Social Dialogue Magazine
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Trish Hafford-Letchfield, PhD
Professor of Social Care, Department of Mental Health and Social Work, Middlesex University, London, UK


Kate Leonard, PhD
Senior Lecturer, Social Work Department, Royal Holloway, University of London & London South Bank University, London, UK


Wendy Couchman, PhD
Professor of Social Work (Emeritus), Department of Health and Social Work, London South Bank, London, UK

Arts-based pedagogies in social work education: Does it measure up?


Social work education is confronting unprecedented socio-economic and political challenges resulting from globalisation, demographic and cultural transformation combined with technological advances. How it prepares students by keeping to the true spirit of an empowering and emancipatory yet a robust and fit-for-purpose approach to education, demands a creative approach. Our own endeavours as educators from the UK in searching for novel approaches, has led us to experiment with the arts as a means of enriching social work pedagogy (Hafford-Letchfield et al, 2012). Social work epistemology has traditionally been founded on social science theoretical frameworks so borrowing methods from the arts seems to naturally build on this interdisciplinary approach. However, the need for accountability led us to conduct a wider exploration of what is involved in arts-based learning and to look for potential new methods for research and evaluation which bring us closer to understanding why arts-based approaches might be effective in learning and teaching? In this short article we share selected findings from a systematic review of the available evidence (Leonard et al, 2017). We highlight key messages and principles for educators interested in designing an evaluation of arts-based pedagogies and what we have learned about doing this to best effect.

Does arts-based pedagogy work?

We found that introducing and delivering arts-based approaches often provokes wide-ranging reactions from those involved such as those regulating the social work curriculum, other academics, social work students and practice educators. This may be based on the personal values they give to the role of arts in society and their own positive or negative experiences of, for example music, art, poetry and drama. These may lead to resistance to the value of this type of learning and learners may need encouragement to take risks. Deployment of the arts needs to be seen in the context of the contested nature of social work knowledge and what is recognised as important in the education of social workers. Often the worth of scientific, research informed knowledge and the development of qualities such as humility, the ability to build relationships and the values of social justice are in competition with each other when prioritising content in the social work curriculum. Whilst policies on education often identify the need for critical thinking to be augmented by creativity there remains a strong emphasis on technical-rational ways of working rather than the artistry of the reflective practitioner. Activist pedagogies can challenge formulaic methods in areas of learning where there is complexity and uncertainty such as in social work. The arts may offer different interpretations to enhance assessment, the analytic and action capabilities of social work in collaboration with service users. These are good example of activist pedagogies which may help to generate new ways of practising. Indeed the need for democratic engagement and centrality of user and carer experiences in education are often cited as a strong rationale for using arts based pedagogies (Sinding et al., 2014: 188). These debates led us to conduct a systematic review (Leonard et al, 2017) into the impact of the arts in social work education to explore ‘what works’ and the range and type of evidence available.

Reviewing the ‘evidence‘

Our review identified nine empirical studies from USA, Australia, Israel and U.K. 2003-2015. Just one identified the explicit use of an evaluation model using Pawson and Tilley (2000). Whilst many more educators have published and shared their use of arts-based pedagogies, most accounts fall short of demonstrating an adequate design and reliable outcomes that could emerge from a more in-depth evaluation. Carpenter (2011) identified significant gaps when developing research questions and suitable evaluation strategies in social work education and drew on Kirkpatrick’s four levels of impact on the learner. These range from 1) changing perceptions, and attitudes 2) increased knowledge and skills, 3) changing behaviour and 4) impact on service delivery. Much of the evaluation in the studies we reviewed fell within these first two levels.

