The learning, teaching and assessment of partnership work in social work education

Ways forward: Good practice in teaching and learning about partnership working

The knowledge review identified two main approaches to teaching partnership – the embedded and the discrete (see How is partnership work taught?), which can be summarised in two diagrams. Neither approach is mutually exclusive, although the review identified few examples of programmes which adopted both approaches. Each approach suggests different priorities while emphasising social work values and anti-oppressive practice.

Characteristics of the embedded approach

Diagram illustrating the characteristics of the embedded approach

This approach emphasises learning by experiencing and observing partnerships throughout all aspects of the course culture. Modelling partnership working is a significant method of teaching and learning.

Characteristics of the discrete approach

Diagram illustrating the characteristics of the discreye approach

In this approach the main vehicle for delivering learning about partnership is in a discrete module. (although, as this guide demonstrates through its examples, this is not always specifically about ‘partnership’). Programmes adopting this approach to teaching partnership also sought to model effective partnership working in their overall design and delivery.

Both approaches were advocated by different respondents in the practice survey and examples of good practice were identified within both the embedded and discrete frameworks (see Why teach partnership work? Good practice). However, neither has been systematically evaluated so we are not yet in a position to identify which approach is more effective in delivering specific learning outcomes.

Similarly, in understanding partnership working more generally (in practice learning or in the management of programmes, for example) we have no way of knowing which aspects are working well or how to generalise from individual examples of good practice to general principles.

We need to move from an approach to partnership learning which accepts it is happening and that it is essential, to a more thought-through and systematic understanding of where and why partnership learning is effective. More informed choices could then be made about the design and delivery of teaching and learning.

The review identified some distinctive initiatives in partnership learning which provide some evidence of effectiveness.

The structured dialogue

‘Structured dialogue’ provides opportunities for students to hear from people who use services about their experiences of illness, of life and of the ‘helping’ professions. (12,27,28) The encounters between students and people who use services are guided by facilitators. They take responsibility for introducing themes for discussion, ensuring that the conversation flows, and that all participants have a voice. This initiative is described as successful. The authors conclude that there is strong potential for the structured dialogue model to improve student attitudes towards, and learning about, people with mental illness, and to undermine the one-dimensional representations and pre-existing stereotypes with which students may start out.

Feedback from users and carers contributing to structured dialogue sessions indicated its validating and empowering potential for them. Two-thirds of the social work students in the Shor and Sykes study felt that the structured dialogue with people with mental illness ‘opened their eyes to the person behind the illness’ p 67).

Learning within practice

This guide has identified several examples of modelling good practice in practice learning (see Why teach partnership work? Good practice). Respondents to the practice survey suggested that negotiating placements, the development of learning agreements and assessment of portfolios were all examples of partnership in action.

However, we have not identified any examples of a ‘partnership curriculum’ in practice learning. A defined partnership curriculum would not simply involve learning through modelling (where learning can be difficult to identify) but would also involve the identification of specific learning outcomes. It would also require students to be provided with structured opportunities to learn about partnership and to demonstrate competence.

The reasons why such a curriculum has not been developed are explained by some of the general characteristics of partnership already identified in this guide:

Educators in the practice survey commented on the serendipitous nature of partnership learning that may or may not happen in practice settings. Respondents interviewed for this guide identified the managerialist culture in some agencies and resource limitations as continuing problems in developing meaningful partnerships with all stakeholders in practice. While a more systematic ‘curriculum’ would not change this, it would enable students to identify their learning about the complexity of partnership and for other stakeholders to provide specific learning opportunities. In an interview undertaken for this guide one educator felt there was now a greater focus on checking partnership learning during meetings with students and practice assessors. This reflected the reality of practice, in which partnership issues were higher on the agenda than in the past.