Friday, 20 September 2019

Practice Education- The importance of students learning theory

Theory is one of those things right at the centre of social work practice. It is a given that during any social work degree programme, theory will become part and parcel of a students studies and practice from very early on in their career. 

Having said that however, I have learnt over recent months that the emphasis of theory is different for everyone, depending largely on the type of course and university establishment in which a student attends.

For me, I remember my very first lecture on my first day of university being:
Theories 1- Carl Rogers, person centred approach.

From then on, every week, I would engage in a Lecture on a different theory or approach to practice, followed by a seminar, working on case studies and integrating that theory in to practice. This went on for two solid years and was actually, something I really enjoyed. By the time I came to my ASYE, I felt I had a good foundation of theory knowledge and felt comfortable being able to apply it.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Working with a student last year however, I found the level of theory taught on their course very minimal, with more emphasis on the independent learning of the student and the PE (Practice Educator) to fill in the gaps.

For me, I argue that theory informs our practice which in turn, supports analysis, hypothesis and judgement. “Theory is a set of propositions or hypothesis that seek to explain phenomena” (Pierson and Thomas, 2002. p. 476) Theories are the very tool that help social workers understand and work towards a plan. “Theories are a particular way of making sense” (Howe, 2009, p. 2) Theory set’s a goal for intervention.

ASPIRE (Assessment Preparation Intervention Review Evaluation) (Mclean 2017) Highlights that social work practice is a process, and regardless of the individuals situation, a series of steps are required to ensure that all avenues are covered and managed.

The assessment stage of the process requires a high level of involvement of theories to inform the worker of what might be happening as well as the use of research, knowledge of the law. The preparation and intervention stages however, require the use of theories to intervene, putting in support and resources to reduce risk and improve the lives of society’s most vulnerable children.

I have heard multiple times that theory is a waste of time and social workers do not use it in everyday practice. I would argue that notion, as Social Workers gain experience everyday. There is always a new challenge or situation to face and therefore, I believe that theory becomes an integrated part of everyday practice because it is used all of the time. Practitioners may not verbalising their thinking in the same way in which students are taught too however, practitioners are thinking about it, analysing and drawing conclusions to formulate plans and here, I believe practice wisdom plays a huge role in everyday practice.

For me, there have been numerous occasions where I have not verbalised the theory and thought process I am using however, there are also countless times when I have. Usually with peers or in supervision to utilise other practitioners knowledge around me, share ideas, and create a plan that works in the child's best interests.

When supporting the student I worked with last year, I found that working through a written case study with them and using a spider diagram to put down ideas and make connections, really helped. Starting with identifying the risks, protective factors, and then working through theories to inform practice to make sense of what was happening for the family. This made the preparation and Intervention stage of the process easier to plan because we knew what we were working with.

The really great news, is there is room to review and evaluate and so if something is not working, alternative solutions and support can be put into place.

There are so many great resources out there to support students with their studies and understanding of theories, and there is no better time to put them in to practice then when on Placement.

If theory is something you struggle on, then i'd recommend trying: Siobhan Maclean, Social Work Theory Cards, 2017 (look on Amazon) For me, I found them easy to read, engaging and to the point. Perfect when in a hurry. One card a day (or week) will help students and practitioners enhance their knowledge and understanding of theories in practice.

Alternatively, Siobhan Maclean also provides a book : Theory and Practice A Straightforward Guide for social work students, 2015. This book offers a wide range of theories, covering their origins, use in practice, positives and negatives. I found it easy to read and a useful reference guide- especially for assignments and assessments.


Howe, D. (2009) A Brief introduction to social work theory. Hampshire, Palgrave McMillian

Mclean, S. (2017) Social Work Theory Cards. Second Edition. Kirwin Maclean Associates

Pierson, J and Thomas, M. (2002) Dictionary of social Work. Glasgow: Harper Collins Publishers


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