The approaches used in the review studies included sculpture, drawing, photographs, literature, music and drama. We found evidence in three key areas. The first concerned learning about relationship between micro and macro level perspectives in social work, for example by students developing community action projects using peer theatre, sculpture and drawing which enabled them to develop skills, knowledge and values in advocacy, human rights, food poverty and interpersonal violence. The second theme concerned how the arts facilitated students to develop leadership for interprofessional and partnership working particularly when arts based activities were shared or facilitated with service users and carers. By generating a more dynamic learning climate, the opportunity for direct work together through arts activities subtly challenged the usual power relationships between practitioners and service users. The third theme centred on the unique features of how the studies were designed and illuminated the theoretical influences of social sciences and arts-based methods. These need better articulating in order to assist with evaluating impact for social work practice. Some of this work has been done extensively by Huss (2015). Savin-Baden and Winpenny (2014) offer a system for classification which considers how arts based methods in social work practice can be used as an intervention and at the other end of the spectrum can actually generate findings in an art form (see Huss, 2015). Sinding et al. (2014) talk about the arts acting as a vehicle for ‘getting stuff out’; inhabiting others’ worlds’; and ‘breaking habits of seeing/knowing’ (p190) in order to address individual and socially messy, problematic emotions and experiences in social work.

shadow art

The Authors, 'Gravel Shadow'

So what’s next?

It may be that we need to seek more opportunities to apply research findings and to demonstrate how we can assess the quality, fitness for purpose and relevance in answering different or empirical questions about what is effective about using the arts in learning and teaching. Our review highlighted some of these challenges in weighing up evidence to answer a collective question about the impact of the arts in social work education, particularly given the diversity of methods, approaches and evaluations in the small-scale individual studies examined. We found that these only partially provided reliable measures on aspects such as learner’s experiences, the acquisition of higher knowledge and skills, the potential for deeper learning, behaviour change and impact on the organisation and service users as a result of engaging with the arts. Whilst no conclusions can be drawn as to whether qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods would provide more robust designs and evaluation, it is important to think more proactively about how we identify the research question we are seeking to answer, our aims and objectives and relevant methodologies. The use of comparative studies and pre- and post-learning episode evaluations for example would appear to be something we could do more of? For those of us more interested in the process of learning, any evaluation could be more focused on the impact of pedagogy and teaching interventions.

One controversy in this debate is the question whether by bringing arts-based activities into the curriculum and research agenda should be primarily concerned with generating evidence and the role of the arts in challenging the dominance of scientific thinking as seen in the current emphasis on evidence-based practice. As an alternative, the arts can be used as pedagogical tools and approaches to mirror the values of the profession as well as to enable experience, affect and empowerment for the individual or group of learners which can be valued and self-reported in the spirit of transformative education without specific measures or accountabilities. Pink (2007) suggests the use of visual and sensory approaches to communicate on a deeper, affective level essential to our practice in health and social care beyond words. There may also be advantages of integrating the arts to facilitate service user involvement and interprofessional learning in social work education in a myriad of ways. In short, there are differences about why and how we explain and clarify our motives and drivers for research and evaluation of arts based pedagogies which would help to identify our values, assumptions and any theories used. We conclude with some tips to evaluating arts-based pedagogies (see also University of West of England


Carpenter, J (2011) Evaluating social work education: A review of outcomes, measures, research designs and practicalities. Social Work Education: The International Journal 30(2): 122–140.
Hafford-Letchfield , T., Leonard, K., Couchman, W. (2012) ‘Arts and Extremely Dangerous’: Critical Commentary on the Arts in Social Work Education, Social Work Education: The International Journal, 31:6, 683-690.
Huss, E. (2015) A Theory-based Approach to Art Therapy: Implications for Teaching, Research and Practice. London, Routledge.
Leonard, K., Hafford-Letchfield, T. and Couchman, W. (2016) The impact of the arts in social work education: A systematic review. Qualitative Social Work. Online first
Pawson, R. and Tilley, N. (2000) Realistic Evaluation, London: Sage.
Pink, S. (2007) Doing Visual Ethnography, London: Sage.
Savin-Baden, M, Wimpenny, K (2014) A Practical Guide to Arts-Related Research, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
Sinding C, Warren RD and Paton C (2014) Social work and the arts: Images at the intersection. Qualitative Social Work 13(2): 187–202.