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Developing people in a network of relational practices: reflections on the role of social work education

 Guido Cuyvers



The mission of social work education in Flanders is threefold: to deliver education, to conduct research and to provide services to society. In our opinion social work education has a critical and liberating function towards society and it must stimulate and develop a critical attitude amongst students. In this article we first focus on the educational dimension of social work education as we practice this in our institute. Next we describe how we realize our objectives as a social work education institute in relation to the professional field. The central concept of our vision is social work as a relational practice.




Relational practice – professional development – partnerships – emancipation


 The mission of social work education in Flanders is threefold: to deliver education, to conduct research and to provide services to society. At the same time the position of professional social work education is under discussion. In our opinion social work education has a critical and liberating function towards society and it must stimulate and develop a critical attitude amongst students. In this article we first focus on the educational dimension of social work education. Next we discuss the role of social work education in relation to the professional field. Then we discuss the place of research and finally we comment on the role of social work education in society.

We write this article from a particular set of intersecting contexts in Flanders: institutional, legal, cultural, etc. Social work education for instance is organized in university colleges, which deliver professional bachelors degree programs. Professional bachelors can continue their study careers by entering a university for two more years to become an academic master. Typical of professional education is its relation with professional practice. Students have to do work placements in the second and the third year of their studies. Another element is that institutions for social work education are also delivering services to society and are involved in scientific research. To realize the threefold mission institutes of social work education have to develop and maintain relational practices with their stakeholders: work field organizations, local governments, groups of clients, etc.

We acknowledge that there may be different categories of context in the area of social work education across Europe, ranging from social work which is well embedded in higher education and with strong traditions of research and relations with the field, to contexts in which social work education is at the very early stages of development, in which indigenous models of practice and education are yet to emerge, and in which its institutional base is uncertain. In between these extremes there may be a range of contexts in which the institutional base may exist but in which relations with higher education and the ‘field’ remain less clear or developed.

In this article it is not our intention to present a general theoretical framework, we just want to describe an approach that is promising for social work in Flanders. Our concept of the relational practices is embedded in a more general approach of appreciative inquiry ( Cooperrider,2000, Cooperrider & Whitley, 2005) which gets more and more involved in social work education in Flanders. We apply this approach in our institute since five years as an organizational tool for the realization of our mission and policy, but also in the relationships with our stakeholders: students, employees and professional field as well in education, as research and social service (Cuyvers, 2010).

1 Training people to become competent professionals

The first task of professional higher education in general and of social work education in particular, is to train students to become competent professionals who are immediately employable in the professional field. That is a complex task, of which we will scrutinize three dimensions. First we will analyze the ultimate goal of a professional education, next we explain the importance of permanent professional development and finally we describe how education should be realized by integrating theory and practice.

But first it is necessary to make clear what kind of professionals we want to deliver. We see them as novice social workers who are able to co-operate on realizing social work as defined in the international definition of social work (IFSW, 2001). “The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilizing theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.”

1.1   From layman to professional

Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) developed an influential five stage model of expertise development. In the first three stages students are guided through rules they have learned. In the next stages their own experiences become important. In Figure 1 we summarize the model.

The model described is an ideal representation of a developmental process. The development we described in this model does not always proceed in a linear way and hardly takes account of nuances amongst people and between people. Not all social workers reach master or expert level. Furthermore, people are not equally well developed in all dimensions of their professional lives. Someone can for instance be an expert in holding an assistive conversation and being an advanced starter in organizing the office at the same time. Someone else can be brilliant at writing texts but will never be good at using information technology. The authors do not explain how students develop from one stage to the next.

Table  1 Model of professional development (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986).


Stage 1


Follow the rules they learned without taking (or being able to take) the context into account

Stage 2

Advanced starters

Apply the rules in a more flexible way: they develop situational rules to supplement the acquired (context free) rules

Stage 3

Competent performers

Establish priorities and determine with the priorities in mind which context free rules and situational rules they have to apply in a specific situation

Stage 4

Capable performers: the masters

Have intuitive understanding of the situation as a whole and consider what they have to do in an analytical way; they have enough experience to set priorities; they take decisions on the basis of situational factors.

