Women´s Approaches to Knowledge and 
their Learning Strategies? 

- A Study of Twenty-seven Female Social Work Students Ways' of Knowing  
Pia Hellertz


Problem and Purpose

My first purpose in this study is to examine female social work students’ ways of knowing and their learning strategies from a feminist point of view. The academic world with its structures, norms and rituals, has for many hundreds of years (in Sweden c. 500 years) been formed by men for the education and training of men. Women were admitted to the universities around the end of the 19th century. The admission of women has not influenced the academic structures and rituals to any great extent, in spite of the fact that female students have been in the majority for around two decades. My second purpose is to present a model of learning profiles which gives a varied picture of women's different approaches.

   The questions that guided the study are: What is the approach to knowledge of the female social work students? What kind of knowledge do they need according to their own opinion? How do they perceive themselves as learners? What kind of learning strategies do they use? How do they deal with difficulties in learning? How do they cope with ”the academic world”? How do they deal with the male character of the education? The question that underlies is: What are the consequences of a convergence between a vocational education and an academic tradition of education with reference to women's approaches to knowledge and learning strategies?  


The stud
y is based on interviews with twenty-seven female social work students from three different centres of Social Work education in Sweden during the seventh and final semester of the programme. The method used for the interviews was "solidary interviews" (sv. "solidariska intervjuer"), the purpose of which is to give the women time and space to speak, pursue with follow-up questions and direct the interpretations to help form thoughts and experiences. Only a few of the women had previously reflected on their experience of education and their learning in a serious way, so many of the issues that were brought up were completely new to most of them.

 Hermeneutic Interpretation and Construction of Knowledge
The interviews, recorded and typed, were analysed and interpreted in several steps by means of a hermeneutic method for interpretation. The concept of the hermeneutic spiral, which
involved many re-readings and new interpretations, governed the work of interpretation and analysis, categorising and development of concepts.

The Plan of the Thesis
The thesis is di
vided into four parts. Part I is an overview of the history of Social Work education in Sweden from a feminist point of view and an account of studies of social work students in Sweden. Part II covers studies of women’s admission to the "academia" and the difficulties involved and an extensive theoretical chapter where international research on women’s ways of knowing is described. This chapter is concluded by a section on "Feministic pedagogy", where conscious didactic approaches for women are presented and discussed.

   Part III consists of two empirical chapters that account for the social situation of the social work students, their background and view on social work, and for their encounter with what is ”male” within their training, with a focus on their male fellow students, but also on lectures, lessons and literature. The remaining four empirical chapters present the dimensions that were developed from the analysis of the interviews: Origins of Knowledge, Directions of Knowledge, Orientation of Knowledge and Pathways to Knowledge (Learning Strategies).

   Part IV presents a model for the profiles of thought and learning that is developed from an analysis of the interviews, which in turn is studied from a feminist view-point. Finally it suggests that Social Work education, with a gender conscious didactic, should transcend destructive and restraining gender constructions with reference both to the contents of education and its implementation in lecture halls, study groups and in other educational contexts.

 A Historical and Feminist Perspective

Social Work education in Sweden was started in 1921. A little more than 40 years later, 1964, it was accepted at University College level (Högskola) and in 1977 it was integrated into the university organisation and the first professor of social work was appointed.

   When Social Work education was admitted to the academic world two opposite cultures confronted each other; on the one hand, the vocational training with its focus on social work practice, and on the other academic traditions with its focus on the training of theoretical, scholarly and critical thinking.

   History shows that both women and men contributed to the development of this education from the very beginning and that the target group for the education was both women and men. It seemed, though, that women and men had different tasks and different bases when developing the education. Both women and men were interested in transforming social work into a science and it´s development into a professional education for social workers. Women seem to have fought for both course content and a learning methodology which aimed at professionalising the social work practice. This meant, among other things, that they wanted courses in social methodology, psychology and supervised vocational training practice to be part of the education. The men, on the other hand, seem to have been more interested in developing an education for civil servants with the necessary academic disciplines for this kind of work, e.g. political science, legal science and especially social policy. Both sexes were interested in turning social work education into a scientific disciplin, but the men seem to have been more interested to make the education "academic" which means adjusting it to and fitting into the academic structures of disciplins and a didactic traditionally formed by men. These structures are characterised as hierarchal and competitive. Another aspect is objectification of knowledge and of people, and a "separated critical thinking". The education as preparatory for research was gradually developed at the expense of an emphasis on vocational training and preparation for social work in practice.

