By Kenta Asakura, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work

First and foremost, I’m a social worker. Before my recent appointment as an Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work here at Carleton, I spent over a decade providing individual, family and group counselling in various marginalized communities as a clinical social worker.

As a regulated profession, social work is both an academic and professional discipline that emphasizes the integration of theory and practice. Social workers engage in relationship-centered, theoretically- and empirically-informed psychosocial interventions from a social justice framework. We learn to work with what we cannot see or measure— our clients don’t come to us with an X-ray or CT scan, and we don’t directly treat a disease or injury.

Because we engage the whole person, social work education teaches students to understand clients’ complex development and social ecologies, listen and respond competently to their pain, suffering, and resilience, using our reflective capacities and a set of complex practice behaviours. Social work students develop skills to use various theories, evidence-informed interventions, and engage in reflective practice in responding effectively to each client situation. Social work education therefore embodies both art and science – and let me tell you…that is easier said than done!

The use of simulated clients (i.e., bringing trained actors to the classroom) is a pedagogical approach I was first introduced to while teaching social work at the University of Toronto. A well-established pedagogy in medicine, law and nursing, simulation has been more recently used as an evidence-based pedagogy in social work education. At the School of Social Work here at Carleton, Dr. Sarah Todd, Associate Professor, first introduced simulation to her classroom a few years ago. While the cost involved in hiring actors prevented the school from expanding the use of this pedagogy, the recent financial assistance from the Educational Development Centre (EDC) made it possible for us to use simulation in three different practice courses across the BSW and MSW programs.

While other instructors might use simulation differently in their respective classrooms, I have come to learn the importance of developing case studies based on my own practice experiences. Knowing the case studies inside and out allows me to work closely with the actors to accurately and authentically portray the clients and their complex situations. This process sometimes involves a modification of the case studies too, because each actor brings a unique set of characters, social locations and skills that might differ from my original intent.

Once in the classroom, students take turns working with the actor/client as a social worker, while others observe this therapeutic engagement in the classroom. I facilitate a class discussion after each student engages the actor/client for 10 minutes. During this time, the social worker engages in the reflection of the 10-minute engagement, while the other students are expected to provide the social worker constructive feedback and theoretically discuss the case. This process is repeated until 5-6 students have the opportunity to take the role of a social worker. Finally, the client/actor offers social workers constructive feedback and suggestions from the perspective of a client.

Evaluations from students show that simulated actors/clients provide more realistic situations for them to integrate theory and practice than the student-to-student role plays traditionally used in social work classrooms. While students might also learn skills by watching the video demonstration of expert therapists, only live sessions can provide students with experiential opportunities to develop skills to respond to the unpredictable nature of interpersonal engagement.

Our students are voicing strong support for the continuation and expansion of the use of simulation. This pilot project certainly inspired me to find out if simulation can be a potential answer for teaching the art and science of social work practice.