During summer and fall 2014, I was fortunate to be a visiting scholar at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service (GSS). My visit was most fruitful. I’m very impressed with the MSW curriculum and innovative teaching approaches at GSS.
I audited four courses during my visit. These include Clinical Social Work Practice, Generalist Social Work Practice, Social Policy Analysis and Advocacy, and Domestic Violence And Child Abuse (Elective), covering most nearly all aspects of social work. Unlike most of China’s schools of social work which offer many different courses on theories, Fordham’s MSW curriculum emphasizes practice knowledge and skills to provide competency training to the large number of MSW students. Most professors have rich practical experiences and solid research records about social work.
The contents covered in these courses were diverse but all focused on the social reality, striving for social justice and aiming to solve social problems. This really inspired me to move beyond theoretical systems or even the specific working approach, but focus on the practicality and effectiveness in solving actual problems and injustices.
Part of this emphasis of practicality and effectiveness is from the MSW student population in classrooms. Very few of MSW students are directly from their undergraduate studies. Most apply to study in the MSW program after several years of work experience, and some are even over 40 or 50 years old. So their main motivation for studying is to solve lots of problems they are facing in internship agencies or at work.
I also learned firsthand how discussion-based teaching could be powerful and effective. The American MSW students really enjoyed class discussions since they were eager to get answers or clarifications from the discussions. Sometimes, even when a professor was focusing on illustrating something else, some students would raise their hands until the professor noticed and addressed their question.
Another important teaching technique used often by the professors was group teaching. There were different types of groups. The simplest type was that students were randomly broken up into groups with different distributed material for discussion. The most formal groups would last for the whole semester, in which members cooperated to finish a project or make some presentations. Some professors would even grade group performance that would be combined into each student’s final grade. The most exciting type of group was role play based on teams, which often made the class burst into laughter, or set them into deep thinking…
Now that I’m back to China, I cherish my visiting experience at Fordham even more.
I believe we can draw important lessons from the teaching approaches at Fordham GSS. First, we need to pay more attention to the practicality of the training of professional social workers and focus on cultivation of the students’ problem-solving ability. This is especially important as we launch our MSW program, which is different from the existing MA program with an academic focus. Second, we do not need complicated theories, but instead need to relate closely to actual social problems and figure out ways to solve them. Finally, we should adopt flexible and varied teaching methods to attract students’ attention and inspire their interest to study and practice.