Carol A. Hand
Did you ever feel like you were living in the wrong time? That somehow you had missed learning how to simply accept the fact that we should do things the way they’ve always been done? Wondered who had decided how things should be done initially, and who benefits from keeping things the same? Why so many people automatically react to any proposed change with immediate resistance by using the same old refrain – “But we’ve always done it this way”?
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The question I had to address throughout my career as a social work educator was whether I, like most of my colleagues at the time, should teach using paradigms and topics from the past, tweaking models that haven’t worked to improve people’s lives because they failed to take socio-economic causes into account. The message was to “Just teach students how to fit into the social welfare agencies where they will work in the future using new evidence-based methods.” Hmm. I must have missed something. Despite these individual pathology treatment methods, I don’t see much “evidence” that the structural causes of problems – exploitation and social marginalization – have improved as a result of decades of interventions. More importantly, I ask if we can afford such hubris and indulgence when we are faced with global unrest about growing socio-economic inequality and the escalating effects of global climate change. The populations most affected are, of course, the very populations with whom social workers plan to work in the future. Is it realistic to believe that the future we face will be any better served by using past methods that haven’t worked?
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Why not try something new? Isn’t that what education is supposed to do, to evaluate the effectiveness of past efforts honestly in light of what is happening now and what we anticipate in the future? Some students may be persuaded to voice the need to fit in with the status quo, but they’re quick to understand why it’s important to learn for the future. Most faculty and administrators are harder to convince. It could just be the challenge that motivates me to innovate.
It does take courage to walk into a classroom as the “teacher” knowing you don’t have the answers, and knowing no one has your back if you make a fool of yourself. Sure, you may have years of diverse experiences, but as Lisbeth B. Schorr (1998) points out, reinventing the wheel is important. Each group and community that wants to make a difference needs to figure out for themselves how to work together toward shared goals, to own the goals and the process through negotiation, teamwork, sweat, and tears. My approach to teaching research to undergraduate students this summer was an experiential experiment to see if students could conduct their own research studies as teams.
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I am pleased to report that the experiment “worked.” Yesterday, as each team of students stood together before the class with their Power Point ready to share, the atmosphere in the room was decidedly different than that of the first day. (Only two hands out of eighteen went up that first day when I asked how many were excited to learn about research – more than I expected.) When they presented their impressive work during the last class, it was clear that they had become “teams,” they shared the work, disappointments, and successes. They learned that research is not easy to do regardless of your methodology. They learned through the most effective way there is — by actually doing something themselves and thinking critically about their experiences. They could clearly articulate what they would do differently the next time!
Through participant observation, one team learned about the effects of changing weather patterns on local food production by weekly visits to a farmer’s market and conversations with the local vendors. Through surveys, another team learned about local views of climate change and contrasted those with views nationwide. The single subject design team took an inventory of the food in their cabinets and refrigerators and noted where it was produced. They planned to calculate the “food miles” and CO2 production that resulted from their buying choices. Over the next month, they took two more inventories to see if their buying habits changed as a result of trying consciously to reduce their carbon footprint. The photo voice and interviewing teams both focused on exploring the effects of the 2012 deluge and flood that affected Duluth, MN and the surrounding areas. Their experiences countered the common assumption that qualitative research is easier than quantitative studies.
I am so grateful that I had an opportunity to work with this adventurous and creative group of students. It was a fitting way to end my career as an institutional educator. The only thing I regret is that other faculty and institutional decision makers missed the student presentations. Imagine – what could the world become if educational institutions were inspired to explore ways to change how things have always been done in order to honor the earth and all life?
Lisbeth B. Schorr (1998). Common purpose: Strengthening families and neighborhoods to rebuild America. New York City, NY: Anchor Books.
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