Integrating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion into Teaching Social Work Philosophy Methods
During my 2016-2017 term as a KU Diversity Scholar, I transformed the Social Work 987 course (Teaching Social Work Philosophy and Methods) to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion as a central tenet of the doctoral training of future social work educators.
—Jody Brook (2021)
Background: Social Work 987: Teaching Social Work Philosophy and Methods is a 15-week course created to prepare doctoral students for the effective teaching of social work courses at all levels of higher education, and it includes an overview of BSW (Bachelor’s of Social Work) and MSW (Master’s of Social Work) curriculum creation and the professional accreditation process. Students are introduced to pedagogy and aspects of academic life associated with faculty appointments, including the balance of teaching, research, and service. The course covers current pedagogical practices for teaching excellence and highlights trends in pedagogical advancements. Traditionally, within SW 987 diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) was set apart as a separate topic, appearing in a few supplementary readings and relegated to a singular weekly unit. But social work educators—particularly instructors of SW 987—must prepare students to practice in such a way that they are able to engage DE&I in social work practice, and more specifically, advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice. By incorporating DE&I best practices into the social work philosophy and methods course, future faculty members will be better prepared to teach all students—especially underrepresented minority students.
Implementation: My course redesign incorporated equity, inclusion, diversity, and social justice principles and pedagogy throughout the course, including course content and classroom conduct. I incorporated advances in pedagogical knowledge into existing course materials to infuse social justice in every aspect of the course, rather than highlighting it as a discrete topic. I incorporated knowledge of active learning and hybrid techniques that can aid DE&I efforts throughout the course. A wide variety of teaching approaches were represented: lecture (interactive), group and individual exercises, reflective practices, guest speakers, student presentations, and practice teaching.
Student Work: Class participants were assigned to construct a syllabus for a future course they would teach using the Kim Case Syllabus Challenge Framework, a tool to assist instructors in examining the many ways in which a course can be DE&I responsive. In each session and across typical pedagogy topics race, social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion were at the forefront of our thinking, and students sought and used works by scholars from non-dominant groups. Class conversation intentionally focused on the content of the class while also viewing the content through a non-dominant lens. In the final assignment for the class, students developed a portfolio of learning for the course, including a statement of teaching philosophy, and they were encouraged to include materials in their portfolio that represented their positionality and identity development as it related to deconstructing privilege and the use of self in the classroom.
Reflections: The transformation of SW 987 was welcomed by the students, as they were eager to learn about teaching and to learn more about DE&I. By and large, social work students have a strong focus on social justice, and they welcome the opportunity to have their worldviews stretched by the educational process. In many ways I think I have learned just as much from the students as they have from me. The point of a PhD in social work is to be a steward of the profession, and teaching is a critical part of this. The mission of social work as a profession is centered on social justice. Thus, training students to be effective, inclusive instructors who consistently attend to DE&I aligns with the goals of the profession as a whole. As a profession, we need to better educate students, particularly those from underrepresented minority groups, because these groups are a part of the population that social workers serve. The more we can educate underrepresented minority students, the sooner they can be out working as social workers and serving as role models. This is a critical element of being responsive to the systems we are professionally bound to serve.
Social Work 987: Teaching Social Work Philosophy and Methods (.docx) is a 15-week course created to prepare doctoral students for the effective teaching of social work courses at all levels of higher education, and it includes an overview of BSW (Bachelor’s of Social Work) and MSW (Master’s of Social Work) curriculum creation and the professional accreditation process. Students are introduced to pedagogy and aspects of academic life associated with faculty appointments, including the balance of teaching, research, and service. The course covers current pedagogical practices for teaching excellence and highlights trends in pedagogical advancements.
This course is a required part of the doctoral program curriculum. SW 987 is designed around the assertion that doctoral students need practical skills, a theoretical base, experience, and confidence in order to improve their teaching performance and enhance their marketability. Students gain professionalization skills, including participating in a teaching apprenticeship experience during the class where they observe faculty in the classroom. Course content and practical application merge as students are exposed to on-the-job examples of teaching philosophy, style, content, and execution. In addition to teaching observations, students in their second year of doctoral studies begin development of their statement of teaching philosophy.
