iassw logoSocial Dialogue #17

Dr. Venkat Pulla
Australian Catholic University

Teaching cross cultural practices to social work students: A reflective journey


This paper is drawn from my teaching experience and contributions to curriculum development within in Australian Universities. More recently a teaching team of three Lecturers began writing a new unit of social work study called SWTP217: Social work with culturally and linguistically diverse communities, (CALD) for the accredited BSW programme at the Australian Catholic University. The core questions that we pondered were: How do we engage students in reflexive practice with diverse communities? This paper is based on my understanding of the collective learning that shaped teaching and planning of assessments and my teaching practice in this unit. Specific to SWTP 217 Unit, the intended learning outcomes, (ILOs), that students ought to demonstrate an understanding of the impact of the Australian migration history, related social policy with an emphasis on how those policies impact on the experiences of a range of migrant, refugee and asylum seeker populations and how these communities fare. The second crucial objective is to have class room based opportunities to develop competencies in cross cultural practice and service delivery.

A reflective Journey

At the outset, I found Susan Alder's approach (2011) of conducting a narrative inquiry into diversity, to be useful. The following diagram is my adaptation for this article.

Susan Alder's approach of narrative inquiry (2011)

Alder, expects that the students undertake a personal review of their beliefs and biases; reflect over and duly consider how they may have already impacted on their knowledge of diversity ((2011, p 620). However I raise a deeper question such as, how has this knowledge of the world distorted/influenced our perceptions of another individual's reality or the truth. It is their truth as they perceive it. As a teacher my own epistemology strongly deploys such reflectivity. My narratives assist the students to grow intellectually and organically. This process is similar to Gramscian counter hegemony which suggests development of a transformation power from within (Pulla, 2017). In Gramscian terms, a thinking individual contributes to action. I see the role and purpose of social work teaching in preparing such 'organic intellectuals' that could work towards a fundamental transformation of society (Gramsci, 1987: 161-323, Pulla, 2016a, Pulla, 2016b, and Pulla, 2017). Utilising auto ethnographic accounts and research findings based on grounded theory approaches (Charmaz, 2014, Pulla, 2016a) further assist me in helping students to delineate and deconstruct their own professional and personal experiences. Additionally it allows me to generalise and resonate with the lives of my audience and the lives of others that they know (Ellis 2004:194-195, Townson, and Pulla, 2015). Through such constructivist agenda devoid of pre-conceived notions, opportunities are created for the learners to construct their own cognitive maps unique to their experience and their needs (Neuman and Blundo, 2000).

I consider self-awareness, critical reflexivity, and analytical thinking as being integral to social work teaching and practice (Urdang, 2010). Similarly I believed that reflexivity, positionality, privilege, situated knowledge and perceptions are intrinsically woven into the profession affording a self-reflective process. In my approach, I trans context day to day living of migrants and refugees; utilising their culturally diverse narratives and their 'lived in' experience of seeing discrimination and inequities occur to them. The questions raised also will allow the students to understand how these new migrants perceive the social construct of privilege. On a personal reflection teaching SWTP 217, has been a great privilege in ACU. As an immigrant academic, the task of teaching this unit provided me an opportunity to reflect upon and relevantly share my narrative of living in Australia. I begin with a statement that some of us bear multiple social identities; live in two cultures--I talk to my own migration, cultural and adaptation experience (Berry, 1997) as I take great pride of being an Australian just as I am equally proud of my land of birth, India. One's own experiential learning is defined by Houle as 'education that occurs as a direct participation in the events of life' (Houle, 1980, p 221). Thus teaching this allowed me to pass on such experiential learning (Kolbe (1984) of my direct participation in Australian society.

Profile of My students

My second year BSW students are still in their formative years with limited exposure to social work issues. Their exposure to social issues is varied and have limited understanding of what happens in social work. Many of them come from schools where career guidance or aptitude matching has occurred prior to their entry into the tertiary portals. By the same token they have not had any prior opportunity to see much social work in action. Within this cohort we also have a very small number of mature age students that bring with them their narratives of real life, pre-existing skills from employment and additional caring responsibilities such as caring for a person with disability or caring for a member of their household with mental illness or caring for siblings that are frail aged that are closer to social work profession (Fraser and Baker, 2014). Some of my students are academically committed and many others are keen to finish the degree in order to obtain a 'decent job' (Biggs and Tang's (2011). My own reflection is that there are a substantial number of students in the middle order, that respond to a higher level of scaffolding of matters pertaining to cross cultural diversity, acquiring competencies etc, through focus grouped discussions and through case studies that are set in the style of 'problem based learning' (Biggs and Tang, 2011, pp 5-7).