   The struggle between the "advocates for practice" and the "advocates for theory" has gone in waves and manifested itself in different ways during the roughly eight decades that this education has existed. The advocates for theory seem to have been mainly men, with a main interest in research with roots in other disciplines, e.g. sociology, psychology and political science. The advocates for practice seem to have been mainly women with experience from social work practice. When Social Work was established as an academic discipline in 1977, an antagonism between "vocational training" and "education preparatory for research" was built into the discipline. The research arenas within Social Work have gradually been made more and more masculine. The upper level officials within academia, professors, research fellows and senior lecturers, are mainly men, in spite of the fact that women have an absolute majority in practical social work (82%) as well as in the undergraduate programmes (82%).

   Today the advocates for theory have once again gained ground as social work as an academic discipline has been given more space within the educational programme for social work, at the same time as the amount of supervised practical social work has decreased substantially.

 "Women's Ways of Knowing" - A Theoretical Approach
An a
merican study, carried out by Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger and Jill Tarule, "Women's Ways of Knowing" (1986) (WWK) has been my source of inspiration and the starting-point for this study. The researchers found that the women they studied had different approaches to knowledge and used different ways of learning. The principal approaches that the researchers found were, on the one hand, those who were categorised as "Received Knowers", to whom knowledge existed outside themselves and was picked-up and memorised. On the other hand, a large group were categorised as "Subjective Knowers". Their own inner knowledge came mainly from experience of life and an "inner voice". The researchers categorised another three groups of women, namely "Silent", "Procedural Knowing" and "Constructive Knowing”, but these groups were fairly insignificant. Several important concepts and perspectives in my study have been taken from or been inspired by WWK, especially the concepts "connected" and "separated knowing".

   The american researchers were in turn inspired by William Perry’s study from the 1970 on Harvard students, who appeared only to be men. "The Perry Study" describes how students' conceptions of the nature and origins of knowledge evolve and how their understanding of themselves as knowers changes over time, while WWK focused on the origins of knowledge and epistemological orientation. Peter Elbow’s (1973, 1986) research on seminar cultures and communication, and his concepts "the Believing Game" and "the Doubting Game", have also been a source of great inspiration.

   WWK has inspired many researchers around the world, e.g. Marcia Baxter Magolda (1992) who has carried out comparative studies of the differences between women’s and men’s learning and, in addition to that, presented a developmental theory about learning.  

Female Social Work Students' Ways of Knowing and Learning
Who are the Students?

Almost half of the 27 students are working class women, a litt
le less than half of them are middle class women and two come from farmers’ families. They are 29 years of age on average when they graduate. Most of them are married or cohabit and a third of them (30%) have one or more children, which is more than the average university student in Sweden (20%). Only five of them have previously studied at university. For several of them this education involves something of a "class journey". They are the first member of their family to study at a university. Several of them have a vocational education and have been working in various spheres of activity.

   A very large part of the middle class women have personal experience of violence, abuse through alcohol, sexual violations or other psychosocial problems in their childhood; only one of the working class women had similar experiences. Several of them had taken psychotherapy or attended therapy groups to work with their experiences. These women would like Social Work education to provide therapy groups or psychotherapy within the formal education, as they have realised that experiences from childhood which have not been dealt-with might obstruct the social work with vulnerable clients.  

Women Encounter the Male Academic World
The 27
students that were interviewed showed various degrees of awareness of gender. Most of them noted and experienced differences between themselves and the male students, but only a small group described themselves as feminists. These women were angry and disappointed and wanted and often fought for change, in lecture halls, in study groups and in their private lives. These women were mainly from the working class and they were also somewhat older than the average student in the social work education. A very large group noted and experienced differences between the sexes, but they did not think much about it and did not state any demand for change. Another group, almost as large, had observed certain differences but did not think about them until they were interviewed.