Required topics for this course are:
- Theory, philosophy, and concepts of adult education
- Learning styles: understanding, assessing, and supporting
- Course design: syllabus construction, pacing, assignments, evaluation, rubric development, lesson plans, flexibility, effective use of class and preparation time
- Ethics in teaching/learning
- Creating positive classroom dynamics
- Backwards design
- Critical elements of active learning and practical strategies for implementation
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in the classroom and the mentor/mentee relationship
- Diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice pedagogy, including anti-oppressive and indigenous teaching models
- Tools for evaluating effective teaching
Motivation for Change: The students in this course matriculate into higher education and faculty-based appointments, where as much as 40 percent of their appointments will be spent on teaching. Students in this course are future stewards of the profession. The field of social work is one with a core value base of social justice. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) are a critical part of fulfilling the mission of social justice within social work education. Social work has required accreditation standards around DE&I. Yet traditionally within SW 987, DE&I was set apart as a side note, or separate topic, appearing in a few supplementary readings and relegated to a singular weekly unit.
Most students enter the class with a complete lack of orientation to teaching as a part of academic life. While most students have a working knowledge of DE&I because of social work exposure, they may have no underlying knowledge of DE&I as part of the educational process. Social work educators—particularly instructors of SW 987—must prepare students to practice in such a way that they are able to engage DE&I in social work practice, and more specifically, advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice. By incorporating DE&I best practices into the social work philosophy and methods course, future faculty members will be better prepared to teach all students—especially underrepresented minority students.
My course redesign incorporated equity, inclusion, diversity, and social justice principles and pedagogy throughout the course, including course content and classroom conduct. The transformation therefore was organized around three main areas: process, content, and methods.
Course Learning Objectives
- To understand and articulate philosophies and theories of adult education.
- To develop teaching strategies and skills based on learning outcomes and styles of learning, including syllabus design, use of technology, assignments, grading and evaluation of students, lectures, and small group discussions, activities, and strategies for learning enhancement.
- To develop a teaching philosophy and portfolio.
- To learn options for effectively managing classroom dynamics.
- To incorporate equity, inclusion, diversity, and social justice principles and pedagogy into the content, context, and conduct of class.
- To identify and resolve ethical issues in teaching/learning, including boundary issues/plagiarism, etc.
- To utilize supervision, mentoring, student feedback, and self-reflection to improve one’s own performance.
- To develop an awareness of one’s own strengths and preferred teaching style, and how to adapt that style to student learning styles.
- To learn various methods of evaluating and providing evidence of effective teaching.
- To understand the basic context of social work education, including CSWE accreditation standards.
Process: SW 987 (.docx) is designed to focus on methods and praxis of pedagogy, the university setting at large, and the structure of social work education as a profession. The course reviews these concepts by addressing the goals of higher education for society then transitions to focusing on goals of KU as a university. Very quickly, the course participants narrow the focus to the goals of the School of Social Welfare and the accrediting body of social work education. Mapping these structures enabled us to deconstruct our curriculum and look at the teaching methods that are necessary to execute it. We looked at how individual classes function within those curricular activities and what core competencies students are expected to achieve. To that end, we identified strategies to align teaching methods and practices so that we can address core competencies at all levels. While doing this, class participants also examined how certain types of knowledge have gained importance within the profession of social work, the role of race and justice in the privileging of knowledge, the role of gender in valuing knowledge development, and the politics that can surround knowledge production.
Content: To adapt the existing SW 987 course to better align with and teach DE&I and social justice values, I incorporated advances in pedagogical knowledge into existing course materials to infuse social justice into every aspect of the course, rather than highlighting it as a discrete topic. I provided information regarding race, social justice, equity, and inclusion (RSJEI) in course content in multiple formats, both as distinct topics and also infused within other course content. For example, bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994) was adopted as a course textbook, and reflections from the book were used in every class session. Students and the instructor were challenged by hooks’s writing each week to discuss how social work content could be moved from simple memorization and regurgitation to deeper learning—and, specifically, what we could do as teachers to help the students get there. Other works by scholars of color were used weekly in class assigned reading.
When class participants were assigned to construct a syllabus for the course, they utilized the Kim Case Syllabus Challenge Framework, which is a tool to assist instructors in examining the many ways in which a course can be DE&I responsive. In each session and across typical pedagogy topics race, social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion were at the forefront of our thinking, and students sought and used works by non-dominant scholars. Class conversation intentionally focused on the content of the class while also viewing the content through a non-dominant lens.
In the final assignment for the class, students developed a portfolio of learning for the course, and they were encouraged to include materials in their portfolio that represented their positionality and identity development as it related to deconstructing privilege and the use of self in the classroom.