Within social work it is well considered view that 'that the knowledge, understanding acceptance and sensitivity to cultural and human diversity is prerequisite for effective work with our clients' (Chau, 1990, p-124). To that end my teaching strategies incrementally build on the Intended learning Outcomes (ILOs) as outlined below. The following four diagrams that are self-explanatory show how the The Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) are matched with Lecture and Tutorial Contents.

Assessment Tasks

I will now briefly address the assessment tasks that were set for this unit with sequenced learning. Sequencing' learning is very important (Nulty, 2011) and likewise it is also important to make students to get a grasp of the concept. The idea is to letting them apply their understanding in tutorial settings and become culturally responsive and confident to utilise them in real life situations when they are in practice settings.

The first task that I set is a reflective piece. It begins with the student's personal reflection. Written as a personal narrative the students introduce themselves and focus on their cultural identity and reflect on how their cultural identity informs their professional identity and their practice as a social worker. The second part of the assignment of 800 words expects the student to choose an ethnic group from a pre-selected list that is provided to the student. The student has an opportunity to display their analytical and research skills in generating a culturally different from their own. The second assignment relates to the concepts of racism and the possibility of social work intervention. This reflective assignment challenges them and expects the students to reflect on practical strategies that will attack prejudices in our society. Three questions are important in this context. How do we retain the motivation of our students? How do we offer them a new set of information and ideas? And finally how do we create an opportunity for them to think? Once we are clear on how to set our answers to the above questions, we are already on the right track. On a reflection I understand that values accrue to a task for a variety of reasons: extrinsic, where the consequences bring something that we desire and want (Biggs and Tang, 2011, p55).

As a teacher I have made use of this value to bring about positive results and these results are:

To recap the aim of this unit is to build cultural responsiveness to bring awareness to my students about the amazing connections between this unit and the core values central to social work that are of dignity of humanity and global solidarity. We are living in a postmodern world full of subjectivism and crass materialism. All students may not have a well-grounded understanding or exposure to the good work of Caritas or EZE or BFW or ICCO and other non-governmental agencies that carry on their silent activities throughout the world in strife stricken areas such as in Syria or elsewhere. Similarly many students may not know that refugees coming by boats actually succumbed to the deep seas and lost their lives before some survivors hitting the Australian shore. Nor many of them know that the Australian federal government has renamed its 'department of multicultural affairs' as the department of 'the border' or border security. Thus when we discuss such issues we don't merely pass information, we briefly critique emerging policies but take their impacts seriously. I consider such teaching to be central to critical theory (Leonardo, 2004) and aligned constructivism (Biggs, 1996). Such an approach not only enhances teaching through constructive alignment but provides us a teaching responsibly to constantly remind the students about the common good, including help for the poor and oppressed, and our shared and intertwined common futures.


One major finding for me as a mentor / teacher is to provide enough opportunity for reflection for the student. In my teaching I realised that strengths perspective advantages social work teaching as it sits closer to the resilience paradigm that is present in education (Pulla et Al, 2012).

Additionally the strengths perspective acknowledges the students with a sense of recognition of their own personal strengths and assets, thus providing the motivation to meet their goals. I utilise this as part of a my own pedagogical framework to address both fragility and creativity in the classroom learning environment and to understand the complexities of culturally and Linguistically Diverse challenges in our society today including those presented in the classroom.

Such an approach has proved handy for me in teaching from the narratives of the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Similarly teaching about racism, prejudice and white privilege; understanding culture and cultural differences and cultural relativism. The analogy extends to mental health and wellbeing defined from the client perspectives, sometimes pretty challenging for the students. In teaching this unit of cross cultural methods beginning with conversations around the above significant issues right in the second year of social work of a four year social work programme has been rather useful. Needless to mention that discussion around ethical issues and dilemmas in cross cultural practice goes hand in hand which is once again a great opportunity for teachers to assist the students to increase contents for Self-awareness and reflection.


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