Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Best Practices Inquiry: A Multidimensional, Value-Critical Framework

Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Best Practices Inquiry: A Multidimensional, Value-Critical Framework

Article excerpt

SOCIAL WORKERS at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels undertake a variety of work responsibilities (including direct service, program development, administration, scholarship, grant writing, consultation, and research) that require them to be competent and skilled at ascertaining and implementing the "best practice" for their clients and agencies. This article focuses on the process for investigating and determining current best practices, here termed "best practices inquiry." As defined in this article, best practices inquiry is the process by which an investigator (practitioner, scholar, administrator, or consumer) ascertains the current state-of-the-art approaches, models, and interventions for a given problem and target population.

This article presents a comprehensive, multidimensional, value-critical approach to best practices inquiry that has been developed in a doctoral-level social work course at the University of Kansas. As will be discussed more fully below, traditional approaches to ascertaining current best practices focus on thorough and systematic review of the quantitative literature, identifying the most effective, empirically-validated interventions for a given target population and problem. Clearly, this empirical perspective is an indispensable component of any best practices inquiry.

The principal contribution here centers on broadening the method and collective base of what is considered "best practices" from which social workers can draw in their professional decision making. As Manela and Moxley (2002) note, "best practices" is a broader term that is not solely reliant on having satisfied research criteria.

The method of best practices inquiry presented here incorporates additional perspectives on best practices that warrant inclusion in a broadened approach: qualitative research, professional practice wisdom, and consumer experiences. It also includes a framework for conducting a value-based critique of the best practices themselves and the use of that critique to make recommendations about how best practices in a particular field can be improved. The article concludes by discussing implications for social work education.

Context for Best Practices Inquiry

Although "best practices" is a common term in the social work lexicon, no definition of the term could be found in two social work encyclopedias (Davies, 2000; Edwards, 1995) nor in the Social Work Dictionary (Barker, 2003). According to Manela and Moxley (2002), "best" practices are those practices which experts believe represent the state of the art in a particular area or field of practice. In this section, the authors conceptualize "best practices" broadly, building on the term "evidence-based practice" which itself is a broader term than "empirically-based practice." We begin with the latter, most narrow conceptualization.

According to Gambrill (2003) and Cournoyer (2004), empirically-based practice (also termed empirical clinical practice) was a concept that promoted a model of social work practice based on scientific evidence. The Social Work Dictionary (Barker, 2003) defines "empirically-based practice" as a type of intervention that uses research as a problem-solving tool, conceives of problems and outcomes in measurable terms, and collects data to monitor interventions and evaluate effectiveness. According to empirically based practice, the practitioner should select treatments based on his or her scientific support and systematically measure and evaluate his or her own work with the client. As Cournoyer (2004) points out, empirically-based practice is widely used and highly regarded in psychology and social work, while "evidence-based practice" is preferred in medicine.

Gambrill (2003) and others assert that "evidence-based practice" is a broader term than "empirically-based practice" in that it considers external research findings in the context of the appropriateness of their application to an individual situation, ethical issues such as informed consent, and client values and expectations. …

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