Stage 5


Do not need to take action anymore on the basis of rules, but act intuitively without having to think about the progress of their actions



The factors involved in this process of professional development are numerous. We mention just some of them. A first factor is the level of competence the student has reached before starting education. In Flanders for instance most students are relatively young because they come directly from secondary education and they have no or little social work experience. For the last few years however, also more mature and experienced people have entered higher education to get a degree and they bring with them a lot a practice based experience. The theoretical background of the students can differ a lot depending on the kind of the previous secondary education. Another factor is whether or not students had confronting experiences in the work field, which stimulates their motivation. For that reason practice in education is an important advantage of a professional social work degree program compared to a purely academic education.

One of the mechanisms in the process of professional development is making implicit knowledge more explicit. It is typical of experts that they act in a competent way without making explicit the rules they used or their background knowledge. A lot remains implicit. It seems to be difficult as an expert to clarify what is done, how it is done and why it is done. On the other hand, starters initially learn to use the action rules and the necessary knowledge in a conscious and explicit way in their professional actions. Critical reflection and participation in authentic activities are therefore essential in learning processes. You can also call that increasing participation in the activities of a learning community (Teune, 2004). This  co-operation between starters and experienced experts forms the core of learning on the work place. Experienced social workers do not apply rules automatically, but use their experience to judge new situations (Huisman, 2001).

The concept of co-creation of social work knowledge is not new. Argyris and Schön (1974) for example refer to social workers' espoused theories and theories-in-use, that is the implicit knowledge forming the social workers' behavioral world.  We want to make a distinction between ‘wise practice’ and ‘technical, pre-programmed practice’. Social workers who do their jobs in a merely technical way, just use existing techniques with limited self-reflection and without further developing their acquired knowledge (O’Sullivan, 2006). They lack creativity to react in a meaningful and flexible way to actual situations. Such an approach can only be effective for very simple tasks, but never in complex situations. Schön (1987, 1991) wrote about the premise that competent social workers usually know more about carrying out quality social work than they can articulate verbally. Wise social workers are able to effectively handle the uncertainty and the complexity of real life situations. They are also able to reflect and to use knowledge in a creative way. They create knowledge: they develop new knowledge on the basis of reflection and of the analysis of their experiences. Making their action rules explicit contributes to further developing their knowledge.


Students do not enter their education as a blank sheet. They have gained a lot of experience and they have also developed pre-scientific theories about human behavior. Usually, they have not reflected systematically on that. Furthermore, it seems that students who enter education at a later age and who have a lot of experience in practice,  have other learning needs than those students who only have school experience. They are for instance motivated to understand their previous experiences in dept and for that reason they are often more open for theory, not theories as such but theories as frameworks that explain things. They also want to take more advantage from the time they invest in their studies. The younger students are sometimes more occupied with obtaining a diploma than with becoming an experienced social worker. They often also lack a feeling for the specific characteristics of client groups.   Now that we are faced in Flanders with the flexibility of higher education and with the participation of new target groups, such as working students, we have to pay attention to the fact that the latter group evolves through other tracks into the stage of the competent professionals compared to the younger students coming from secondary education.


In any case, it is not sure that all students go through all the stages of the model in the same sequence. Developing from the fourth to the fifth stage especially takes a lot of time. In the opinion of Berliner (2001) the development to the fourth stage of expertise should last five to seven years. Students, who enter higher education at a later age and who have a lot of relevant experience, can check their experience with the action rules they have to learn. That should then lead to other learning experiences than the ones amongst students who cannot bring in such relevant experiences.

Berliner points out that it is important for higher education to invest a lot of time in profound learning processes and in the construction of well integrated knowledge units. He concludes that lecturers, who are able to foster that, have the following characteristics:

-          they present the curriculum in a challenging way;

-          they have a thorough command of the fundamental concepts of their own field and are able to apply them in a flexible way in learning situations;

-          they have the ability to monitor the learning process of the students and to give adequate feedback.


