasis on specific skills and where they are mentioned, they are understood in terms of skills for specific settings and client groups rather than as micro-skills.
- A growing area is in the teaching of communication skills interprofessionally and for interprofessional purposes, although there is a focus here on skills which are common across professions rather than on a range of topics including integrating communication skills across different professional models.
- Communication skills have already been given central importance, both explicitly and implicitly, and the planned increase in communication skills teaching is broadly welcomed. Nevertheless, while many of the skills identified in the benchmarks and embedded in The national occupational standards are evident in current practice, there appear to be two crucial gaps: first, between current practice and the new language for describing it (benchmarks and national occupational standards); and second, between an emphasis on very general foundations for communication skills and a new focus on their concrete practice and how it is done.
How do you distinguish and differentiate between core transferable skills and specific skills, including technical skills?
- There are two key strands emerging: on the one hand, there is some resistance to any proliferation of specific, especially technical, skills training. Instead there is a clear emphasis on core skills training which is regarded as subsequently transferable. It is anticipated that this will equip students for a breadth of situations in practice for which it is impossible explicitly to prepare. On the other hand, there was the view that there should be more in the way of specific skills training, particularly technical skills, so as to promote communication with groups with particular communication needs. For example, several respondents regretted that they did not do any training on working through translators, or with those with hearing impairments.
- While respondents suggest that the academic setting should provide a good grounding in core communication skills, including (and increasingly) written and interprofessional skills, the place for specific skills training remains unclear.
- Some respondents argued for more specific skills training in the academic setting, others that the extent and range of this training is most useful when it is carried out in a particular user group and reflects that setting’s needs.
- A third group argued that specific skills training should be a concern only for postqualifying learning.
- There is a clear absence of consensus regarding definitions of 'core’, 'specific’ and 'technical’ communication skills. This appears to be linked to gaps in knowledge about theories of communication skills, and their teaching, learning and assessment. The research review may throw some light on the breadth and depth of the extent and use of theoretical knowledge in practice.
What is the breadth and depth of skills training needed to perform the range of duties and tasks for beginning practice and for qualifying level?
- There is little distinction in the data drawn between qualifying level on the one hand, and beginning level on the other. These levels are seen as largely identical. The analysis reflects this failure of distinction.
- Of all the skills identified as necessary for qualifying and beginning level, those contributing to the performance of a 'professional’ role were most prominent. These include the development of highlevel specific written skills such as report writing, courtroom skills, and selfawareness in the social work role. The acquisition of professional identity is therefore central.
- There is an issue as to how the professional role of the social worker is best maintained. Skills specific to the social work profession and the organisational and statutory requirements of the job are seen as growing out of and founded on 'core’ communication skills, without which no amount of specialist training in procedure could equip the student for the beginning of practice. The 'specific’ skills of practice are regarded as peripheral to the task of teaching and learning at beginning and qualifying level, although they are often acquired in placements.
- At the same time, a key issue is the relative youth and inexperience of the new intakes. There is a concern that current social work teaching and learning assumes a degree of professional and organisational competence in communication skills, which may no longer be there. The anticipated implication is that a micro-skills focus may emerge on skills like 'attending meetings’ and 'using the telephone’.
- Related to this is a stress on the importance of building up students’ confidence in communication skills as a key element in teaching and learning for qualifying and beginning level.
How do you identify the underpinning principles and values of communication for all categories of social work delivery?
- Generally speaking, social work as a discipline benefits from a relatively wellestablished base of values and principles, about which there is a good deal of consensus, based on (a) the identified CCESTW/GSCC core social work values and (b) adult learning principles deriving from community work and community development (for example, empowerment, partnership, sustainability).
- However, the clarity of an established value base appears to make it taken for granted and most respondents were unable to be sharply critical about precise meanings and implications of principles and values identified. Some respondents suggest that learning about communication should start with teachers revisiting their understandings of social work values and principles in order to internalise the thinking, which has so thoroughly fed into social work’s distinctive value base.
What also emerges is the view that values and principles cannot be taught, only learnt, and that this represents the learner’s transition from 'the personal to the professional’. It is suggested that this takes place best where it is modelled in the culture of the department and setting within which students learn, and specifically through supervision and tutorials where that learning is drawn out and made explicit.