   The main differences that the women had observed and accounted for were about goal and purpose for studies (men were more career oriented), space in the lecture room (men spoke much more in spite of the fact that they were very few), ways of discussing and debating in lecture rooms and groups (men seemed to be more matter of fact about criticism and did not take it personally, as opposed to women, who often reacted personally to criticism; men seemed more oriented towards facts and achievement, whereas women seemed more concentrated on processes and interactions), about ways of studying (men seemed to take studies, pressure of examinations, and projects more lightly than women), about relations to teachers (men seemed to relate to teachers, "have coffee” with them, identify with them, while women to a larger extent seemed to need teachers for support and confirmation of themselves and their learning) and about language, course content and about "the academic" (women felt that men seemed to understand and take in the academic language and adjust to studies and methods more easily than themselves). The women also described strategies for resistance and counter-power that they used when they found lectures and literature too abstract, too difficult or irrelevant and pointless: they asked fellow students, friends and family; they talked in study groups and with fellow students; they developed strategies to get through: "I'll give them what they want", "I'll study, take examinations and forget" and the like. Some described subtle strategies for resistance like, "Well, I won’t take any notes". One woman found a female "ally" and together found the strength to fight for her perspectives and view points in lecture rooms and study groups.

The Four Dimensions of Knowledge
The analysis of the interviews with the women led to a
categorisation of approaches to knowledge and learning into four dimensions of knowledge.  

I. Origins of Knowledge

Most of the women interviewed found that their main origin of knowledge was life experience. They reported events and experiences that had proved important knowledge to them – experiences from work, from activities in clubs and during spare-time and, above all, from family and friends. Many of them had had an easy time at school, but they still did not mention school as an origin of knowledge. Some of them described mass media, television and newspapers, as important origins of knowledge. A few of them considered formal education, school, teachers, course literature etc. to have been important to them. Several of them were young and had little or no work experience. To many of these women the most important purpose of school was to confirm and "give words" to life experiences. Formal education will, at best, provide new perspectives and new understanding. The women’s criticism about formal education is mainly that the knowledge conveyed is not meaningful and rele­vant, that it is often too abstract and too difficult and that knowledge is presented in a language which is unnecessarily complicated and difficult. Course literature is so extensive that you don’t have enough time to read it, and even less time to enter deeply into it. It is often considered to be without meaning and relevance as an origin of knowledge for social work

 II. Direction of Knowledge
The issue about theory and practice turned out to be the main
concern for this dimension of knowledge. Most of the women were critical of the contents of the theoretical lessons and the theoretical literature, which was often considered to be too abstract and they did not think that it sufficiently supported social work practice. They also criticised the teachers for being "too theoretical", having no basis in or experience from social work in real life. Most of them wanted the supervised vocational training practice to play a more important role and have greater significance within the formal education. It was during the work experience semesters they learned what knowledge they needed and had been confirmed in the belief that they already possessed important knowledge. A few of them found that they learned to value theoretical knowledge during the course of education. This was often a consequence of good teaching, "good teachers" and "good literature" that had helped them to understand.  

III. Orientation of Knowledge
Inspired by the research of Blythe Clinchy, Peter Elbow and Marcia Baxter Magolda
, the focus of the third dimension of knowledge became the issue of "connected" and "separated knowing". The women were asked to take a stand on a few statements of attitudes that threw light upon the two different approaches of knowledge. A majority of qualified social work students remain "connected" in their learning, both in terms of other people and knowledge. They find it extremely difficult to deal with and feel resistance to learning strategies which are based on "separated knowing" such as "the Doubting Game" (Elbow), critical thinking, objective standpoints, debates and argumentation. They do not feel accepted. They feel attacked and criticised in situations like that. They feel they are in a hostile place. Some of them feel that these kinds of approaches are important to know, "but still it is difficult". Some try to learn. Others refrain from trying as they do not find these kinds of approaches important. "Connected knowers" prefer "the Believing Game", co-construction of knowledge, "protective thinking", "real" talk, subjective understanding of others’ perspectives and good, close relationships to fellow students and to other people. Argumentation and criticism are a threat to these good relationships. Only a few of the interviewed women valued the "separated" approach. In close and lasting relationships some of the women dared to try a more separated way of arguing.  