1.2   Lifelong professional development

From what is written above it becomes clear that developing to competent social workers does not end with the students obtaining their degrees. Formal higher education covers just a few stages of that development process. We define the professional development of social workers as “the lifelong learning- and developing process of the acquisition of competences starting from a meaningful interaction between the social worker and the context in which he permanently gains new experiences” (cf. Kelchtermans 2001). It is obvious that learning from experiences is at the centre. Yet, gaining experiences is no guarantee for learning. It is necessary to connect those experiences through reflection with already existing knowledge. That professional development must result in qualitative changes both in the actions and in the thinking of the social worker.

1.2.1          Actions

The consequence for their actions is, according to Kelchtermans (2001), a growing effectiveness in professional activities: the social worker is more and more capable of taking adequate decisions whose actions would be most effective in a given situation. He can draw on an ever increasing range of actions and can bring them in increasingly more adequately.


1.2.2          Thinking

Not only their actions become more effective through de development process, but also the social worker’s thinking or personal frame of interpretation. This frame is the whole of their opinions that shape the glasses through which social workers perceive their professional situations, interpret them and act within them (Kelchtermans, 2001). Within this frame of interpretation, Kelchtermans distinguishes two dimensions: professional self-understanding and subjective social work theories.

Professional self- understanding

Professional self-understanding is the whole of opinions someone has about oneself as a social worker. This includes components such as the self concept (how do I perceive myself as a social worker?), self-esteem (how well do I think I function as a social worker?), professional motivation (what motivates me in this profession?), job description (what do I think are my tasks as a social worker?), future perspective (How do I see my future in this profession?).

Subjective social work theory

Subjective social work theory is the social worker’s personal whole of knowledge and opinions about how social workers act, about how and why someone has to act.

Continuous professional development implies that the social worker increasingly gets better at matching the contents of their personal frame of interpretation with the actual professional reality, for instance by reflection. As a result the validity of the social worker’s personal frame of interpretation increases.

1.2.3          Lifelong learning

The consequence of the concept of lifelong learning for social work education is that education not only has to develop the starting competences, but also the “grow-through” competences, i.e. the competence to develop oneself continuously in the profession and to guide one’s own learning and development. Education also has to take account of the experiences the students have already acquired when they enter their degree program. Students already possess a personal frame of interpretation. Any implicit knowledge that students already have must get attention in education, so that students can learn to make it explicit, to check it critically and, if necessary, to revise it.

1.3   Integration of theory and practice

In the previous part we explained that professional development, the development of knowledge and practical experience are prerequisites for competence in social work. The integration of theory and practice in social work is still subject of ongoing discussion. This issue has many facets and is approached from very different angels. In our opinion integration of theory and practice means that the social worker has a logical and coherent body of knowledge that allows them to give meaning to processes and experiences in reality and to understand them.

Next, integration means that social workers know how to make choices for a given problem out of a range of available theoretical frames. This however does not mean that there is just one right answer for a specific situation. Social workers can also use systematic evidence based insights and particular, situational knowledge (Vlaminck, 2009).

Finally, integration enables the social worker to contribute to the further development of the general frame of knowledge of social work on the basis of their experiences. They can do this by communicating the results of the application of that knowledge with colleagues and with the scientific community. They can also test new hypotheses about the development of social problems in practice (Sheldon, 2004).

In the social work reality, however, two directions seem to be developing. Sheldon distinguishes between a theoretical subculture, which is prominent at universities, and a practical subculture, which, being anti-theoretical and rather suspicious of research, develops from the professional field. The first direction is supposedly more concerned with reliability, evidence and validity; the second one is based particularly on personal impressions emphasizing the uniqueness of each situation. In our opinion, this dualism is not productive, because it is more likely to mortgage the development of relevant social work theories, than to stimulate their development. For that reason we focus on the relation between education and practice.