Method: A specific focus on the impact of RSJEI in both the learning and teaching processes offered students the opportunity to acquire knowledge of multiple perspectives. I incorporated knowledge of active learning and hybrid techniques that can aid DE&I efforts throughout the course. A wide variety of teaching approaches were represented: lecture (interactive), group and individual exercises, reflective practices, guest speakers, student presentations, and practice teaching. The course was highly reliant on an interactive format, including student discussion, presentation, and exchange. Time was allocated every class session for student generated topics, such as concerns about teaching, dilemmas, idea generation, professional development, and problem solving. This time enabled student voices to be heard, gave me the opportunity to better understand my students’ needs, and modeled a democratic classroom where equitable representation and diverse contributions mattered and enriched learning.
The biggest change I implemented to my teaching method was incorporating high-impact activities, which occurred as a part of every class. The class size was small (9 students), so working together in small groups and having robust discussion was the norm. All class materials were provided ahead of time, and students were expected to have prepared in advance and to participate fully, including leading class discussions. No traditional lecturing was used, and every class was highly interactive. Student written work was peer-reviewed, and students presented to one another in the course. As one student wrote of the course structure:
“I really liked the structure of the class where the instructor had the students lead certain classes. The discussions were rich and relevant…at first, leading an almost three-hour class felt overwhelming, but I learned to do it and now I am as ready as I can be.”
We reviewed the ethical commitment of social work to pedagogical practices that are inclusive of learning differences. Classroom activities included an analysis of how structural oppression impacts the educational process and what the impact of this oppression might be on the individual learner. Students practiced creating clear and explicit syllabi, rubrics, and scaffolded assignments to incorporate best DE&I practices. Our work was grounded on the philosophy that you have to meet people where they are—and that not everybody is at the same place. Because everybody does not have the same background or opportunities, pedagogically, course design really matters. Equitable teaching practices demand clear and concise expectations, and by practicing creating syllabi and rubrics, students gained knowledge of the many ways that traditional curricula can fail students by neglecting the wide range of abilities and experience housed in any one classroom.
Students entered SW987 with varying levels of teaching experience, and a few were concurrently teaching. All students participated in an apprentice experience as a part of this course and were paired with a faculty member. This provided the opportunity for us to have a “living laboratory” from which we could create syllabi, rubrics, and assignments. We utilized some master syllabi from the School of Social Welfare for students with no current teaching assignments, and created mock syllabi sections on various class policies, grading practices, and assignment design and structure.
Another high-impact activity I incorporated into the course highlighted issues associated with RSJEI education, such as managing difficult conversations and addressing personal and professional triggers during education. The students and instructor created various classroom scenarios that could potentially become difficult conversations—such as those surrounding current issues including immigration policies and practices, racism, and mass incarceration—and then practiced how to navigate these issues through role-playing narrative and skill-based strategies. The instructor also used current events in the academic media as scenarios and asked students to brainstorm how to handle these topics if (when) they should arise in the classroom.
Students were also encouraged to include DE&I informed pedagogy in the development of their teaching philosophy and statement. The assignment was a practical application of professionalization skills that prepared students for the job market. Students gained practice presenting their teaching and learning using the language around DE&I. Each teaching statement was peer reviewed, ensuring each assignment was thoroughly vetted and carefully crafted. This assignment modeled the fact that DE&I pedagogy must be thoughtful and intentional in order to be successful.
The three major elements of student work for this course included responding to iterative reflection questions, writing teaching philosophies, and attending semester-long apprenticeships in outside classrooms. As one student enthusiastically noted:
“I enjoyed many components of this course—particularly the practicality—all of the assignments were useful for our future academic careers and helped guide and prepare us. Jody keeps it real and I really appreciate this about her teaching—again—it helps prepare us for the realities of academia.”
Measuring Student Progress through Iterative Reflection Questions
To measure student knowledge and skill attainment, I developed an instrument to assess changes before and after class participation. In keeping with the principle of backward design, I organized the beginning of the course with the end in mind and asked students to think deeply about the process of learning. I did this through providing in-class time for them to answer the following questions:
- What do you hope to learn in this course?
- Are there specific skills that you hope to realize as a part of taking SW 987?
- Is there a specific “product” that you need from this class that will help you graduate, get your first job, or advance your career?
- Please reflect on your own learning over the years—what qualities, conditions, and situations have helped you in your learning?
- In what situations have you had challenges learning? Do you know why?
