An often repeated starting point is that political issues should be studied in active ways that challenge students to analyze, discuss and act independently (e.g. Mendes 2003). In this, for instance, debate exercises (Gregory and Holloway 2005) and concrete change projects (Rocha 2000, 56) have been used. Students can be familiarized with the political practice in many ways, also by helping them to meet legislators, lobby and participate in visits to the parliament house (Sundet and Kelly 2002, 53).
In many courses, students have carried out tasks and projects in which they have analyzed different themes from socio-political perspective (e.g. Mendes 2003; Rotabi, Weil and Gamble 2004; Morrow 2011). The politics that target some special issue have been compared between different countries (see Rotabi, Weil and Gamble 2004, 79–80). The course tasks can challenge students to construct hypothetical social policies (Weaver and Nackerud 2005, 112) or to work with a current policy problem in a workshop produced together with local practitioners (Zubrzycki and McArthur 2004). Wolfer and Gray (2007, 41–2) propose the use of the decision case method to teach social policy advocacy since discussing challenging cases helps clarify complex situations and formulate a problem and actions.
In political practice, communicative skills are of course very important. These skills have been practiced for instance by class writing assignments (e.g. commentaries, letters to the editor and testimonies) as well as by creating brochures
and fact sheets (Rocha 2000, 56). In the assignments described by Sundet and Kelly (2002, 54–5) students have prepared, among other things, policy briefs that are then disseminated to decision-makers. The writers emphasize the importance of that kind of practical exercise and its positive consequences since, according to them, 'nothing involves a student in policy practice in a more meaningful way than to be called to testify, provide additional information, brief staff, or help an advocacy group develop further information' (Sundet and Kelly 2002, 56). In another course, students have lobbied state legislators on issues important for social work and/or volunteered for the campaign of a candidate they have chosen (Manalo 2004, 58). Hamilton and Fauri (2001, 328) emphasize the skills related to giving testimonies:
For instance, a student may work with a client who encounters barriers in accessing appropriate treatment services. By helping the student to summarize and present the client´s experience, while protecting confidential information, the instructor can deliver an important lesson in advocating for public policies. Finally, testimony can be presented in class in mock 'hearings' and critiqued on content and presentation by the instructor and students. In this way, students may not only develop skills for writing and delivering testimony, but also the self-confidence necessary to appear before legislative body.
In social work education, field placements and other ways to put knowledge and skills into practice have a significant role. For instance Mendes (2003,
232) points out how important it would be to give students possibilities to use their social policy skills also in the real world. Hamilton and Fauri (2001, 330) challenge social work educators to work with 'professional associations, advocacy groups, and agencies' and so develop learning activities that engage students in the legislative and electoral processes. Weiss et al. (2006, 801–2) emphasize the importance of introducing social policy and policy practice into method courses and field placements in order to overcome the strict division between micro and macro practice as well as educators and field instructors.
In different courses, social work students have worked in many kinds of organizations by developing some special policies (Droppa 2007), they have conducted change projects (Rocha 2000, 56), they have analyzed the policies of their placement agencies (Gibbons and Gray 2005, 68) and they have been brought together for collective action on a policy advocacy related to a specific social problem (Heidemann et al. 2011). Field placements are not, however, described as being unproblematic. If political practice is not mainstream in social work practice, it may be difficult to find work places and supervisors – especially those that can be defined as belonging to the field of social work – that could support students in developing new skills (Fisher et al. 2002, 51).
It seems that by using active teaching methods it is possible to strengthen the interest of social work students in policy issues as well as their feeling of competency as policy practitioners (e.g. Rocha 2000; Saulnier 2000; Manalo
2004; Weaver and Nackerud 2005; Droppa 2007). Although many studies report positive results, the study by Weiss and Kaufman (2006) may be especially interesting since it highlights the problems that can be faced in politically oriented practice courses. They describe a fieldwork programme that emphasized social change in which the willingness of students to engage in social action as well as their feeling of competence in that engagement actually declined – even more than those students who took part in the ordinary fieldwork programme. As possible explanations Weiss and Kaufman (2006, 24–6) propose the lack of integration of the fieldwork and academic courses and the fact that in social change organizations the students were engaging in activities similar to those done by non-professional volunteers, not educated social workers. In addition, the rigid distinction between placements in social change organizations and social work agencies made at the school as well as the lack of social work supervisors in social change agencies may have strengthened the idea of change work as not real social work.
Table 5.2 Summary of the teaching methods of politically oriented social work
Analyzing and communication exercises
Visits and meetings
• analyzing exercises related to some special theme, office, etc.
• using the conflict
• geographical comparisons
• constructing hypothetical social policies
• decision case method
• debate exercises
• testifying assignments
• writing assignments
• projects carried out together with local practitioners, etc., on some special issue
• developing special policies in different organizations
• lobbying, testifying
• campaigning for a candidate
• policy briefs: disseminated to decision-makers
• writing commentaries, etc.
• visits and meetings with legislators and other decision-makers