Kirwan, G. (2012) UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL: ENGAGING LEARNERS WITH SERVICE USER KNOWLEDGE. In: National Academy’s Sixth Annual Conference and the Fourth Biennial Threshold Concepts Conference. Threshold Concepts: from personal practice to communities of practice, 2012, June 28 - 29 2012, Trinity College Dublin., Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.


This paper reports on the benefits gained from the creation of a high-challenge learning environment within one module of a professional social work degree programme. In a module entitled Mental Health and Social Work for final year social work students, the traditional classroom landscape was transformed (and the safety perch of the lecturer-as-expert unseated) when two representatives of a mental health service-user organisation accepted an invitation to audit the module's content and delivery. As part of conducting the audit, the service-users reviewed the module handouts, assignment guidelines and lecture content. They also sat in on all the lectures. Appreciating the value of the service-user perspective and service-user feedback on service delivery is a threshold concept in social work. It is mandated by law in certain jurisdictions, such as Northern Ireland, that social work degree programmes promote service-user perspectives in the curriculum. Yet, for students it is an elusive and hard-to-grasp concept which can be perceived as ill-defined and ambiguous. Finding ways to represent the views or the ‘voice’ of service-users in education of professional disciplines (not just social work but many other professions also) has consequently confronted lecturers and students alike with challenges of definition, conceptual understanding and application. This experimental audit of a module by two mental health serviceusers threw out the traditional rule-book on boundaries between expert and learner. Students, lecturer and service-users bravely embarked on a journey together into the uncharted territory of service-user involvement in the classroom. This paper reports on the transformative, irreversible, integrative and profoundly knowledge-changing elements of that journey for all concerned….so far. “When people not used to speaking out are heard by people not used to listening, then real changes can be made” (Western Health Board, 2002, p. 10).

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