- What role has the social work profession played in your learning
- Take a moment and reflect on the teachers you have had. What were the qualities and characteristics they displayed?
- Have you observed teachers making mistakes? If so, what were they and how did they address them?
- How do you feel about being in the role of a teacher?
- Can you assess your potential strengths and challenges?
Students completed these deep reflection exercises at the beginning and the end of the course, allowing me to assess growth from baseline on key areas of course content and to compare their positions. These reflection exercises were questions that prompted students to identify what they wanted to learn in terms of knowledge, attitude, and skills. Then, at multiple points in the course, I asked students to review these reflections and assess where they were in their learning, and to refine their goals as these may have changed with new knowledge. For example, as a mid-semester check-in, students assessed their own growth on select topics associated with DE&I instruction, with the purpose of identifying areas for additional instructional support during the remainder of the semester.
At the beginning of the course, students demonstrated they could articulate the importance of the relationship between instructor and student. However, as they progressed through their practicum, their responses to this ten-question instrument demonstrated how this knowledge deepened and gained more significance over the course of the semester. Students felt they were developing relationships in the classroom that had positive qualities that were conducive to their intellectual growth and development. They grew to understand that—along with course context—it was the very relationship between students and teachers that became the vehicle for growth. Students grew to understand and articulate the importance of connecting small educational outcomes and goals to larger ones, and to be explicit and transparent about that effort.
Overall, students articulated huge gains in their knowledge and skills in teaching when I had them assess their strengths and challenges towards the end of the semester. I used the ten-question instrument (paying particular attention to questions four through ten) multiple times throughout the semester and had students compile and bring their previous surveys to reflect on how their answers changed over time.
Student Teaching Philosophies
A main assignment in the class is for students to create their statement of teaching philosophy. In many ways, the reflection questions and teaching statements are interconnected. Overall, the principle that I worked to instill in my students through both assignments is the cultivation of critical reflection. Critical reflection is an integral part of social work theory and practice. Asking students to engage in critical reflection of their own work is an essential aspect of their training and future success as leaders in the field. The iterative nature of both the reflection questions and teaching philosophies are best understood as skills that one develops over time rather than during any one discrete event. Students will need to practice critical reflection throughout their careers and have the responsibility to nurture that skill in their future classrooms. Simply put, there is no end point. But by making the teaching philosophy assignment something that students completed and turned in, I coincidently treated it as an endpoint rather than something that should be engaged with continuously as regular reflection on teaching practice. Social work educators regularly meet challenges and respond to an ever-changing classroom. The teaching statement must be considered a living document that changes over time to reflect how students are growing as future members of the academy.
While students did a satisfactory job crafting their teaching statements, I want them to begin the assignment earlier in the semester so they have time to reflect on and revise their teaching philosophy as they learn and grow. In the current SW 987, this activity was due near the end of the semester. Yet the nature of a teaching statement is that it is an iterative process. A teaching statement is best created over time and strengthened through experiences. Thus, when I teach this course again, I plan to have students start this project the second week of class. Drafts of the teaching philosophy should be worked on (peer-review and discussion) in class for several sessions around weeks 8 and 12, then finalized at the end of the course.
Students grew immensely over the course of the semester through gaining experience in outside classrooms and learning from the diverse teaching practices they encountered there. Students would bring stories and questions about their experiences to class, and we held many fruitful conversations learning from and discussing their challenges and triumphs. Students wrote:
“The apprenticeship experience was also a great way to get practical experience and increase confidence/competence with pedagogical principles. I am very thankful I had the opportunity to take this course.”
“The most helpful elements of the course were the apprenticeship opportunity (and the group debriefing about it) and the ability to think and develop my teaching statement. These experiences, and what they made me think through to get to the end of them, will carry me through my first years of teaching.”
As the second quotation indicates, our debriefings were always extremely productive, even if—and maybe especially when—students had questions or concerns. At our mid-semester check in, for example, in response to question eight of the course survey, students admitted they observed teachers making mistakes during their apprenticeships. Together as a class, we would discuss these mistakes, identify the relevant issues, and look at them from multiple perspectives to better understand how to address them in the future.