2         Partnership with the professional field


2.1   Player in a network


To realize our educational objectives as social work higher education we develop the relations with the professional field along other lines than those of the mere functional logic of the supplier-customer relations. The professional field is both our partner in educating students and partner in developing the policy of the higher education institute. Therefore, we develop relational practices with partners in the professional field. The role of our degree program as an organizational structure changes profoundly as a result. Since we base our policy and our work on the strengths of organizations and people as a consequence of the appreciative approach, the core of our social work vision, our personnel policy and our relations with students and external stakeholders have changed in a positive way.

To become a player in a network, our higher education institution faces the challenge to develop links of co-operation with a variety of organizations in the professional field. We have changed the job description of the lecturers in social work thoroughly: more openness to and co-operation with partners from outside education, in coaching the students, in doing projects for society and in carrying out scientific research. Also the broader educational landscape is becoming more complex. In that complex network the institute is developing the relational capabilities to define and clarify their own identity through contacts with the professional field. That can be tricky. A too strong orientation to one’s singularity can lead to obstinacy and isolation; a too strong dependence on external contacts can result in a loss of singularity and independence (Bouwen & de Witte, 1996).


2.2   Relational practices

To typify the relations between our social work higher education institute and the professional field, we use the term ‘relational practice’. The relational practice with the professional field goes much further than just organizing practical training for the students in the professional field. In the threefold mission of social work education as we perceive it, the relational practice can refer to the training of the students as well as to provisions of services to society and research.

The degree to which we can realize this mission has consequences for the relations and for the results of the co-operation. Applied to the relation, higher education institute -professional field, we describe a relational practice as follows:

-          the higher education institute and professional field share the ownership of some tasks, for instance the practical training of the students. The professional field can participate in the concept and the organization of this training;

-          the higher education institute and professional field communicate in an open, practical and personalized way;

-          the relation gets shape in mutual and appreciative activities; both parties have to benefit from it;

-          in the development of visions, new concepts and practice based research the higher education institute has an interest in integrating the insights and experiences of the professional field in their own visions and practices and in checking them with their own visions and practices;

-          the relation must foster and allow deep level learning for the higher education institute as well as for the professional field, so that both can further develop in the relational practice.

In conclusion, we experience that relational practices bring about a real connection between a higher education institute and the professional field. Most organizations in the professional field express their appreciation for this approach in the sense that the feel valued as real partners in the training of future social workers. For this reason we invest a lot of energy and time in the coaching of students and social work professionals in the field.

Relational practice runs on two legs: the practice in which people in a “tasks context” do things together and the relation in which people give each other a place. It is typical of a relational practice that the various parties, each with their own concerns, needs and history, participate and are willing to create and recreate meaning in mutual dependency. The quality of a relational practice is determined by these factors:

-          the creation of meaning (searching for meaning together);

-          participation (participating in a collective project);

-          the development of knowledge.

2.2.1          Searching for meaning

A lecturer and a social worker, a work placement supervisor discuss the performances of a trainee social worker. In this example, they do more than putting together the pieces of a puzzle. From different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences with the student, they try to give meaning to the level of competence of the student. This is an example of how a higher education institution and a representative of the professional field create meaning together in relational practice.

All partners have to be aware that in a relational practice they experience collective experiences in a different way and also that they formulate important questions in a different way. Let us take the example of outreaching assistance. Even if there is a common definition, then it seems that every social worker shapes it in their own way in their practice, estimates the value of it differently; often it is not evident what could be the added value and the meaning for the client.


Moreover, using the same language does not mean that the partners interpret words and concepts in the same way. Let us take the term ‘competent’ as an example: for some people this means that a student achieved the minimal qualities to enter the professional field and that they can then further develop; for other people it means that a student is able to act autonomously already.

We therefore suppose that in a relational practice between a higher education institution and the professional field many languages interact with each other. These are: the language of the practical worker, the language of the client, the language of the student, that of the lecturer, the researcher, etc. The challenge is to have those different languages interact and to try to understand each of them from different backgrounds. Finally, it also important to search for the meaning of experiences and problems. An example could be a project of social service. In this project the institute coaches a local government by developing a social policy plan. Many partners play an important role: the institutions as a coach, politicians, the public social service centre, local advisory boards, experts, etc. Coming to a common understanding of the objectives of such a policy plan is a hard job.

