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Field Work And Social Work Training — 1915

Field-Work And The Training Of The Social Worker

By: Edith Abbott, Associate Director, Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy

Note: This Is a “Section Report” Presented on May 19 at the Forty-Second Annual Session of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction: Baltimore, Maryland May 12-19, 1915

That one of our three section meetings should be given over to the subject of field work, is an implicit recognition of the fact that field work is regarded as one essential part of the training of the  social worker. But it is perhaps necessary as a preliminary to this discussion that some attempt at limitation and definition of the term field work should be made.Edith Abbot as a Young Woman [View Image]
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Edith Abbot as a Young Woman

Field work must be differentiated in the first place from so-called “field trips” and “field excursions” that are a common accompaniment of college courses in sociology, and are provided also in the schools of philanthropy. Such observational visits to social agencies should more properly be called inspection visits; they have no relation whatever to the field work that is so important a part of the training of the social worker. These trips are, of course, purely observational and informational, and from them the student learns nothing of the technique of doing. Field work, on the other hand, involves, not observation of social institutions, but actual participation in the practice of social work.

It is, moreover, significant that from the very beginning our schools of philanthropy have recognized the importance of field work as an essential element in training. Ten years ago, when the first school of philanthropy had completed its first full year of training, the director of the school said in his report regarding the course:

“In addition to the instruction of lectures the students were given other kinds of efficient preparation of equal value. Numerous visits were paid to institutions in the vicinity of New York City. The theory and practice of inspection were imparted and work in connection with the offices of the Charity Organization Society was faithfully performed by a majority of the students who were working for certificates. This was the best and most extensive opportunity for field-work. Its value was chiefly due to the hearty and cheerful co-operation of the district agents of the Charity Organization Society.

The Year Book of the Chicago School has, for the past five years, repeated each year the belief of its directors that training for social work can not be given merely by lectures or by the study of books, or even by observation of social institutions; that students can learn how to do only by doing under expert supervision; and that social work should no more be undertaken without preliminary training in the field than medical practice without clinical experience.

Field work, then, is and has been one of the distinguishing marks of the school of philanthropy. University and college classes may to some extent cover the subject-matter dealt with in our classroom. Inspection visits in some form have long been a part of the curriculum of many colleges; but in its arrangements for field work and in the attempt to correlate the work of the classroom with the work of the field, the contribution of the professional school of philanthropy has been unique.

It is a part of the vagueness that attaches to the term social work, a vagueness that our chairman has done so much to dispel in his admirable report-that the term field work may properly be used to describe several widely varying kinds of training. Unquestionably, however, the most important of these is the apprenticeship with case work agencies, and it is, of course, unnecessary for me to define the term case work agency before this conference. The great majority, probably ninety per cent., of all the students in our schools of philanthropy will, during some part of their future careers, serve agencies of this sort, and this kind of field work is, therefore, the most fundamental and should probably be required of all students. There are, however, other kinds of field work that are essential as training for more specialized work, such as (1) work with some governmental or quasi-governmental agency, e. g., an efficiency bureau or a bureau of sanitary inspection, for those who wish to enter more specifically civic work, using the term civic in a somewhat narrow sense and as distinguished from social work in the narrower sense; (2) participation in the recreational work of settlements or other neighborhood centers; (3) investigational work for those who wish the necessary technical training in methods of social inquiry.

These various kinds of field work involve very different problems. In the case of specialized civic work there are so few openings for young students that a discussion of the problems connected with their preparation for such work is hardly warranted here; the recreational classes present few difficulties because they do not involve any far-reaching consequences to the person involved, and they can usually be organized to meet the needs of students as those needs develop; so far as investigational field work is concerned, this can be, probably, best organized by the schools, themselves. If this can be done, and it is being done in the Chicago School, then this form of the student’s field work is, like the hospital of the medical school, under the entire control of the school; its problems, therefore, are less complicated, and a discussion of them is not needed now.

But practice work with case-work agencies, the participation of the student, under supervision, in the processes which the experienced social worker understands by the term case work, this is the fundamental and indispensable part of the student’s field work training. Its purpose is to give the student.such experience in the actual practice of case work as will enable him to undertake on his own responsibility, and with safety to the community, work of a similar character.

