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From Expertise to Education

By Sue Coyle, MSW

It has been said that people do not truly understand a subject until they are able to effectively teach it. In social work there are many opportunities for teaching—as a supervisor or mentor, as a professor, and as a trainer in professional development opportunities. Each role has its own unique challenges, but when it comes to effectively communicating material, professional development stands apart.

Rather than having a prolonged opportunity to teach, professional development demands that educators communicate their subject matter in a short period of time—often only one or two hours. Further, the audience in an open training is likely to be more diverse in terms of experience and knowledge level than in, for example, a standard MSW-level classroom.

And while much of the responsibility for learning falls on the attendee, the expert cannot simply stand before an audience and read off bullet-pointed facts—a time-saving but ineffective technique. Doing so would be a disservice.

“It behooves the presenter to recognize that this is a service to the profession,” says Cassandra McKay-Jackson, PhD, LCSW, an associate professor and MSW program director at the Erikson Institute Graduate School in Child Development in Chicago. “This is a service to the profession to advance the profession,” she says.

Thus, a presenter in a professional development setting must utilize a variety of techniques and tools to maximize the audience’s desire to listen and learn. In short, the instructor must engage.

Engagement is the most crucial aspect of teaching or training and must be done on multiple levels. To be truly successful, trainers should engage with their audience prior to, during, and after a presentation.

At the University of Southern California (USC) Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, engagement with attendees begins before the topic and the expert are even identified.

“We try to reach out,” says J. Juan Macias, LCSW, associate director of alumni career and professional development, referring not only to students but alumni, faculty, staff, and the community as well. “We look to them to help guide our topics. We try to make sure it [the presentation] is relevant and timely.”

Guautam N. Yadama, PhD, dean of the Boston College School of Social Work, agrees, noting that it is the organizer’s responsibility to identify material that is applicable to the present day. “Understanding and responding quickly to needs in the real world and designing continuing education programming to meet those needs are continuous challenges,” he says. “Therefore, schools of social work must ensure they are aware of emerging priorities and needs in the social work community.

“Another challenge,” Yadama continues, “is to offer innovative programs that are pushing the boundaries of the profession instead of only offering routine and standard subjects.”

Once the topic and the presenter are identified, it falls to the expert educator to continue the engagement process. That means that the audience needs to remain at the forefront of the presenter’s mind as they craft their training. A key aspect in effectively achieving this is identifying who will be attending. This can occur right before the presentation with a show of hands or, as McKay-Jackson prefers, when the attendees register.

“You can take a survey of who is coming in, particularly if they are micro vs. macro, or those in the middle [of micro and macro] or wanting to make a transition,” she says. With that information, the instructor can determine how best to speak to the most common denominator and how to incorporate and challenge those with the greatest levels of experience and knowledge surrounding the subject matter.

During the presentation, the presenter should look to include real-life examples. “Provide context,” says Harmony Frederick, director of alumni relations at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “A lot of the time, you can pull best practices out of the sky, but without an actual story or case study, it lacks meaning.”

McKay-Jackson encourages presenters to request case studies from the audience ahead of time. This allows for the attendees to truly feel involved in the presentation, as they are able to apply theory to their own work.

Presenters may also want or need to rely on technology to maximize engagement. There are an increasing number of tools available to do so. However, it is important they be used properly. Improper use will only lessen engagement.

Take, for example, PowerPoint. “It’s a very easy tool for everyone,” says Raffaele Vitelli, director of professional and workforce development at NASW. “[But] a lot of people don’t use it properly. People put entire books on each slide. The purpose is not for the presenter to read off a slide.”

Should a presenter be leaning toward this method, an involved organizer can help fine-tune the PowerPoint. “Gently guide the presenter into having a PowerPoint as interesting as possible,” Vitelli suggests. He encourages having interactive components, such as polling questions, incorporated into the presentation.

Beyond PowerPoint, trainers can look to more unique options to illustrate their point and stimulate involvement. Such tools include live surveys, videos, and infographics. The incorporation of these tools allows for attendees to stay active throughout the presentation, increasing their learning and retention capabilities.

On a broader technological scale, professional development can be delivered through webinars, which allow attendees from all parts of the country to participate. However, opening up a presentation to such a potentially large grouping can negatively impact engagement. The intimacy of face-to-face interactions is lost through the screen. How a presenter combats this depends on the type of webinar—live or asynchronous.

When live streaming, “It’s important to continuously remind yourself to keep the online audience in mind,” Macias says. “That can be as simple as making eye contact with the camera throughout the presentation, speaking to the audience as much as you can.” He adds that for live streaming webinars where there is also an in-person audience, technical matters, such as microphones, are vital. “People in the audience tend to speak without the mike. You want to have a runner with the microphone to help ensure your online audience is not left out.

“And because online there’s going to tend to be a lower attention span, make sure that you have multiple speakers. We also will have a slide deck that we will be able to show throughout the presentation, so you’re not just looking at a talking head,” Macias says.

When webinars are prerecorded, engagement can be even more challenging. For McKay-Jackson, this is again where seeking input from registrants can be helpful. “Think forward about it,” she says. Being able to incorporate the experiences, challenges, and questions of users will help make them feel connected.

“They can see themselves there,” she says, “and see the things they’ve shared with their instructor are being discussed.”

Unique Formats
Outside of the standard in-person presentation and online offerings, engagement can be garnered by employing unique forms of professional development. Increasingly, organizers are finding that unusual settings and activities allow the audience to engage and learn at a high capacity.

At the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, films are frequently employed to stimulate conversation. Frederick notes that most often the films are documentaries, such as Paper Tigers. Once the film is shown, a panel discussion is held, allowing additional experts on the topic and the audience to process what they’ve seen.

“We’re very intentional about the films that we choose,” Frederick says. “The film screenings with panels are some of our most popular events. We can easily have 200 [attendees] or more.”

For more experiential professional development, presenters can turn to games and virtual reality when resources allow. Vitelli notes that a company in New York has developed a number of simulation trainings. “They are incredibly well done,” he says. “I sampled one that was basically an interview of a person who comes to a physician’s office complaining of pain in their back.” The trainee is meant to employ motivational interviewing to determine how best to proceed, and the training unfolds depending on the questions asked by the trainee.

However, experiential training is not confined to modern technology. “We offered a workshop on yoga and mindfulness strategies for children where participants learned therapeutic yoga postures as a part of the training,” says Patricia Tyler, director of continuing education at Boston College. They offered another, “Processing the Experience: Where Mental Health Theory Meets Adventure,” in which participants played games and enjoyed activities outside. “This type of experiential training enhances the learning experience for participants,” she says.

Being the Student
Of course, presenters can try every engagement technique available in a professional development class and still not successfully communicate their material. That is because the most important aspect of a training is the student.

For them to get what they want and need out of a course, students must enter into it with intentionality, Frederick, Macias, and McKay-Jackson agree.

“Be a good student,” Frederick says. “Look through [materials provided beforehand]. We tell you about the instructors, the learning objectives. Think it through and anticipate what you might want to learn from the course. What are your objectives? We offer ample opportunity for Q&A; what do you want to know?”

When students enter into professional development trainings with intentionality, they can take advantage of all the preparation the experts have put into their presentation. That combination allows for expertise to become education.

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.