Student Debates in Policy Courses: Promoting Policy Practice Skills and Knowledge through Active Learning

Article excerpt

SOCIAL WORKERS HAVE a professional responsibility to shape social policy and legislation (National Association of Social Workers, 1996). In recent decades, the concept of policy practice has encouraged social workers to consider the ways in which their work can be advanced through active participation in the policy arena (Jansson, 1984, 1994; Wyers, 1991). The emergence of the policy practice framework has focused greater attention on the competencies required for social workers to influence social policy and placed greater emphasis on preparing social work students for policy intervention (Dear & Patti, 1981; Jansson, 1984, 1994; Mahaffey & Hanks, 1982; McInnis-Dittrich, 1994). The curriculum standards of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) require the teaching of knowledge and skills in the political process (CSWE, 1994). With this formal expectation of policy education in schools of social work, the best instructional methods must be employed to ensure students acquire the requisite policy practice skills and perspectives.

The authors believe that structured student debates have great potential for promoting competence in policy practice and in-depth knowledge of substantive topics relevant to social policy. Like other interactive assignments designed to more closely resemble "real-world" activities, issue-oriented debates actively engage students in course content. Debates also allow students to develop and exercise skills that may translate to political activities, such as testifying before legislative committees. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, debates may help to stimulate critical thinking by shaking students free from established opinions and helping them to appreciate the complexities involved in policy dilemmas.

This article provides a pedagogical rationale for using debates to enhance student learning and skills development, a concrete description of how debates have been incorporated into a policy course, and an evaluation of learning outcomes and student satisfaction with the debates.

Relationships between Policy Practice Skills, Critical Thinking, and Learning

Policy practice encompasses social workers' "efforts to influence the development, enactment, implementation, or assessment of social policies" (Jansson, 1994, p. 8). Effective policy practice involves analytic activities, such as defining issues, gathering data, conducting research, identifying and prioritizing policy options, and creating policy proposals (Jansson, 1994). It also involves persuasive activities intended to influence opinions and outcomes, such as discussing and debating issues, organizing coalitions and task forces, and providing testimony. According to Jansson (1984, pp. 57-58), social workers rely upon five fundamental skills when pursuing policy practice activities:

* value-clarification skills for identifying and assessing the underlying values inherent in policy positions;

* conceptual skills for identifying and evaluating the relative merits of different policy options;

* interactional skills for interpreting the values and positions of others and conveying one's own point of view in a convincing manner;

* political skills for developing coalitions and developing effective strategies; and

* position-taking skills for recommending, advocating, and defending a particular policy.

These policy practice skills reflect the hallmarks of critical thinking (see Brookfield, 1987; Gambrill, 1997). The central activities of critical thinking are identifying and challenging underlying assumptions, exploring alternative ways of thinking and acting, and arriving at commitments after a period of questioning, analysis, and reflection (Brookfield, 1987). Significant parallels exist with the policy-making process--identifying the values underlying policy choices, recognizing and evaluating multiple alternatives, and taking a position and advocating for its adoption. …