Assuming, then, that field work of this sort is an essential part of the social worker’s training, numerous questions of organization arise that present many difficulties, not only to the schools, but to our long-suffering friends, the representatives of the social agencies of our respective communities. How much of the student’s time is to be given to field work, and how can the practical problem of the distribution of the student’s time be arranged? To what agencies shall the time of students in training be entrusted. and how shall their work be supervised? How much time is to be given to any one agency? And what is the relation of field work to classroom work, lectures and conferences?

Field work presupposes good case work agencies near at b.and and willing to cooperate in allowing students to use these facilities for training. The school must first determine which agencies are doing the kind of work that would be valuable as training for students, and, second, must persuade the superintendents of these agencies to admit students to their offices for training purposes. The school must, on its part, offer only students who have the necessary qualifications in education, maturity, and judgment; it must insist that adequate time be allowed for field work; and it must hold its students to a rigorous standard of fidelity and efficiency in its performance.

For example, after consultation with social workers in Chicago, we have felt that the field work assignment must be, for all students, four or five half-days each week in order to make it possible for agencies to assign them to work that will have disciplinary value. On the other hand, the school nrust ask from the social agency that students be regarded as persons in training, and that work shall be assigned to them with this purpose in view.

While I wish to confine myself in this discussion to the general problem of field work, and not to the Chicago plan and the Chicago situation, I cannot, without seeming to show a shameless lack of appreciation, fail to record that since this arrangement as to the time of students has been made, the response of the social workers of Chicago, as a group, to the needs of the school has been generous beyond our hopes and, in many instances, self-sacrificing to a high degree. But when the schools are prepared to do their share by restricting the demand for field work privileges to mature university-trained students, and by requiring those students to give as a minimum four or five consecutive half-days each week to the work, it seems not too much to hope that, on the other hand, the agencies will do their part, that students will be cordially received and that they will be regarded as persons in training, and not as casual office assistants. It is here, of course, that the schools meet with many obstacles, with social workers who are prepared to tolerate but not to cooperate, to receive students on sufferance, but with an unwillingness to assume any responsibility in making the student’s period of field work a period of instruction. This point of view is easy to understand. For many social workers the day’s work is at once so exhausting and so absorbing that they have little time or thought to give to questions concerning the larger aspects of their profession and the importance of standardizing it and improving it; still less have they stopped to consider that not only the larger social field but even their own corners of it will be strengthened by organizing the methods of training the new recruits.

It comes about, therefore, that we meet too often the social worker who is unwilling to give any thought to the problems of the school and who, harassed by overwork, is impatient at the pressure of students who make additional demands on her time and attention without perhaps any immediate returns to her own immediate day’s work.

It is not difficult to understand that many agencies feel that they are doing a great deal when they admit students to the office on any terms, even as one social worker expressed it “to sweep the office,” and to them the limits of cooperation are passed when the school attempts to designate the kind of work to which the student is to be assigned. But I should like to illustrate the ideal which the schools and the social agencies must alike keep in mind by reading Mr. Flexner’s account of the service of the good medical clinics in his remarkable report on Medical Education. In the good medical clinics (we are told) “…each student gets by assignment a succession of cases, for a full report upon each of which he is responsible; he must take the history, conduct the physical examination, do the microscopical and other clinical laboratory work, propound a diagnosis, suggest the treatment.” That is, “…the student is a physician practising the technique, which it is to be hoped, may become his fixed professional habit; learning through experience, as indeed he will continue to learn, long after he has left school —a controlled systematized, criticised experience, however, not the blundering helpless ‘experience’ upon which the student hitherto relied for a slow and costly initiation into the art of medicine….”

How far we are in the schools of philanthropy, from being able to provide such experience for our future social workers, I do not need to say. Too often, as I have indicated, students are received by the agencies only on sufferance and the school is felt to be interfering with the office work when it asks that students be given experience in meeting and dealing with different types of problems or cases. The social worker is likely to feel the need of “making the student useful to the agency.” To such a worker the presence of the student in her office raises not the question, “How may this period of apprenticeship be most profitably made to serve the purpose of training?” but rather, “How may the time of this student be made most useful to the office?” The school is helpless at this point. Students can be removed, of course, from such agencies only if there are other agencies in the community with a more enlightened point of view.

