Preparing for practice: Student engagement, leadership and the development of a professional identity: A social work example
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In practice, social workers are required to make complex decisions that impact on the lives of the individuals and families they work with. Effective decision-making requires a degree of leadership and relies on the decision-maker having a well-developed professional identity. In social work education, building a professional identity involves engagement with practice in the field throughout a student's years of study. Field education can be difficult to arrange for large numbers of students, especially in smaller cities. In Adelaide, South Australia, for example, engaging students in 'real-world' social work experiences began to stretch community resources. This resulted in the development of a dedicated learning space, the Social Work Studio, at the University of South Australia. The study reported in this chapter sought the responses of a small group of students to their experiences within the Social Work Studio. Taking a sociocultural focus, the study explored the emergence of a professional identity in students across the second to fourth years of their social work degrees. Social work professional identities can be difficult to negotiate, given the diversity of practice undertaken by members of the profession, and students' responses reflected this difficulty. Responses suggested a struggle with integrating theory and practice, especially when students reported limited exposure to a range of issues that social workers may deal with in the course of their practice. The chapter suggests that when working within a simulated environment such as the Social Work Studio, educators may need to explore how to help students move from a separation of theory and practice to a greater integration of the two. It argues that this will help students develop a positive professional identity. One way of doing this may be to help students overcome barriers (or 'thresholds') through challenging them to use the skills and knowledge of social work in situations where leadership is required through effective decision-making activities. The chapter concludes that the use of a sociocultural perspective can assist educators to identify students' development of a professional identity through a focus on how their language develops, what they do in practice and how their responses to practice dilemmas change as a result of their experiences.
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