The management of relational practices between education and the professional field needs clarification and the orchestration of dialogue, so that of the partners can continue to develop themselves with new enthusiasm (Bouwen & De Witte, 1996). Consequently, the role and the place of the institution in the network of relational practices must go far beyond the traditional supplier-customer relation.


Good communication within relational practice is more than the exchange of words and meanings. In relational practice the partners mutually accept and confirm their identities. The different identities of lecturers, students, practical workers, clients etc. must all be acknowledged specifically. Moreover, the diversity of the parties must be recognized as an added value for any common activity. The fact that the partners bring in experience and proposals from very varied perspectives and insights, fosters richer solutions than if only like-minded parties co-operated. It can be very challenging for social work higher education institutions to involve clients and partners in the relational practice of education, research and providing services to society. The clients expand the approach of problems in a way lecturers and social workers cannot reach alone. Every partner has to find their own role in the many meetings in order to realize assistance, research, training or the like.

We experience that developing relational practices with partners in the professional field is an adventure for social work higher education institutes of which the outcome is not predictable beforehand. It is much more than a purely instrumental relation in which the professional field only plays a limited role in the practical training of the students. In relational practice with the professional field also the specificity of our institution, the competences to which we train students, our objectives and our vision on social work are discussed.


To develop relational practices in society, as a social work higher education institutions we need certain freedom from management. Too often, some management people, quality control inspections and external committees consider the investment in relational practice as evidence for a lack of efficiency. In their opinion such practices are too difficult to translate into quantitative indicators. In our experience however, the creation of the commitment to develop relational practices of everybody in an organization is the big challenge, which is jeopardized when only efficiency is the leading criterion. Institutions need support from management to interact innovatively with their partners. They especially need space to experiment, to develop new relations with organizations and groups in society.


2.2.2          To participate in a collective project

To install a relational practice more is needed than dividing tasks and making good arrangements between the higher education institute and the field organization. The big challenge is  that the partners invest together in a collective project in which they share responsibilities. The term ‘interactive participation’ clarifies the kind of co-operation the field organization and the institution aim at realizing in a relational practice. Through adequate discussions the partners participate in realizing collective projects. We think for instance of social work research that we carry out now for many years together with some organizations from the professional field, with representatives from local authorities and with groups of clients. We will clarify how we conceive the realization of that kind of research in a next paragraph. In a relational practice the partners contribute in different ways to the development, the preparation and the realization of plans, to the elaboration of solutions and to the application and the dissemination of results (Bouwen & Tallieu, 2004). The partners are not just partially or indirectly involved, but they are also partially responsible for the consequences of the project. That results in a shared responsibility.

We focus on the process of empowerment that constitutes the back bone of every relational practice. It is not sufficient that the partners have a say in the matter, they must also have the power for those matters in which they are competent.

The concept of empowerment is very crucial in education and in the profession of social work as we perceive them. There are of course various concepts and aspects of empowerment. Because the paradigm of empowerment has important consequences for social work practice,  we have to clarify our viewpoints. The empowerment approach is pro-active and aims to mobilize the resources within the person as well as in their environment (Driessens & Van Regenmortel, 2006). The focus is not put on the problems of individuals, but on the functioning of social systems. We use the definition of empowerment of Saleebey: ‘empowerment indicates the intent to, and the process of, assisting individuals, groups, families and communities to discover and expand the resources and tools within and around them (2002). “Empowerment is thus a helping process to assist people to use their strengths to overcome their challenges. It is clear that this approach of empowerment is embedded in the so-called strengths approach in contrast to the problem-based approach in social work.  Saleebey states: ‘"The strengths perspective is a dramatic departure from conventional social work practice. Practising from a strengths orientation means this - everything you do as a social worker will be predicated, in some way, on helping to discover and embellish, explore and exploit clients' strengths and resources in the service of assisting them to achieve their goals, realize their dreams, and shed the irons of their own inhibitions and misgivings, and society's domination."

