Social workers’ learning about empirical research methods: a problem of pedagogy or epistemology?
In common with other social science disciplines, the debate about what constitutes knowledge in social work is located in the wider divisions between positivist and constructivist perspectives about the nature of social reality . The former finds expression in the evidence-based practice movement which argues that social work interventions should be based on the best available evidence derived through empirical research. In contrast, constructivists challenge notions of the objectivity of knowledge, arguing that it is socially constructed.
Social workers draw upon knowledge derived from a range of perspectives to become effective practitioners. Mental health social workers, for example, who work alongside psychiatrists and psychologists whose practice is largely defined by evidence derived from randomised controlled trials about the effectiveness of interventions, need to be able to articulate their own evidence base to justify their role in mental health services . However, technical knowledge alone is insufficient for the complexity of social work practice, which frequently draws upon unconscious tacit knowledge which practitioners create themselves .
Advanced post-qualifying education in social work draws upon a range of epistemological traditions to assist the professional development of advanced practitioners. For example, it both supports practitioners to articulate their tacit knowledge and enables them to contribute to the profession’s evidence base through original empirical research . However, our experience on the MSc Mental Health Social Work with Children & Adults at the Institute of Psychiatry is that practitioners frequently find learning about empirical research methods to be the most challenging aspect of the programme.
Social workers are more likely to have backgrounds in the humanities rather than the sciences, making them less familiar with empirical research methods at the beginning of their social work training. When they are included in social work curricula, empirical research methods are taught alongside other methods, such as participatory research, reflecting the discipline’s diverse epistemological paradigms . It even appears that teaching empirical research methods to social work students has been a long-standing pedagogical challenge for many educators . The result has been that social workers gain only a limited understanding of empirical research methods through their qualifying education and early post-qualifying training, which inhibits their ability to read, appraise and implement research in their practice [7, 8].
Our previous research with experienced social workers suggests that the quality of their learning is influenced more by their prior knowledge of empirical research methods than by the teaching modality used to deliver it , reflecting Ausubel’s  theory of assimilative learning. Understanding students’ prior knowledge structures through concept mapping can assist educators to more effectively engage with their students’ learning . Concept mapping methodologies also permit students and educators to share knowledge structures and to make explicit any variances in their epistemological perspectives, which may act as barriers to both learning and teaching.
An effective empirical research methods module will equip students with the skills to appraise empirical research and integrate relevant findings into their social work practice. However, a higher order learning outcome would be that practitioners adopt empiricism as a practice paradigm. Popper  maintained that the mission of science is to disprove hypotheses. Translated to social work practice, this requires practitioners to be aware of evidence that runs counter to the theoretical assumptions on which they are basing their decisions and actions . A study of social workers found that they tended to use confirmatory search strategies when finding information about cases, but when they were asked to justify their use of information they adopted less biased strategies and were more open to contradictory information . This suggests that practitioners can use deductive as well as inductive methods of acquiring information to inform their practice. This higher order learning outcome could be achieved through a constructive alignment  of module learning and teaching with an assessment of students’ ability to use empirical methods in their day to day social work practice.
An understanding of how experienced practitioners learn (many of whom have been out of formal education for a number of years) may help to inform the pedagogy of empirical research methods modules. Further, integrating new knowledge with what practitioners bring to the classroom may help to avoid students adopting surface learning strategies, which can result in ‘non-learning’ . Notwithstanding the irony of using constructivist methods to inform the learning and teaching of empirical research methods, there are undoubtedly many pedagogical and epistemological challenges facing social work educators who aim to enhance the quality of learning of empirical research methods for experienced social workers.
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