Decolonising field education - challenging Australian social work praxis


  • Ines Zuchowski James Cook University
  • Dorothy Savage
  • Debra Miles James Cook University
  • Susan Gair James Cook University


decolonisation, field education, Indigenous, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, social work education, theory to practice


Social Work’s contribution to Australia’s legacy of colonisation, the Stolen Generation and ongoing child welfare interventions, may make entering the profession a contentious issue for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Yet the profession is poorer for their absence, and closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous social work graduates is a quest aligned with social justice, and with social work as a human rights profession. Field education is considered a significant and important process through which students are socialised into the profession. Questions arise about how professional enculturation might occur for Indigenous students as they put theory into practice, when this theory and practice derives from dominant western frameworks.

In this article we present findings from research exploring the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social work and welfare students in field placements. The findings identify racism as ever-present, highlight the impact of Eurocentricsm on practice, and reveal the disregard of Aboriginal cultural ways of helping and the potential for disempowerment. These findings have implications for social work praxis and social work education. Recommendations for improved practice and further research are made.


Abram, F., Hartung, M., and Wernet, S. (2000) ‘The NonMSW Task Supervisor, MSW Field Instructor, and the Practicum student’, Journal of Teaching in Social Work, vol. 20, no 1, pp.171-185. doi: 10.1300/J067v20n01_11

Acocella, I. (2012) ‘The focus groups in social research; Advantages and disadvantages’, Quality and Quantity, vol 46, no 4, pp.1125-1136.

Atkinson, J. (2002) ‘Trauma trails. Recreating Song Lines. The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia’. Spinifex Press, North Melbourne.

Ban, P. (2005) ‘Aboriginal Child Placement Principle and Family Group Conferences’, Australian Social Work, vol. 58, no. 4, pp. 384-394.

Barton, H., Bell, K., and Bowles, W. (2005) ‘Help or hindrance? Outcomes of social work student placements’. Australian Social Work, vol. 58, no. 3, pp.301-312. doi: 10.1111/j.1447-0748.2005.00222.x

Behrandt, L. (2006) ‘Rights, responsibilities and Indigenous disadvantage’, Impact, Summer 5-7.

Bennett, B.,Zubrzycki, J. and Bacon, V. (2011) ‘What do we know? The experiences of social workers working alongside Aboriginal people’. Australian Social Work, vol. 64, no. 1, pp.20-37.

Clark, N., Drolet, J., Mathews, N., Wlaton, P., Tamburro, P. R., Derrick, J., . . . Arnouse, M.

(2010) ‘Decolonizing field education:”Melq’ilwiye” coming together: An exploratory study in the interior of British Columbia’. [electronic]. Critical Social Work, vol.11, no. 1.

Coulton, P., and Krimmer, L. (2005) ‘Co-supervision of social work students: A model for meeting the future needs of the profession’, Australian Social Work, vol. 58, no. 2, pp.154-166.

Crisp, B. E., and Maidment, J. (2009)‘Swapping roles or swapping desks? When experienced practitioners become students on placement’, Learning in Health and Social Care, vol. 8, no 3, pp.165-174.

Desai, M. (2009. ‘A reflective-pluralist curriculum planning for theory-building in social work practice’. In Noble, C., M. Henrickson and Young Yan , Social Work Education. Voices from the Asia Pacific. The Vulgar Press: Melbourne, Victoria.

Frost, N.A., Holt, A., Shinebourne, P., Esin, C., Nolas, S., Mehdiadeh, L. andBrooks-Gordon, B. (2011) ‘Collective findings, individual interpretations: An illustration of a pluralistic approach to qualitative data analysis’, Qualitative Research in Psychology, vol. 8, no. 1, pp.93-113.

Furlong, M. and Wight, J. (2011) ‘Promoting “critical awareness” and critiquing “cultural competence”: Towards disrupting received professional knowledges’, Australian Social Work, vol. 64, no.1, pp.38-54.

Gair, S. (2007) ‘Developing Indigenous-inclusive curriculum in tertiary education. Feeling my way as a non-Indigenous educator,’ Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, vol. 36, 49-55.

Gair, S., Thomson, J., and Savage, D. (2005) ‘What’s stopping them? Exploring barriers hindering indigenous Australians from completing a social work degree at a regional Queensland University’, Advances in Social Work and Welfare Education, vol.7,no.1, pp.54-62.