IV. Pathways to Knowledge: Ways of Learning or Learning Strategies
The women interviewed mainly used a listenin
g strategy in their learning in public situations, in lecture halls and in seminars. In the smaller study groups the women were, however, very active. The dialogues in the smaller groups was the most valued form of studying and strategy for learning and most of them described a very great need to speak to others, to fellow students, to family and friends about what they have heard and learnt. They do not want debate filled with conflicts. They want a respectful, confident, trusting, connected dialogue and conversation based on mutual listening and speaking.

   The lecture as a pathway to knowledge has a very low priority among most of the students interviewed. If the lecturer is enthusiastic and shows understanding and respect for the students’ difficulties and has knowledge of and experience of the subject area, the lecture might be an interesting didactic method. If this is not the case, most of the women interviewed prefer to use the time for self-tuition and dialogues in study groups. They also prefer to work with tasks and problems that are relevant and adequate for social work. Most of them would prefer to have supervisors and tutors available for the study groups. The groups are often superficial and paralysed by relational problems and conflicts, which they would like to be helped in solving. Some suggest that the study group should be used educationally/didactically, as social work is often carried out in groups and social workers need these abilities and skills. In the group one can practise leadership under supervision, perceive and handle group processes, relational problems, problem solving etc.

   Many of the students claim that they like very much to read, but they find the course literature too extensive and often too difficult, too heavy or irrelevant and pointless. Many of them would prefer to choose their own literature based on their needs and interests. Many of them had experiences from courses and work with papers and projects where they chose their own literature and other sources of knowledge which they valued highly. In such a case one could "read as much as one liked". In these cases literature was an important pathway to knowledge. In other cases "one studied for the examination". Many of them were also critical of the amount of English literature, which took time and energy to understand and made deepening of the studies more difficult. "Is it psychology or is it english we are supposed to learn?"

 The Learning Profile
By means of the four dimensio
ns of knowledge and their eight extremes, a model of learning profiles was created with whose help one ought to be able to analyse both women’s and men’s present approaches to knowledge and learning and then any future changes which will occur. There is, however, no theory for development built into the model. This will be a future area for research.

   The extremes I chose from the analysis of the women’s Origins of knowledge for my model of learning profiles were on the one hand life experiences and on the other hand formal education. Direction of knowledge was  either theory or practice, meaning that the women maintained either that the purpose of teaching and learning was theoretical understanding and explanation ("know why" knowledge) or need for knowledge was for social work practice ("know how" knowledge).

   When it came to Orientation of knowledge the extremes were "connected" ("near") and "separated" ("distant") knowing. The extremes of Pathways to knowledge were "inner" and "outer” pathways of knowing and learning.

   The combining of these eight extremes in all possible combinations led to a system of sixteen different profiles of learning (see appendix 9). As such a varied system is difficult to use, a four-cell table based on the dimensions was developed from it, each cell containing four learning profiles. The four main learning profiles in the four-cell table were named "Connected practitioner", "Connected theorist", "Separated practitioner" and "Separated theorist". Nine of the twenty-seven women were categorised as connected practitioners, seven as connected theorists, one as a separated practitioner and three as separated theorists.

   Seven of the women were impossible to fit into any of the profiles. They represented what came to be known as "Integrated knowers" in one or more dimensions of knowledge. Both positions of a dimension were perceivable in the women’s approaches and strategies but neither dimension seemed to dominate to any great extent. Rather, there seemed to be an interplay between the positions. 

