March/April 2015 Issue
Evolving Education: Bridging Generation Gaps in Practicum Supervision
As Stephen Cummings, ACSW, LISW, director of distance education and field coordinator for the University of Iowa School of Social Work, confronted new challenges with students he supervised in field placement, he became increasingly interested in generational differences and communication between instructors and traditional age social work students who fall into the generation termed "Millennials." He distilled this interest into a central question: As seasoned field instructors get older, and students don't, how can supervision be structured to reduce misunderstandings and enable communication in ways that maximize learning in the field experience, which is the signature of social work education?
In the workplace, Millennials tend to respond well to structured environments that provide ample support and direction, as well as nurturance and validation. Their need for nurturance in the phase of early adulthood may stand in contrast to the experience of supervisors who were raised in the cohorts of Generation X and the Baby Boomers, both of which were accustomed to less support than the Millennials tend to expect. In applying this difference in expectations to field instruction, Cummings reflects, "I've become especially conscious of not presuming I'm working with a mirror of myself as a master's level student. My practicum experience—which I don't think was especially uncommon—was a 'make or break' experience in which we were immersed in practice and expected to rise to a new level of competence and professionalism. Today's students generally don't respond well to that approach."
Cummings concluded that the answer to improving the supervisory experience for students of the Millennial generation was to intentionally structure a more rigorous holding environment. He believes the Council on Social Work Education contract for field instruction provides the ideal model to edify such a structure, with clear linkage between the curriculum and the field. Additionally, recent work in the areas of attachment theory and developmental processes offers further theoretical background.
Attachment Theory and Developmental Processes
The core ideas of attachment theory, developed from the work of Bowlby and Aisworth, are that humans have lifelong, biologically based needs for security and attachment to a primary caregiver, and that early attachment patterns influence relational styles throughout life as children internalize working models. The concept of a "secure base," which has been applied to the relationship with the supervisor, describes the foundation that attachment figure provides, from which the student can explore the surrounding environment, and return to the security of the attachment figure.
Based on the highly validated Adult Attachment Interview, adult attachments can be characterized as autonomous, dismissing, preoccupied, or disorganized/unresolved. Bennett and Deal believe knowledge of attachment types in both the supervisor and the students is relevant to understanding "innate attachment capacities; behavioral indicators of secure versus insecure attachment styles; the maintenance of the supervisory working alliance; and how to handle separation and loss during termination from clients, the supervisor, and the field practicum."
Numerous theorists describe the field learning process as moving through distinct phases. While these models differ in emphasis, they address affective, behavioral, and cognitive change (Bennett & Deal, p.105-106). Those stages are summarized as follows:
1. The student begins with high anxiety and a simplistic understanding of the helping process. Students tend toward concrete interventions, with high dependence on the supervisor, who is often viewed as "all knowing."
2. The student searches for the "magic words" of treatment interventions and tends to imitate the supervisor. In this stage, the student's ability to comprehend complex circumstances and the treatment process is underdeveloped; this often leads students to act prematurely.
3. In the third stage, the student desires more knowledge and frequently develops disillusionment and conflicted feelings toward the supervisor, especially related to the level of independence vs. dependence on the supervisor.
4. As the student develops internal resources, more self-confidence and a better understanding of the treatment process, the student often becomes more self-revealing and able to enter into a collaborative relationship with the supervisor.
Investing in Field Instructors
In an effort to understand commitment to student supervision among field instructors, researchers tested the Investment Model (which consists of six components related to supervision: rewards, costs, degree of investment in the job, quality of alternative jobs, satisfaction of the job, and commitment to the job). Peleg-Oren, Macgowan & Even-Zahav (2007) found that "the greater the rewards, the greater the field instructors' commitment, investment, and satisfaction."
This finding is especially relevant to retaining seasoned field instructors. The authors conclude that reward structures for field instructors that meet various needs at different stages of their careers is important, and is likely to lead to more effective field supervision.
Nancy Chertok, AM, director of field education at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA) addresses the demands of field instruction at an early stage of the vetting process when working with new agencies and instructors. "Even with all the strengths I believe today's students bring, their enthusiasm can be demanding, and it is important that field instructors are prepared to provide the structure that enables our students to thrive." SSA also utilizes field consultants, who are staff liaisons between the agency, field instructors, and students. Often, Chertok says, the liaisons become involved in coaching students to advocate for their needs. Students often have ideas about their educational goals and seek appropriate ways to discuss their questions and ideas with their direct field supervisors.
Chertok sees working with field instructors as a process of developing social work educators. SSA provides orientation and training programs, as well as professional development offerings that are open only to active field instructors. These programs, hosted by SSA faculty and field staff, are tailored to timely, relevant issues (often generated from listening to the needs of field instructors) and offer mentoring, networking, and a connection to the university that the instructors find valuable. Chertok cites high retention among field instructors and attributes it to a combination of both the rewards of working with students and the effects of the relationships with other social workers and faculty whose commitment to the field creates mutually beneficial dynamics.
In addition to teaching the technology of any learning platforms utilized for academics, both Cummings and Chertok note the expanded role their institutions have taken in education on confidentiality and ethics with regard to technology and social media.
Ultimately, the challenges of educating social work students in the field boils down to concepts to which social workers of all generations are accustomed: engagement, building on strengths, and working toward collaborative goals.
— Liza Greville, MA, LCSW, is in full-time clinical practice and a contributor to Social Work Today.
Peleg-Oren, N., Macgowan, M., & Even-Zahav, R. (2007). Field instructors' commitment to student supervision: Testing the investment model. Social Work Education, 26(5), 684-696.Raines, C., & Arnsparger, A. (2010). Millennials at work. Retrieved from http://www.generationsatwork.com/articles_millennials_at_work.php