Empowerment supplies the partners with the possibility to use their skills and capabilities, to pursue important goals, to raise their self-confidence and to engage themselves for managing projects together.


2.2.3          The development of knowledge

The exchange of experiences and the contribution of one’s own knowledge and competences to learn together is the central process of a relational practice. It concerns the construction of knowledge, knowledge development and the sharing of knowledge.

All knowledge has a substantial side as well as a relational side. Knowledge always concerns something, but at the same time constructs a relation between the parties involved (Bouwen, Craps & Dewulf, 2005). The expert knowledge of lecturers and the experiential knowledge of the partners from the professional field are complementary. They can be considered as consecutive activities in the cycle of quality development of social work.

People create common knowledge by engaging in collective actions and by sharing and exchanging experiences from practice. By participating in a relational practice, every partner learns to create and to recreate the collaborative relations permanently and exchanges experiences. This calls for a kind of participation that is not clouded by an asymmetry in power. Existing differences in power are minimized when all partners share their competences. Moreover, to establish real co-operation, it is necessary that the partners are sensitive to and conscious of differences in power in relations. Only then, can a strong sense of co-ownership evolve. A strong and very positive experience we had on this topic is a summit we organized with all the stakeholders of our social work education (students, graduates, social work representatives, client groups, secondary schools, etc.  The objective of this summit was the identification of the strengths of our education in order to develop a challenging vision for the future. One of the results was the slogan: ‘Making the difference by insight and passion’

In conclusion, it is our dream as a social work higher education institute to develop a network of relational practices with many partners in society. In that network the partners take a co-ownership for:

-          the education of young people;

-          the development of new knowledge that is relevant for social work;

-          the development of building blocks for a powerful society.


3         Conclusion: an emancipating actor in society

Bearing in mind the definition of social work, a social work higher education institute cannot confine itself to a mere instrumental function. Social work is not a value free occupation, but is, by the nature of its objectives, obliged to have a voice in society and is willing to take a position. Therefore, a social work higher education institute must be prepared to make the difference in society and it must dare to do so.

First the institution must have a critical voice in society. The core of social work is after all defined as the stimulation of social change in the direction of more social justice. A critical analysis of what hinders social justice is just a first step. Therefore, students must be equipped with insights from many basic disciplines so that they become conscious of and start looking critically at mechanisms, pressure groups and power. Furthermore the students must become resilient and competent in order to search for and elaborate solutions together with the professional field and the clients. A mere technical approach is not sufficient. The ultimate goal of social work must be the empowerment and liberation or emancipation of people in order to realize social justice. The commitment of the social worker cannot be otherwise than value driven. Therefore, an ethical awakening is a fundamental pillar in social work education. For this reason one of the strategic goals in the long term policy of our institute is to be a pro-active and critical player in society. To realize this we stimulate our students to participate in social action, for instance against poverty, against racism, etc.  We have developed also a Social Forum in which we collaborate with a diversity of people and organizations from our region to realize social changes on some topics.

A wise social worker must be able to come to an analysis of two syntheses. First he is confronted with and touched by the problems of people. That is the first synthesis. People and groups tell their stories, which have a very specific meaning in their experience. With that confrontation the social workers gets to work: the critical analysis of the issues of people within a specific context. That inquiry must lead to the awakening of processes and factors which carry and complicate the relations between people. That process of awakening is the prerequisite of the emancipation of people, the liberation from hindering personal and social situations. The inquiry of all aspects of such a situation must result in a new insight, an overview and hopefully also a prospect, the second synthesis.

That process is much more than a rational, distant happening. Therefore we define the thread of the actions of a wise social worker as ‘emotion, reflection and action’. The starting point of social work concerns being touched by people in a diversity of situations: emotion: the face of the other challenges to take responsibility. Next, the competent social worker explores the situation, thinks it over and looks for meaning, reflection together with partners. After the analysis of the situation and the clarification of the whole and after giving it a new meaning, the social worker can act in a meaningful way: action. That is not a solitary intervention, but a solidary action and a way of forming partners in a relational practice.










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