A Definition of Social Work Practice

Subject: Education
Pages: 20
Words: 5373
Reading time:
20 min
Study level: PhD


Social work as a profession is very powerful. It has a voice and it is present in forums (Bolzan, 2007). Social work is traditionally proficient and anti-oppressive. It is not easy to achieve it (Doel & Shardlow, 2005). Carlton-LaNay (1999) states social work practice developed in the form of social services encompassing child welfare and mental health (as cited in Hall, 2008). In the current scenario, political, industrial, healthcare, and educational organizations are pervaded by social work practitioners. The scope of social work has extended to controversial arenas encompassing people like prisoners, AIDS patients, etc. However, there is a lack of practice expertise witnessed in social work despite its inclusion in the category of legitimate professions. Hence, it is important to integrate distinct practices in social services to find community approval.

Cnaan & Parsloe (1989) believe The common people are not adequately familiar with the eminence of social work in the present conditions. They perceive social work practice as less precise than the other professions known as true professions. Rosen et al (1995) feel that the liability is often put on the lack of assessment methods to measure the efficacy of social work practice. Social workers have to deal with external checks and balance unlike the other professions and are often rebuked in attempts to seek community approvals for their actions. These conditions hamper the designation of social work as an authentic profession (as cited in Hall, 2008).

In the post-modern era, social work has gained much attention in the discussions regarding its connotation, scope, and implications as a profession. The literature on the subject, descriptive of its sense and providing it with a track has been in progress in the postmodern era. Australia has been an active participant in the development and understanding of the subject of social work since Indigenous Australians face some of the most exciting and deep-rooted social disadvantages in their society (Calma & Priday, n.d.). The development of social work as a profession and its relative critical theory, suggests its evolution as a vivacious, energetic, and thriving profession. Traditional social work requires the understanding of values and philosophies which influence our work (Munford & Sanders, n.d.).These developments are significant for the social work practitioner or students studying social work as an academic course.

Besides the wealth of literature on social work as a subject, there are other sources too that provide insight into the practicality of the subject in the context of field experience. The realities of social work practice in real-life situations hardly maintain equilibrium with the conviction given its intricacy, flexibility, and receptiveness to the context that the educators of the subject hold at the universities. Social work as a profession draws its theory from several theoretical traditions and it has a vast practice environment.

Pease and Fook (1999) perceived the significant role of social work in the future, recognizing it as the postmodern critical social work, and defined and developed a discourse of theory and practice in it. Their perception of the postmodern critical social work in social work education was to enable the students to deal with the uncertainties and newly budding situations with confidence. Besides this, they will be provided with the creative tools to defend against, confront and reform processes gaining affirmation from all people involved (as cited in Bolzan, 2007). Alston and McKinnon (2001) suggested that social workers need to have a vision for the restructuring and policies of the state towards a more democratic approach. The profession of social work ideally worked as a measure to reshape Australian society liberating it from bias, discrimination, and racism. The social workers succeeded in their mission as the underprivileged of the society found a voice in the existing debates (as cited in Bolzan, 2007). Pearson (1973) says, “Social work programs only strengthen students’ preexisting practice orientations, regardless of their direction” (Kaufman et al, 2013, p.339).


The theory is a systematic structure of ideas that gives an agenda for shaping and accepting observations. According to Siegrist (1998), theories appear as a consequence of methodical observation, systematic thinking, and perception. A true theory can recognize those serious modules within multifaceted veracities, which indicate particular aftermaths (as cited in Beder, n.d.).

Social workers believe in critical thinking for the application of the theories (Mumm, 1997). A theory is always required in social work practice as it tells what people do and why they do it. It explains the happenings between the client and the social worker. A theory, applied in supervision, is an instrument that is used to make knowledge more clear and comprehensible. An instructor has to go through many challenges while teaching students about some innovative practice approaches like narrative theory, strengths theory, etc. (Dybicz, 2012) Kaushin (1992) states excluding administrative supervision, educational supervision is the chief responsibility of the social work supervisor. Educational supervision mainly focuses on teaching the skills, attitudes, knowledge to social workers so they can easily perform their jobs. This is not a very easy job so the supervisor has to help the worker in clarifying the theoretical base (as cited in Beder, n.d.). Many theories can be taught to the students as well as workers of the social work practice. Various theories are being described as follow:

