Learning in Doing: Social Work Education in Northwest China
Mainland Chinese universities are responding to the government’s call to “build up a strong team of social workers to help in the development of the harmonious society,” by developing bachelor and master of social work degree programs. But this academic discipline is still young in China, and in the western regions of the country, where the need for social workers is especially acute, many social work educators are not actually trained in social work. “Social work is different from other social science disciplines,” Dr. Ku Hok-bun, an associate professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, finds. “It is a helping profession which emphasizes practice.”
In social work education, Dr. Ku said, “learning in doing” is the key element. That puts the practicum – supervised field training – at the heart of the curriculum. “My experience tells me that doing practicum is the only effective way for students to internalize social work values and learn practical skills,” he said. But when most of the social work teachers in western China lack practice experience, he asked, “How can they teach students practice and provide qualified practice supervision?” That gap has inspired Dr. Ku and his colleagues at PolyU to share their expertise with universities in northwestern China. The United Board is supporting Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s initiative in Shaanxi province.
In collaboration with Northwest University and Xi’an Jiaotong University, Dr. Ku and his colleagues have already facilitated two training workshops. “This project provides basic training for social work teachers, letting them know how to teach social work, do social work research, and construct social work practicum sites,” he said. This aligns with the United Board’s mission by emphasizing the link between education and service to communities in need. The focus on teachers is a wise investment, as newly trained faculty members can educate hundreds of students working toward careers in social service.
What are some priority needs? “In rural China, left-behind elderly and children are big issues as middle-aged and young people are leaving villages to work in the cities,” Dr. Ku pointed out. To help meet these needs, project teams of educators and nongovernmental organization staff are constructing practicum sites in two rural Shaanxi villages. Each team will receive ongoing consultancy services from PolyU, as they collect information and materials to develop a teaching and learning package, develop their practicum sites, and prepare for action research.
Making this a reality will require a vibrant community of educators and service providers. “The ultimate goal,” according to PolyU, “is to build a critical mass of social work scholars in rural development and sustainability,” who can train a new generation of social workers and, in turn, improve the lives of vulnerable populations in northwest China.
(First published in Horizons, June 2015)