Social work students, teachers and supervisors, as well as service consumers have long reported frustration at students’ and graduates’ lack of proficiency at transposing classroom knowledge into practice competency (Austin, 1956; Beatman, 1956; Bishop, 1963; Crawley & Gerrand, 1981), and their difficulty in holistically assessing clients’ needs and opportunities for change (Gitterman & Germain, 2008; Middleman & Wood, 1990; Schwartz, 1969). The integration of multiple streams of knowledge in service to clients with complex life situations and challenges is seen as essential and a key area of difficulty for students entering social work (Saleeby, 2006). As clients and their environments become increasingly diverse and complex, it is critical that students be able to incorporate knowledge in order to see beyond the narrow boundaries of separate client cases or specific fields of practice.

Responding to this challenge, the Council on Social Work Education (2001) mandated the following nine areas for inclusion in the Professional Foundation at BSW and MSW levels of social work education: Social work values and ethics; diversity; social and economic justice; international populations-at-risk; human behavior and the social environment; social welfare policy and services; social work practice; research; and field practicum. In addition, the 2001 Policy Statement stipulated that all MSW programs develop one or more advanced concentrations that built on these foundation areas in order to bring students to a level of independent social work professional upon graduation.

In the most recent Policy Statement (CSWE, 2008), core competencies frame the curriculum as follows:

  • Identify as a professional social worker and conduct oneself accordingly;
  • Apply social work ethical principles to guide professional practice;
  • Apply critical thinking to inform and communicate professional judgments;
  • Engage diversity and difference in practice;
  • Advance human rights and social and economic justice;
  • Engage in research-informed practice and practice-informed research;
  • Apply knowledge of human behavior and the social environment;
  • Engage in policy practice to advance social and economic well-being and to deliver effective social work services;
  • Respond to contexts that shape practice;
  • Engage, assess, intervene, and evaluate with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.

The Council on Social Work Education does not require a particular array of discrete courses in the classroom and field, nor does it recommend a specific method to integrate these diverse elements. As is true for all of the BSW and MSW programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, the social work programs in the New York Metropolitan Area are challenged to help students integrate knowledge and skills, offered in a variety of courses, in both classroom and field settings over a period of one to four years, before graduates can be launched as competent social work practitioners. As yet, no program has found a single, validated and effective method by which to guarantee that curriculum integration takes place, although significant efforts have been made to bridge foundation areas and evaluate student learning in social work education (Cohen, 2002; Coulshed, 1988; Meyer, 1986; Starr and Haffey, 1987).

Curriculum infusion efforts such as the Real Cases Project have become increasingly important in bridging social work practice and social work education. An examination of the literature revealed that curriculum infusion approaches has been used in a number of practice areas, including the areas of domestic violence and law (Colarossi & Forgey, 2006, research (Hull & Mokuau, 1994; Ruffolo, 1998), policy practice (Miller, 1987), and cultural diversity (Carter, 1995; Doyle, 1997; Paulino, 1997).

Given that the population of older adults is rapidly increasing, academic institutions have recently sought to infuse gerontological knowledge and skills into social work education (Appleby & Botsford, 2006; Cummings, Cassie, Galambos & Wilson, 2006; Fredriksen-Goldsen, Hooyman & Bonifas, 2006; Lee, Collins, Mahoney, McInnis-Dittrich & Boucher, 2006). Generally, evaluation studies of these efforts have explored this impact utilizing single group samples; findings indicate an increased level of knowledge and clinical skills at the end of the semester (Fredriksen-Goldsen, et al., 2006; Lee, et al., 2006). For example, Cummings, Cassie, Galambos, & Wilson’s (2006) study examined strategies to infuse knowledge of gerontology, as well as gauged student’s attitudes and perceptions of the geriatric population and clients during the course of a semester, as compared with students who did not receive the specified infusion of content. At the end of the semester, students who were exposed to the infused courses demonstrated an increase in knowledge related to gerontology, and increased understanding in the relevance and importance of gerontological knowledge for social work practice.

As the CSWE National Center for Gerontological Social Work Education (CSWE, 2009; Hooyman, 2009), funded by the John A. Hartford Foundation, has demonstrated, it is possible to significantly strengthen an area of focus in social work education through a range of scholarly and curricular interventions. Targeting child welfare, the Real Cases Project has to potential to infuse child welfare content to reach a broad community of students and faculty.

Similar to the abovementioned gerontological infusion into social work courses, the Real Cases Project set a goal of educating all students about social work in the child welfare system. In order to achieve this goal, teaching guides demonstrate how real cases and learning strategies in child welfare can be infused into a wide range of social work courses. We think that the focus on child welfare case studies in the project will not detract from learning other fields. Rather, the cases will serve as examples for learning solid social work practice with all populations– not just in child welfare. In fact, that is our goal – to insure the use of child welfare examples as prevalent as examples in mental health, aging, and other fields.

The Real Cases Project is Copyright Protected: Materials are available for social work educational purposes without permission, but must include attribution to the Real Cases Project, including the Website address:, and Sponsors: New York City Social Work Education Consortium and New York City Administration for Children's Services. Website and hosting provided by Adelphi University School of Social Work.
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