  • Systems Theory: it focuses on the need of the social worker to analyze various systems in which a person works. Greene (1999) says that “the focus of systems theory is on the interrelatedness of social conditions and phenomena” (Beder, n.d., p.42).
  • Ecological-Life Model: This approach focuses on dealings between the individual and their environment at that point where the individual and the environment have to meet.
  • Strengths Perspective: It focuses on the strengths of the clients rather than weaknesses. Saleebey (1997) states the social workers will do everything to help clients to determine their strengths and resources so they can achieve their goals (Beder, n.d.).
  • Psychological Approach: This theory, which is based on person-in-situation, focuses on the valuation, analysis, study, and handling of individuals in dealing with their social environments. This approach improves social functioning. According to Mattaini (1998, p.140), “The key to understanding human behavior in this approach is the developmental process over the life course, much of which is seen as not in the client’s conscious awareness…There is a place for the social and physical environment in this approach but this place may be primarily historical” (as cited in Beder, n.d., p.42).
  • Psychology: Ego psychology, as a social work practice theory, observes the connection between the client and the worker as the main key to changing behavior.
  • Role Theory: Garvin (1991) states Individuals have to face many problems which become the cause of uneasiness and stop the people from achieving their target. Such problems should be assessed in role terms and involvements can be planned within this structure (as cited in Beder, n.d.).
  • Cognitive Theory: This theory highlights an approach to social work practice where it is assumed that a person’s thinking is the chief cause of emotions and behavior. The social work intervention focuses on supporting the client to recognize, encounter, and change thinking forms, which have nurtured dysfunctional methods of behavior, results, and emotions.

According to Gibbons et al (1994), the chief objective of the new theory of knowledge is to see how knowledge is generated concerning the situation and further, how it is transmitted to practice. This new theory of knowledge production has introduced new means of producing knowledge (Gray & Schubert, 2011).

Social work needs the focus on the use of knowledge instead of the development of theoretical backgrounds to get an idea of the process of knowledge development and its transfer. Producing knowledge and transferring knowledge are not constant processes.

According to Gray & Schubert (2010), since social work academics and university-based researchers are the foremost makers of knowledge, it is difficult to discriminate its relation and usefulness to practice.

It is important to establish the utility of social work, in the context of the harsh neoliberal working environments, to make it sustainable. Social work may be benefitted from the new theory of knowledge production as the profession or discipline needs to be connected with the debates about knowledge in society. Further, the theory proposes a base for social work to apply its ideal means of knowledge production in the form of a joint, user-oriented, and participatory approach of research. This theory makes the possibility for the integration of social work knowledge in a single evidence-based outline and eventually paves the way for the formation of a single framework for the comprehensive process of research-based knowledge progression and its application. In the field of social work, the lack of research and the significant time difference between knowledge production and application has been a matter of discussion repeatedly (Gray & Schubert, 2011).

“Social work’s preference for collaborative, cooperative, participatory, community-oriented approaches to knowledge production is being transformed by evidence-based practice” (Gray & Schubert, 2011, p.206).

The evidence-based knowledge production model
The evidence-based knowledge production model. Source: Gray & Schubert, 2011, p. 206

Evidence-based practice: According to Gray et al. (2009); Parton (2008); Rafferty & Steyaert, (2009), evidence-based practice can renovate knowledge in social work. “Gray & Schubert’s (2010b) approach is an example of an attempt to make experience-based knowledge visible while setting it within an evidence-based practice framework, such that research and practice represent a ‘synthesis of knowledge’ (Alexanderson et al., 2009:136) from diverse sources” (as cited in Gray & Schubert, 2011, p.207). This approach seems to be very reliable as the main sources of knowledge for evidence-based practice take account of research evidence.

Gabbay et al. (2003); Gray et al. (2009); Gray & Schubert (2010a) state that it is clear that social work needs to expand the limits of evidence-based practice further than Mode 1 meta-analysis and systematic reviews to hold Mode 2 forms of research.

Mode 1 and 2 as the means to evidence-based social work:

There are two modes of knowledge production: Mode 1, which is natural science-driven, and discipline-based. Mode 2 is practice-oriented and interdisciplinary. These two modes not only differentiate between approaches to research but also distinguish the context within which research is piloted (Gray & Schubert, 2011).

