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Curriculum Change

Curricular changes typically revolve around three models:

The Geriatric Enrichment Program encourages you to consider a fourth model, curriculum transformation, as a means toward sustained change.

Infusion suggests that content be poured into the curriculum to permeate and alter it in a way that affects all students. True infusion would mean that aging content would find its way into every aspect of the curriculum, including program and course objectives, subject areas, reading assignments and categories for assessment of outcomes. Generally, curriculum resources for aging content that cross cut substantive themes or problem areas are less available than materials to teach specialized content courses. Few social work programs, if any, have successfully infused aging content into their curriculum.

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Integration aims to coordinate or unite aging content with the rest of the curriculum. It is not as pervasive as infused curriculum, yet aims to place aging content in strategic locations in the curriculum (for example, in HBSE, health care, etc.)

A limitation of the infusion or integration approaches is that they are compensatory, not transformative. In other words, they add discussions, readings, or guest lectures onto existing courses, but do not fundamentally alter the students' learning experiences. The focus is on specific course content rather than on students' long-term learning outcomes. Aging is treated in separate units and "added" onto an already full curriculum.

Examples of this are adding a lecture or set of readings toward the end of the HBSE course, which may not be covered if the instructor runs out of time! Or including readings on Social Security and Medicare in the foundation policy course, but not explicitly relating these policies to older adults' changing economic, health care and demographic needs. Generally, with infusion or integration, pedagogy, structure or the underlying organization of courses are not changed and age or life span is not an organizing theme of the program.

One reason for the predominance of this "add-on" curricular approach is CSWE's requirement to include content on older people as one population among a long list of at-risk populations. Many social work faculty think that too many content demands are placed on an already crowded curriculum. As a result, they may attempt to meet accreditation expectations by having an older person as a guest speaker in the foundation cultural diversity course, or focusing on illness, death and dying at the end of the HBSE course, or using isolated examples about older adults in the practice course. We believe that the concept of enrichment rather than replacement will address faculty's concerns about "adding one more thing."

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Specialization (second year concentration of special courses, certificate programs, minors) refers to graduate advanced learning that builds on foundation content, with strong links to the advanced practicum placements and research in the field of aging. Although specialization is often a desirable direction for graduate students, it can also result in segregating, or isolating aging content from the rest of the curriculum or creating separate courses that compete with one another for students. If such fragmentation occurs, some students generally graduate with little or no knowledge of aging content. Yet data show that nearly all social workers will encounter older people in their practice and need foundation gerontological knowledge.

To achieve long-term change and institutionalization of aging-based learning experiences in social work programs, we are encouraging programs to conceptualize and move toward a model of curriculum transformation. The term "curriculum transformation," widely used in higher education today, can be conceptualized as follows:

A curriculum is a collection of learning experiences with an expected set of outcomes, articulated or not. Those outcomes are associated with some vision of what a student educated in social work should be like after completing the curriculum. As a result of both external and internal changes, a mismatch may develop between the curriculum and the desired outcomes. The process of change is to realign the learning experiences with the desired (changed) outcomes. (We encourage you to think about this definition in light of the change process where needs and vision become defined).

Curriculum transformation goes beyond merely creating a course or a module on gerontological social work to developing ways to alter curriculum structure, organization, pedagogy and learning outcomes. It aims to ensure that learning experiences are up to date and flexible, allowing for ongoing innovation and change. With such structural modifications, learning experiences related to aging can move from isolated examples to a way of life in social work programs.

Curriculum transformation related to gerontological social work can include the following characteristics, among others:

  • Program learning experiences are realigned with the desired (changed) outcome related to gerontology.

  • There is no one right way to organize the curriculum; instead, the focus is on the fit between the learning experienced and the desired outcomes within the organizational culture of your social work program.

  • Accordingly, the emphasis is on learning experiences and outcomes, not on discrete courses or parts of the curriculum.

  • Linkages are built with other curricular areas (e.g., mental health, health, families, women's studies, cultural diversity, etc).

  • Gerontological learning opportunities pervade all relevant learning experiences for students, rather than be isolated.

  • The capacity to sustain change over time is increased.