We find here a further analogy with the medical school in its difficulty in securing proper hospital connections, and its struggles with the antiquated city hospitals where we are told ‘students’ were “eyed askance as interlopers.” The medical school has solved its difficulties by providing its own hospitals  over which it may have absolute control. Unfortunately the schools of philanthropy cannot so easily create and control good social agencies. The medical school and the hospital that provides the necessary clinical material are, in the words of Mr. Flexner, “interlocked.” The school of philanthropy and the social clinic or agency should likewise be interlocked, lut the hindrances are many. And it may be that the necessary cooperation of the agencies is not to be fully hoped for until with the lapse of time the school graduates who have faith in the importance and necessity of organized training gradually come to occupy the places of workers who have looked askance at the new methods of training.

On the other hand, the school can, on its part, do much to make the apprenticeship period profitable by properly correlating it with class-room work. No service should ever be asked from the cooperating agencies that can be rendered at the school. The school must, therefore, by keeping closely in touch with the field, be able to explain by conference with students the why and the wherefore of their work in the field. The busy district superintendent must be asked to give the student certain work to do, but she cannot always, or perhaps often, take time to explain why this particular step in the investigation was undertaken, or why this particular method of treatment was chosen. This can be done in some measure, at least, by the school through case conferences or lectures.

To quote again from Mr. Flexner’s report on Medical Training:

“Case work is discrete; students rarely possess sufficient generalizing power to redeem it from scrappiness at the bedside (or we may say in the district office) not much time is available for comprehensive or philosophical elucidation. The lecture-hugging as closely as may be tbhe social ground of experienced fact-may therefore from time to time be employed to summarize, amplify and systematize….”

It should not be overlooked, I think, that, if certain points in this discussion are accepted, then another question that has been raised particularly by the various colleges and universities that are preparing so-called “courses in social work” is already answered, that is, the possibility of giving training for social work in country colleges. This cannot be done if the necessity for field work is accepted. Training for social work can be given only in the centers where good social work is being done. As a necessary, if unsatisfactory, solution of this difficulty, it is proposed to substitute for the plan of having field work accompany classroom instruction, a compromise plan of having the entire time of the student given for one or more terms to field work in a city after the classroom work has been completed in the college or university. That this solution is unsatisfactory cannot be questioned. The correlation between field work and class work is impossible under such circumstances, and the value of both is greatly lessened. It is, in fact, very much like the attempt of a medical school to substitute an internship after graduation, for clinical training during the medical course; and Mr. Flexner’s report on Medical Training has shown how far from satisfactory such a substitution is.

In conclusion, it must be emphasized that the schools of philanthropy have no wish to excuse their own shortcomings by criticizing the over-worked social workers from whom they have asked so much and to whom they have given as yet so little in return. They are, on the contrary, closely identified. Few realize as do the staff instructors of the school that most of the social work in this country is done against heavy odds. The greatest handicap is, however, the need of trained workers. It is precisely this handicap that is our own and only excuse for being, and it is because of it that we venture to ask their cooperation-not in meeting their own immediate needs, not the needs of their own organizations, but in raising the standard of the social work that is being done and is going to be done in all sections of the country.

What I have tried to emphasize is rather that the problem of field work is peculiarly a joint problem that can be solved only by the closest possible cooperation between the social agencies and the school. The school must look to the social agencies for an insistence upon adequate field work as an essential part of the training of those whom they employ; more than that, they must ask that the social agencies regard the problem of field work as their own. To the social agencies then, we appeal for help in doing the best that can be done for today and tomorrow, but never forgetting that we must together plan and work for a larger and better doing in the future. I am sure that Mr. Flexner’s interesting analysis of our work, Mr. Frankfurter’s eloquent presentation of professional ideals, and our chairman’s careful arid critical statement of the progress we have made towards those ideals gave us all on Monday the glowing satisfaction of feeling that whatever their shortcomings may be in the present the schools of philanthropy and the profession of social work belong to the future if not to the past.

Source: Official proceedings of the annual meeting: 1915, p. 615: National Conference on Social Welfare. Collection: National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings









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