Gibbons et al. (1994) recognized different news ways of ‘doing science’, which were being motivated by practical knowledge and that knowledge could straight report social problems in the direction of common research that included industry partners, other professions, and different service users for research process (Gray & Schubert, 2011).

Marsh and Fisher (2008) identified a source in Mode 2 which could solve the tension between knowledge production and practice. According to Gredig & Sommerfeld (2008) and Kjørstad (2008) Mode, 2 became the first choice of knowledge production for social work (Gray & Schubert, 2011).

Gray and Schubert (2010b) added that Mode 1 and Mode 2 have been accepted conservatively and they both together provide evidence-based practice. “Both qualitative and quantitative forms of research provide a valid evidence base for social work practice, but, more than this, a holistic model of social work knowledge, as well as incorporating three distinct phases of knowledge production, translation, and utilization, must account for the research context in which it is produced, as well as the organizational and practice context in which it will be used” (Gray & Schubert, 2011, p.207). The above figure is depicting the same.

Both Modes 1 and 2 offer evidence for practice. Mode 2 provides the perspective to integrate larger social work trepidations into the evidence-based practice. From side to side offering i) the probability of the addition of careers, service users, and end-users; ii) cooperative, interdisciplinary action, and mediation-oriented research methods; iii) the integration of many research types and sources the profession is in a good condition to create suitable evidence-based knowledge for viable social work. The new theory of knowledge production provides a way to integrate the meta-analyses, methodical reviews, and RCTs of Mode 1 with a great combination of Mode 2 that is flexible and interdisciplinary (Gray & Schubert, 2011).

Research on Social Work Practice

Research, which is a must-practice module, is an old emphasis in this profession (Wells et al, 2012). Many books and articles about the future of social work have been published in the last few years especially in Britain and the United States. The main focus of the book is to highlight some essential questions: “Does anything we do, good intentions aside, make any tangible difference?

Are we necessary? What are we for? Most authors then go on to discuss more immediate questions of how we are to cope with the latest political or managerial definition of what we are for or, had we only been suitably sensible and trustworthy before, would always have been for” (Sheldon, 1998, p.577).

These preliminary questions create the bonding between American and British social work professions. Sheldon states that such questions came to his mind when he was a student 20 years back. He remembers a lecture on the topic ‘the effectiveness of delinquency-prevention schemes in the United States’ by Professor H. E. Meyer. “Meyer, a worried-looking, matter-of-fact speaker, enthralled me with his account of how he had struggled, within the scientific rules, to hold his experimental and control group data to a nil-nil draw, and only just managed it” (Sheldon, 1998, p.578).

After hearing the lecture Sheldon had a question in mind if social work could be considered as a scientific study. Some mistakes are found in this experiment but they could be discussed that particular evening. It’s been a long time since this lecture and the experiment and it had the techniques which were popularly used in Britain and the United States. These techniques were as effective as the textbooks and the training courses at that time.

Sheldon tried to study more widely and deeply and as a result, he found five well-conducted experiments, which also had some negative conclusions. One experiment was depicting some obvious worsening effects in the experimental group. Sheldon mentioned that “Trying to raise questions of service effectiveness on my predominantly psychoanalytic course produced some fascinatingly Kafkaesque reactions from the faculty” (Sheldon, 1998, p.578). Social Science teachers blew on ‘naïve positivism’; social work tutors were mainly worried about his early childhood and the growth of supposedly anti-authoritarian attitude. But it was not the case to be worried about because it could be solved with some help, though a little pain had to be taken. According to Reynolds (1946), if ideas are opposed a lot as personified by the supervisor, it presents the aggressive qualities of any personality instead of presenting the healthy response of a profound mind.

Reiner & Kaufmann (1969) mention that “Poor housing and blighted neighborhoods become the receiving ground for persons who are at the bottom of the economic scale, and who, in the main area in this position because of personality difficulties” (as cited in Sheldon, 1998, p.579).

Mullen and Dumpsen (1972) also did some studies related to this subject and after this Joel Fischer’s (1973, 1976) ideas were also presented which were broader accumulations. Sheldon got an idea from him that his personality was also assumed to be having hostile qualities and a similar perception was created for Masson (1985) also in the same field of psychotherapy research. Sheldon mentions that at that time he was working and his clients were happy with him and were complementing that he was doing fine.