Gair, S, Thomson, J., Miles, D. and Harris, N. (2003) ‘It’s very white isn’t it! Challenging mono-culturalism in social work and welfare education’, Advances in Social Welfare Education, vol. 5, no.1, pp.37-52.

Gladstein, M. and Mailick, M. (1986)’An affirmative approach to ethnic diversity in field work’. Journal of Social Work Education, Winter, no. 1, pp. 41-49.

Gray, M., and Coates, J. (2010) ‘Indigenization’ and knowledge development: Extending the debate’. International Social Work, vol. 53, no. 3, pp.613-627. doi: 10.1177/0020872810372160

Green, S., and Baldry, E. (2008) ‘Building Indigenous Australian social work’. Australian Social Work, vol. 61, no. 4, pp. 389-402. doi: 10.1080/03124070802430718

Harms, L., Middleton, J., Whyte, J., Anderson, I., Clarke, A., Sloan, J., Hagel, M. and Smith, M. (2011) ‘Social work with Aboriginal clients: perspectives on educational preparation and practice’, Australian Social Work, vol. 64, no. 2, pp.156-168.

Hart, M. (2001) ‘An Aboriginal approach to social work practice’. In T. Hienonen, and L. Spearman (Eds), Social work practice: Problem Solving and Beyond, Nelson, Toronto pp.235-260.

Healey, J. (2008) Indigenous Disadvantage. Spinney Press, Thirroul, NSW

Laenui, P., ( Hayden, Burgess). (2000) ‘Processes of Decolonization’. In Battiste, M. , Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision, UBC Press ,Vancouver, BC, pp. 150-160. Retrieved online 14 June 2007

Laenui, P., (Hayden, Burgess) (2007) Welcome Remarks. Paper presented at the Indigenous Voices in Social Work: Not Lost in Translation, Makaha, Oahu, Hawaii.

Lynn, R., Thorpe, R., Miles, D., Cutts, C., Butcher, A., and Ford, L. (1998) ‘Murri Way!’- Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Reconstruct Social Welfare Practice.’ James Cook University. Centre for Social and Welfare Research, Townsville.

Maidment, J. (2003) ‘Problems experienced by students on field placement: Using research findings to inform curriculum design and content’, Australian Social Work, vol. 5,6, no. 1, pp.50-60. doi: 10.1046/j.0312-407X.2003.00049.x

Maidment, J. (2006) ‘Using on-line delivery to support students during practicum placements’, Australian Social Work, vol. 59, no.1,pp.47-55.doi: 10.1080/03124070500449770

Maidment, J. and Beddoe, L. (2012) ‘Is social work supervision in ‘Good Heart’? A critical commentary’, Australian Social Work, vol. 65, no. 2,pp.163-170.

Messinger, L. (2004) ‘Out in the field: Gay and lesbian social work students’ experiences in field placement’, Journal of Social Work Education, vol. 40, no. 2, pp.187-204.

Muller, L. (2010) Indigenous Australian Social-Health Theory. Unpublished PhD thesis, Department of Social Work, James Cook University, Townsville.

Ornstein, E., and Moses, H. (2010) ‘Goodness of fit: A relational approach to field instruction’, Journal of Teaching in Social Work, vol. 30, no. 1, pp.101-114. doi: 10.1080/08841230903479615

Patford, J. (2000) ‘Can I do social work and do I want to? Students’ perception of significant learning incidents during practica’, Australian Social Work, vol. 53, no. 2, pp.21-28. doi: 10.1080/03124070008414145

Savage, D., Gair, S., Miles D. and Zuchowski, I. (2012)Picking yourself up and dusting it off. Experiences of Racism in Social Work Placements. Presented at Racism in the New World Order Conference, Cairns,30- 31st of August.

Weaver, H. (1999) ‘Indigenous people and the social work profession: Defining culturally competent services’, Social Work, vol. 44, no. 3, pp. 217-225.

Yellow Bird, M. (2008) ‘Terms of Endearment: A brief dictionary for decolonising social work with Indigenous people’. In Gray, M., Coates, J. , and Yellow Bird, M., Indigenous Social Work around the World. (275-291), Hampshire: Ashgate.




Most read articles by the same author(s)

1 2 3 > >>