We recognize that the kinds of questions that need to be asked and the changes initiated to achieve curriculum transformation will vary widely. We also acknowledge that many programs may need to begin with infusion or integration in order to move, over time, to a more transformative approach. Nevertheless, we urge you to keep the following question at the forefront of your proposal:

How can the face of social work education, research and practice be transformed over time so that age is a central organizing principle, not secondary or relatively invisible?

We suggest some ideas for you to consider to transform aging-based learning experiences through your curriculum change efforts. This list is illustrative, intended to stimulate your brainstorming about change, but by no means exhaustive. We recognize that whatever change you make needs to be congruent with your program's underlying philosophy and/or educational mission (e.g., systems theory, advanced generalist, social justice, clinical practice, multicultural practice, etc). We also know you will need to find the "hook" and the resources to obtain faculty buy-in for gerontological enrichment. Therefore, ways to connect with other faculty's primary expertise and teaching area are implicit in most of our suggestions:

  • Organize foundation practice and HBSE courses around the entire life course, not age per se.

  • Turn HBSE "upside down" and begin the course with the end of life, tracing the older person back to middle adulthood, adolescence, youth, childhood, and infancy rather than beginning with the early years. Or moving across periods of the life course throughout HBSE, so that old age is not left until the end of the course. This can show the interconnections by early and later life experiences.

  • Formulate chronic illness across the life span as an organizing curriculum theme, including health disparities, positive models of wellness and health promotion, and health and long-term care policies and programs.

  • Bring an intergenerational lens to course content, noting the reciprocity of social support, caregiving and well-being across generations. This also facilitates linkages with child welfare curriculum and faculty (for example, grandparents as primary caregivers of grandchildren).

  • Use age, race, class and gender as the primary organizing constructs of the curriculum. What would be the central themes and questions of your social work program if older adults, women, people of color, persons with disabilities, and the poor are the primary reference, rather than viewed as specialized "interest" groups competing with curricular space and student interest? How can race, class, gender and age be discussed in the broader contexts of person-environment, the strengths perspective and empowerment, rather than only in the context of oppression, poverty, and social problems? How can women, older adults, persons of color and the poor be conceptualized in your program as active creative agents of social change and continuity, not as victims? How can content on aging provide a balance between various stages of health and frailty and not focus exclusively on death or severe impairment?

  • Use prevention as an organizing theme across the classroom and field experiences. Prevention can be a positive lens for integrating content on older adults' strengths and resilience, rather than focusing primarily on illness, death and dying in terms of older adults.

  • What kind of changes need to occur at both the micro and macro levels of your educational program in order to increase gerontological learning experiences for all students?

  • What pedagogical changes would support an aging enriched learning experience? What are nontraditional sources of information about aging (e.g., reflection on own families' experiences, interviews with older adults, participation observation, use of biographies, oral histories, ethnographies). How can you use the social work competencies developed by CSWE SAGE-SW to develop learning outcomes for your graduates?

  • How can you link with the field through new partnerships between practice and research? How can you develop stipends for students in age-based field experiences that will encourage them to consider gerontological social work as their career direction?

  • What resources do your faculty need to develop and implement aging enriched learning experiences for the students they teach? What resources are they most likely to use (e.g., case studies, role-plays, web-based instruction, etc.)? Would faculty benefit and be interested in attending any of the Faculty Development Institutes funded by CSWE SAGE-SW?

  • If your program is small and has limited resources, how can you form alliances regionally or with other disciplines in your institution to transform aging content? What kinds of affiliations can you build with local, regional, and national aging-related agencies that will strengthen your knowledge base, networking support and access to resources?

We raise these questions to stimulate your creative conceptualizations of change in your program. We realize that programs will vary widely in their capacity to initiate a curriculum transformation approach. As noted in the RFP, we recognize the value of smaller incremental steps as a way to enrich your curriculum in terms of gerontological social work. Nevertheless, the long-term goal of the Hartford Geriatric Enrichment Project is to create structural changes that enrich gerontological learning experiences for all social work students. Please call 1-206-221-HART or email gerorich@u.washington.edu if you have questions about these approaches to curriculum change.

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Updated November 29, 2010


Sponsored by The John A. Hartford Foundation