There was a time when social work journals were read flexibly on public transport; someone attended parties and simply declared what he did for his living and expected that the people would appreciate. Morale was very high at that time but the consequences of effectiveness research were devastating but now one can see that the consequences of effectiveness research are inspiring but morale has come down.

Sheldon mentioned the period of the 1980s when he was doing his academics and was the host of a group of American social workers who visited his college. This was the group which has monitored the British social services in operation. The group felt that they were not attended properly as they thought “Why did no one in the United Kingdom, including those still clinging desperately to the title, seem to know what a social worker is, and what might reasonably be expected of such a person?” (as cited in Sheldon, 1998, p.579).

It is the nature of social work that requires a philosophical sense since many social problems are complicated and multifunctional. If one gets a chance to visit the room where social work training has been given, one can observe that there are boards and flipcharts which are full of diagrams that look like Olympic symbols. This subject needs lots of fining and researches because it is socially embedded in the work and it is not easy to define social work. It is difficult to find the one-sentence answer to this question. The reason is that social work is the sequences of interrelated jobs like care, social support, and case management where many recipes are available for changing problematic behavior, moods and opinions and it adopts the approach to change the situation instead of changing the people. The unusual differences in function create severe problems. It depends on what kind of social work one wants to do, his views about the whole work, and the priorities vary according to that understanding.

The British see the United States social workers as more ‘professional’. There was a time when social work was regarded as work for the poor people, disregarded, separated, untouchable, and troubled people. There is evidence of this in the academic publications from the United States on social work effectiveness.

“To the growing body of knowledge on outcomes in the social services can be added the increasingly sophisticated research evidence on the etiology of social problems-child abuse (Stevenson, 1989), mental illness and health, (Goldberg & Huxley, 1992), the challenge of providing care for frail elderly people (Bornat, Pereira, Pilgrim, & Williams, 1993), and so forth. The quality of this work has improved immensely over the last decade, and this too is something of which the profession can be justly proud” (as cited in Sheldon, 1998, p. 585).

Sheldon says if we are going to adopt the idea of evidence-based practice, the following changes in our routine behavior may occur:

  • While studying the social work effectiveness, the best interpreter of a positive result is that there should be logical suitability between a research-based understanding of the causes and development of problems in view.
  • Theories and methods are not the same. “Doing what works for you may mean delivering substandard services to clients and not being able to tell that this is the case” (as cited in Sheldon, 1998, p. 586). It should not be considered only a technical matter, it is an ethical matter too. Recent studies on social work effectiveness show that some approaches like cognitive behavioral methods are probably more effective in solving various problems than any other approach. The problem comes when social workers think that there is no need for any ‘recipes’ or to show a propensity to progress “crushes” for some specific methods. There is a need of maintaining a relationship with the knowledge base where ideas and methods are accepted and modified and if needed they are discarded about the existing evidence.
  • Directorial or managerial suitability is the opponent of good practice. We should try to find out the ways to reassess what comes ‘naturally.’ “In social work, this means taking another look at the long-term ‘drip-feed approaches to service provision to which we have become accustomed. For research shows that where we are looking for maintenance of a tolerable status quo, as sometimes is the case with frail elderly people being cared for at home then steady, intermittent, but predictable, patterns of service delivery might just do the job” (as cited in Sheldon, 1998, p. 586).

According to Sheldon, Evidence-based practice is the longer but more secure way to public respect.

Mentoring: The MSW and BSW programs seek to mentor to fulfill their requirements of professional socialization and modeling. Research (Brown et al, 2011 )on the significance of mentoring in the social work sector reveals that a closer mentoring relationship between the social work students and their mentors reinforces their progress in the field of social work as a profession (as cited in Gutierrez,2012)


The great challenge for the instructors of Social Science Practice is to motivate the students in learning particular skills related to this subject. It is required that the students should not only be trained theoretically but also they should be prepared to apply this knowledge practically where behavior and new ideas both are important equally.

Though it is obvious that the client is impressed with the social worker’s knowledge indirectly but the more important thing is the social worker’s behavior which leaves a sound impact on a client. Does the client very seriously observe what does a worker says? How does he convey his knowledge? How does a worker respond to a client’s query etc?