Feminist Perspectives of the Profile
When critically studying the dimensions of know
ledge and the learning profiles from a feminist perspective, it is obvious that these are constructed in a male hierarchical context of education, where women’s experiences and conceptions are not highly valued and where women’s voices are often not heard or silenced. As long as school and formal education do not make visible, name, make scientific and support the reality, the self apprehension and life experiences of women (or any other group which is oppressed), then life experience will probably remain the primary origin of knowledge for women even in the future. Furthermore, since women choose silence and use listening learning strategies, there is a great danger that knowledge remains unreflected and "private", and is consequently classified as "tacit knowledge". The epistemological alternative seems to be that the core of education is small study and work groups who seek and develop knowledge by themselves, assisted by tutors and supervisors.

   A change of the competitive hierarchic structures, norms and rituals would, from the point of view of women’s approaches to knowledge and learning strategies, mean a formal education that is mainly "connected" in a hospitable environment. Co-operation, generosity, consideration, care, empathy and democracy should permeate the educational context. The foundation-stone of didactic should be the dialogue and protective and connected critical thinking. A formal education with such characteristics would be able to provide greater opportunities to develop into adequate and relevant origins of knowledge even for women. This would also be valid for the interaction between theory and practice. If theories were to describe, explain, understand, make visible and support women’s lives and experiences, they might more readily be considered as useful tools for thought and work for the lives of women and for social work in practice. Feminist inspired didactic might form and stimulate a generic theory of education based on all the lives and experiences of all the categories of students.

   The present study supports many other studies of women’s orientation of knowledge or approaches to knowledge. Women seem to be mainly "connected" in their approaches to other people, to knowledge and learning. Separated teaching and learning contexts create difficult obstacles for many women during the learning process. As a separated approach is of great importance both in the scientific search for knowledge, in knowledge development and in practical social work, this dissociation and the inability of a separated approach is a problem, a didactic problem. Formal education should give women the opportunity to train "separatedness" in a "connected" way, e.g. by "the Believing Game", by creating a hospitable space and context and by conscious didactic and training of separated skills, through protective critical thinking and connected arguing etc.

   An "isomorphic" education, i.e. a context of education which in many respects is based on the same ideas and the same didactic as social work in the field might provide a useful didactic base for connected teaching and learning. These are, however, empirical matters that need to be explored.

   The conclusions drawn from female social work students’ ways of knowing and learning seem to be completely in line with more and more explicit demands for a paradigmatic shift within higher education, often described as the transition from teaching to learning.

 Social Work Education as Gender Transcendent
This study, as well as the research of others, shows how formal education continues to construct and preserve traditional gender constructions. Women are still to a large extent disciplined into silence and listening and into "cue-seeking" strategies, i.e. finding out what they need to know to "pass the examination", even if the moulding mechanisms often are subtle or invisible ("the hidden curriculum") and usually unconscious.

   It is a democratic right for women to be  included in higher education. The first purpose of Social Work education is to train academically students to be professional social workers (even if some of them end up doing research). Social workers tend to, usually unconsciously, construct traditional gender patterns with clients and patients unless a change takes place. A consequence of this study is to maintain the possibility of a Social Work education as a transcendent factor in gender (class, race etc.) constructions. This means that education on all levels, in all courses and projects emphasise, make visible, make aware, question and analyse discrimination and oppression on all levels and in all situations in society, and thereafter submit them to analysis, questioning, discussion and processing within education. It also means, and this is the main point, that the didactic of education should be modelled to traverse borders, to be transcendent. Ideas and methods from feminist and other liberating pedagogic can contribute with ideas for the use in lecture rooms, seminar rooms and other contexts within education with the purpose of consciousness-raising and even transcendence. Sexist, racist, and class prejudices, values and behaviour in the study context should be made visible, questioned, analysed and discussed with the purpose of transcending the prevailing traditional gender patterns, gender games, gender roles and gender constructions. The aim of and the focus of Social Work education must be consciousness-raising, liberating and transcending in order to educate women and men for social work who will be able in turn to empower and liberate clients and patients to  transcend their often poor or destructive living conditions.  


Senast uppdaterad: 23 juni, 2012 12:58
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