Social work pedagogy has long recognized the educational value of experiential learning for student practice development (CSWE, 2008; Shulman, 2005; Wayne, Bogo & Raskin, 2010). A rich experiential learning literature focusses particularly on domestic and international field education (Campbell, 1999; Horwath & Watson, 2010; Tiessen & Huish, 2014), direct practice courses (West & Watson, 2010; Cabiati & Folgheraiter, 2019), research courses (Bonnycastle & Bonnycastle, 2015; Venema, Ravenhorst Meerman & Hossink, 2015) and program evaluation projects (Knee, 2002; Holbrook & Chen, 2016). While there is a call for social work students to better understand policy processes as an integral component of social justice-oriented social work practice (Weiss, Gal & Katan, 2005; Anderson & Harris, 2005), there is a gap in the literature on using experiential learning in social work policy classes.
This study asked “How feasible and effective is experiential learning through electoral candidates’ debates in large policy classes? How can it build BSW and MSW students’ understanding of social justice and its relevance to the policy field?”.
The authors organised in-class candidates’ debates during both the 2019 federal (Canada) and 2018 municipal (Ontario) elections. These events were attended by first-year BSW students and foundation year MSW students in their respective ‘Introduction to Social Welfare’ classes. Qualitative data consisted of instructor, teaching assistant and student reflective observations through concept sampling. Data were analysed using a constructivist grounded theory approach to detail the experiences of organising, moderating and attending the debates and respond to the research question.
Instructor reflections revealed challenges in organising the debates. The social justice framework generated multiple ethical questions, for example in relation to candidate invitations and question selection. Moderating the debates with the goal of creating an effective learning environment produced additional complexities, particularly as a result of including candidates representing extreme ideological views.
Data on effectiveness suggested that the debate processes and content honed students’ skills of critical analysis. Students were able to link social policy and social justice course content to contemporary national and municipal debates and ideological discourse. Subsequent reflection on connections to course theory further fostered crucial professional understanding and political literacy. Limitations of the debate include the risk of centering electoral politics as primary to encouraging political engagement, eclipsing other forms of engagement such as direct action (Beaumont, Colby & Ehrlich, 2006; Alfred, Pitawanakwat & Price, 2007).
Conclusions and Implications:
The findings challenge perceptions of experiential learning that class structure and size impede experiential learning opportunities (Wurdinger & Allison, 2017), and contribute to a broader understanding of opportunities and constraints in experiential learning in social work education. Candidates’ debates can be an effective and efficient way of encouraging large numbers of students to consider the connections between social justice course content and social policy, social work practice, and political engagement.