“A practice course does not just teach about practice. Rather, it teaches students to perform specific practice activities–the techniques, procedures, and actions that can positively impact the client’s social functioning” (Sheafor & Horejsi, 2008, p.2).

There is an increasing demand for social work faculty members to instruct the students for conducting effective practice. The priority should be to train them in such a way that their helping activities directly should affect the people’s lives, particularly, the very important people of our society and children, poor, elderly and handicapped people.

We need to reduce the responsibilities threats for our students, schools, and agencies with this promise that our students are ready with some essential practice experiences when they enter the internship. We should have an objective that the students should be prepared for the work which is expected by their yet to come employers in human services. It is very difficult to teach social work practice tasks. When students join some agencies, we should keep a balance among human services agencies, their clients, and our schools to meet today’s social work practice demands and to create future social work practice leaders.

This course should be planned in a very well manner and it should focus on learning those skills, behaviors, and techniques which are essential for a social worker to fulfill the goals of the subject. The instructor is responsible to communicate the course structure. He should keep an open and communicating class environment. He should encourage the social work students to learn three main things: values, knowledge, and skills.

The best way of teaching aspects of practice is through demonstration by the instructor. In this way, the students can practice these behaviors in a real way. Merely reading or listening to the content will not solve the purpose. The instructor should encourage the students to do many different social work activities which use basic practice techniques.

The curriculum of the subject is not decided by an instructor but he has total freedom to decide how well he can prepare his students to be perfect in this curriculum. While teaching these students, the following are the factors for consideration:

  • Accepting the social work students as adults since adults can learn through factual experiences and by linking a new learning practice to their own life. It is good to use experiential learning activities, role plays, demonstrations, and rehearsals, etc.
  • Many students have previous human services experiences which are related to the concerns of social work practice.
  • It is suggested that the teacher demonstrate the techniques and attitudes while teaching practice.
  • Possibly, the assignments and students’ learning activities should match with the activities required for practice. For example, deep interaction with worried families and individuals, making decisions, doing follow-up by plans, writing, record keeping, time management, teamwork, etc.

The following are more requirements for the students so they perfectly can learn the subject:

  • To develop professional helping relationship
  • Inspire, guide, and accomplish the change process
  • Accept many practice roles like a broker, case manager, administrator, teacher, counselor, etc.
  • To assess his own performance and practice activity
  • To work effectively within the procedures
  • To manage his practice in regards to social work

Field education is an important part of the social work profession (Lough et al, 2012). Before giving any field assignment to the students it is advantageous to know whether they have all basic knowledge, techniques, values, practice strategies before working with their actual clients. Teaching practice skills in the classroom have many ways. An instructor should select a very effective method that can help the students to achieve the learning objectives of this particular course. The instructor should choose such a method that fits well with the students’ characteristics as well as the instructor’s capabilities and that method has time limitations and scheduling.

The focus of teaching should be on training them ‘doing’ practice instead of ‘talking about practice. The students should learn to help each other in the classroom professionally and the students also pose as a client to other students so they are well trained in this way and they understand the actual responsibility of helping others and how they can provide other people services. The issue should be selected by the client always and the emphasis should be on real issues and problems. Better time management is needed. While learning the student should be able to relate it with his ‘real’ work and learn how to maintain a relationship with his client. Helping other people means a lot. Dealing with clients and keeping them under discretion, gathering their information, and keeping their accounts everything becomes an actual issue.

The instructor can use some detailed techniques and practice skills. He can use videos, he can conduct organized discussions. He can do the demonstration to illustrate particular skills so the students can use the same with their clients.

The instructor can teach the students about cultural, ethnic, religious factors which put influence the social working of individuals and families. He can explain the application of knowledge in practice. He can explain various relationships of disability, age, gender, and domination on the social functioning of individuals and families. He can clarify the importance of self-discipline and self-awareness and how they could be related to social work practice.

The instructor can explain the procedure of evaluation. He can discuss with the students how to measure client satisfaction, how to do scaling, and achieve the task. He can explain the application of research concepts like legitimacy, trustworthiness, and sampling for the assessment of the services to the clients. He can teach them how to prepare professional reports and documents for service activities. He can explain how to make case notes, treatment plans, evaluation reports, and case summaries.


