Challenges of integrating theory and practice in social work teaching and learning
Global and national standards for social work training have for a very long time required that institutions of higher learning include a theoretical as well as a practical component into the social work programme. The integration of theory and practice is purposefully aimed at enhancing the student's competency and skills (SAQA, 2003:9). The introduction of Outcomes-Based Education (OBE) in South Africa (Government Gazette No. 19640, 1998) has confirmed the need for addressing challenges relating to integration of theory and practice. Assessments of social work fieldwork competence at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) indicate that the majority of the students in the third year of study struggle to integrate theory and practice resulting in low level competence in Intermediate Fieldwork Education (University of the Western Cape Quality assurance report: Intermediate Fieldwork, 2007). In addition to the aforementioned, student reports indicate that there is a perception that the classroom learning, the supervision and fieldwork practice often are not sufficient to facilitate the integration of theory and practice. The lack of integration of theory and practice results in students not achieving the expected learning outcomes. This is an urgent concern in social work education and it seems most appropriate to learn from the people who are closely affected by and involved in this issue. The focus of the study was thus on the challenges experienced by social work students, their lecturers and fieldwork supervisors at UWC regarding the integration of theory and practice at intermediate level in the context of OBE. Hence I used a qualitative approach as I wanted to study the challenges of theory and practice integration from an insiders' perspective. This is appropriate when the goal of research is to describe and understand a social issue. For this reason I selected an exploratory-descriptive research design and an instrumental research strategy to study the issue of theory and practice integration in the selected programme. The population of the study was third year social work students at UWC and also a selected group of third year social 'work students from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), social work lecturers from UWC and field supervisors form agencies in the Western Cape where social work students are placed. Purposive sampling were utilized to select sixteen third year social work students from UWC, seven NMMU students, sixteen field supervisors and eight lecturers from UWC. Data were collected by means of individual interviews as well as focus group sessions from students and field supervisors and by means of written responses to an open -ended guide from lecturers. Data were analyzed by means of thematic, content analysis. Relevant literature findings on constructivism, cooperative learning and social work teaching and learning in particular were compared to the findings of the case study exploration. Literature pertaining to social work teaching and learning in the context of ELOs is limited and therefore further justifies the need for this research. The findings indicated that participants in this study experienced challenges with regard to theory and practice integration on various levels and to different extents. They attribute these challenges to a variety of factors relating to the construction of knowledge in the classroom and in the fieldwork setting as well as personal challenges experienced by students. Hence I made various recommendations with regard to collaborative teaching and learning strategies within the classroom and fieldwork setting as well recommendations based on the conclusions of findings relating to students' personal challenges.