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Curriculum evolves over the years

By Anna Scheyett, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs

This year, the School will celebrate its 90th anniversary. It’s hard to imagine that beginning. Cars and “talkies” were novelties. Prohibition was in full force, and the Depression was around the corner. And in the midst of it all, the School of Public Welfare (our original name) was founded.

Looking back, many changes have occurred within the School and its curriculum since 1920. Originally focused on public welfare, the School expanded over the years to also emphasize social work practice across a range of fields, including health, mental health, community practice, administration and policy practice. Perhaps the most significant change has been the emphasis on research, including the production of and use of empirical evidence in practice settings. This decision to strengthen our School with research hugely affected how students are taught.

Even when I was a student (back in 1987-89), we were taught treatment models, such as object relations and other psychodynamic approaches and some basic functionalist approaches, but we never reviewed the literature to critically examine the evidence for the efficacy of these models and approaches. We simply learned them, and we were expected to use them in our practice. Intervention research was hardly on the radar years ago.

Now, the School’s curriculum requires critical thinking and the use of evidence-based and promising practices — interventions that have been shown to be effective based on empirical research. Social workers don’t just learn one model and stick with it. We are expected to keep learning and growing throughout our careers, critically examining and evaluating our own practice and the research literature.

What is really exciting and what we can truly be proud of today is that some of our own faculty members are leading the country’s efforts in generating the social work empirical literature. Students now have the opportunity to learn about innovative research findings in domestic violence, mental health, and substance abuse, for example, within the same academic community where that research is taking place. Students can even participate in these research projects through the School’s assistantships and research awards programs.

Although in 90 years much has changed, some of the School’s core elements remain the same. We still focus on social justice, on the importance of social work ethics, on education that combines classroom work with fieldwork in collaboration with community agencies, and on service to vulnerable individuals, families and communities. The School remains steadfast with its goal: We prepare social workers to make a difference.

This article is from our “School of Social Work’s 90th Anniversary” feature in the 2010 print edition of Contact Magazine