Teaching and Integrating Theory: The curriculum for teaching social work practice is too wide (Gamble, 2013). According to Fortune (1994), the incorporation of theory into teaching has to deal with many challenges. There is a saying, “What one knows he can ipso facto teach” (Reynolds, n.d., p.83). The relationship between the agency and the supervisors makes the workers professional and mastered, social work principles are encouraged, and work ethos is nurtured (Beder, n.d.).

Kadushin (1992,p.143) mentions that “The supervisor has to teach ‘what the worker is to do, how he is to act if he is to help individuals, groups, or communities deal effectively with social problems. And he has to teach something of the theory that explains why the particular teaching technology…is likely to affect change.”

The students and workers while meeting with their clients should keep the following questions in their minds to ask them:

  • The identification of the facts (What do we know…)
  • Integration (I would feel…)
  • Reverberation about the happenings with himself
  • Analysis of the particular exercise (what did they learn?)
  • Frankness (what is the need of being frank with the clients?) (Cohen, n.d.).

During a discussion on social work practice teaching, this topic is always there how a supervisor should support a social worker to study, incorporate and use theory in practice and it is assumed that the supervisor is familiar with the degrees, presentation, and perceptions within the given theories or numerous theories. The requirement is that the supervisor should be very knowledgeable and up-to-date in theories and the supervisor should understand the role of a teacher in this aspect of communication with the worker. Greene (1999) argues that knowing the elementary norms of the theory is not sufficient, the supervisor should be able to resolve whether the theory is beneficial for the workers or not. The supervisor has to decide whether the theory is reliable for the social work value base and if the theory is suitable for the agency setting. Then it is better to start the teaching of this subject (Beder, n.d.).

Another important factor is the management of time for the teaching by the supervisor so the worker can incorporate theory into his practice. The workers, who receive a new agency experience, generally become nervous since they are not able to find out their role while maintaining the relationship between work and the clients. A sense of insecurity or inadequacy can be developed by them since they are pushed into positions of power whereas they do not have much experience or learning of the subject so they can guide accordingly. It is obvious if a worker is not much confident about the concepts of the theories, which he can apply in his preliminary work assignments, it will not be an intelligent step to make any attempt of using those theories. Also, in their elementary experience related to agency, workers are normally involved in experimental material so they are not able to look closely at any theoretical structure. When workers started understanding their professional roles and they become habitual to it and also they are happy with their supervisory positions, the help of technology starts (Beder, n.d.).

The skill of teaching theory in supervision is to comprehend the use of theory and its application. If the theory is not related to behavior and any case examples then it does not have much value. Munson (1993) points out that “The supervisor’s failure to make this connection accounts for the workers’ shortcomings in being able to apply theory to practice” (as cited in Beder, n.d., p.47). Only talking about theory will not solve the purpose, it has to be realized.

A process is always involved in social work with other things. Supervision demands a process that should be followed by a worker to be more theory-based. The process includes development from information to theory-based knowledge, from knowledge and incorporation of theory into understanding, and from understanding into transformed behavior in dealing with clients.

The supervisor and the student can learn in a better way if they get feedback from the client. This process focuses on the communication between the worker and supervisor where a supervisor has to act as a director of learning and supporting the worker to find out the clarifications of general theoretical principles which apply from case to case. Munson (1993) has some suggestions which are following (Beder, n.d.,):

  • relating the theoretical material with trial material
  • doing the translation of the theoretical material into trial material before doing the presentation in front of the supervisor
  • leaving the theoretical material, offering completely trial material, and then checking if the supervisee has been able to make necessary connections

It is expected from any supervisor that he looks for the chance to incorporate theory into the course of supervision. As a worker struggles with case material, the supervisor can advise the supervisee that an inspection of some particular theories can be helpful. It is appropriate for the supervisor to resource the content as well as the understanding of the theory so he can simplify the learning. Follow-up by the supervisor is necessary and the chance to use the theory in another case can be helpful to harden the value of being dependent on theory to guide involvement (Beder, n.d.).The assessment also plays a great role in social work practice. Professional and organizational assessments show a systematic approach to the social workers (Whittington, 2007). Finally, it is understood that these methodical evaluations of social work education might inspire extra research on social work curriculum (Yaffe, 2013).


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