Many of these mistakes involved issues surrounding DE&I. Instructors would shut down conversations in the classroom regarding sensitive topics because they lacked the skills or knowledge to handle conflict or uncomfortable moments. The instructors students observed often did not feel prepared to have these conversations and did not exhibit flexibility in handling them. As a result of discussing these tense or disappointing moments, students in my course gained confidence in how they would handle similar situations in the future. We often role-played situations where I would act as an irritating or disruptive student, or a student asking the teacher for special favors, for example. Role-play allowed the students to think through these situations and experiment with solutions in a safe space. Students indicated that this experimental role-play helped prepare them for future classroom challenges and eased their fears (real or imagined) of failure. Students developed strategies, such as bringing index cards to every class that listed core concepts to help anchor conversation should classes get off track.
While these apprenticeships were overall successful and appreciated greatly by the students, I would make changes to the process in the future. Originally, the apprentice process needed to happen by the end of the semester so that the student could write up their experience of the process by the end of the semester. This end date should be moved up, and students should be required to communicate with the instructor to ensure that the student’s needs are met in the apprenticeship process. Experience has shown that certain professors are much more engaged than others, and if the assignment is not working as robustly as it should (i.e., the student is not having a good experience), then this needs to be discovered earlier rather than later.
Students welcomed the transformation of SW 987, as they were eager to learn about teaching and to learn more about DE&I. By and large, social work students have a strong focus on social justice and related issues, and they welcome the opportunity to have their worldviews stretched by the educational process. In many ways I think I have learned just as much from the students as they have from me. Facilitating dialog through providing structured readings around DE&I and pedagogy also allowed them a forum to learn from one another. On many days it was my job to simply guide and listen to them.
I would also add that, as a faculty member, I am at times very removed or insulated from the marginalization that many populations experience. The students in this class reminded me of these struggles and did not hesitate to tell me when they thought I needed to get closer to reality by going to volunteer at a food pantry.
It was also important to me in the execution of this class to try to create a reinforcing process with the students by teaching them to teach and simultaneously serving as a role model, because I was executing the qualities and characteristics of good teaching while I was teaching them. I tried to do this by creating clear and transparent assignments with criteria explicitly stated, having a thorough and comprehensive syllabus; sharing power in the classroom by acknowledging their wisdom and the concept of fluid expertise; employing student-centered active learning strategies; maintaining appropriate professional boundaries while being accessible as a form of support; and communicating expectations for their performance every step of the way.
The point of a PhD in social work is to be a steward of the profession, and teaching is a critical part of this. T¬he mission of social work as a profession is centered on social justice. Thus, training students to be effective, inclusive instructors who consistently attend to DE&I aligns with the goals of the profession as a whole. As a profession, we need to better educate students, particularly those from underrepresented minority groups, because these groups are a part of the population that social workers serve. The more we can educate underrepresented minority students, the sooner they can be out working as social workers and serving as role models. This is a critical element of being responsive to the systems we are professionally bound to serve.
In reflecting back on the semester, I find one of the most important aspects of this effort of inclusion is my desire to acclimate students to the academy and create an open forum where students could ask questions about its often confusing or opaque systems, administrative details, or professional protocols. So often we take these understandings for granted, and we do not recognize the importance of clarity. The open nature of our classroom discussions allowed students to ask, for example: What does 40/40/20 mean? What is the difference between an R1 and a teaching college? Some of these questions were expected because about half of my students were first-generation scholars and not as oriented to higher education. But it is important to note that some of my students were fully oriented to the academy—they had previous degrees or parents with PhDs—yet they still did not know the language of higher education. When I was not sure of answers to questions, I brought in guest speakers with more knowledge on the subject, and I learned right alongside the students.
As one of the SW 987 students wrote about participation in the course:
“Dr. Brook's course, Teaching Social Work Philosophy and Methods, laid the foundation for students to have a successful transition to being a collegiate professor. The dynamic course was grounded in social work theory, philosophy, and research, and allowed students to safely and candidly discuss sensitive topics and student challenges as they relate to being an instructor. Dr. Brook incorporated a variety of teaching methods (e.g., group and individual exercises, lecture, reflective practice, peer-to-peer discussion, student presentation, and hands-on, in-classroom teaching experience) that were fun, consistently engaging, thought-provoking, and encouraging. In Dr. Brook's pedagogy course, I learned skills and strategies to enhance student learning outcomes and classroom management; how to incorporate diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice principles into my course material; and how to resolve potential ethical issues in student academic misconduct. Most importantly, I developed confidence in my teaching and my ability to create a classroom environment where my future students could feel safe to respectfully voice their opinions, have discussion with their peers, and obtain personal growth.”
In the future, I would like to continue to see micro-writing assignments used in SPAN 424 and throughout our curriculum.
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