The Art of Social Work

Did you know the majority of mental health services in the United States are administered by professional social workers? Social workers are not only on the front lines working to serve our country’s most vulnerable, they’re also an integral part of the infrastructure of our nation’s mental health treatment systems. Recently I began a partnership with the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art to work at the intersection of neuroscientific evidence on cognition and learning, clinical social work graduate training, and fine art.

My primary research agenda is focused on criminal behavior development, trauma, and gender; therefore, I am familiar with the modern neuroscience literature and how neuroimaging has been used to help provide insight into the ways people process experiences of violence and trauma across the lifespan. But, my efforts to learn more about neuroscience-informed education led to a new opportunity to engage with students.

Recently neuroimaging has been used to attempt to quantify how humans learn. It’s been suggested that human brains cognate in three primary ways: linguistically, spatially, and visually. Additionally, it’s been proposed that while some people may favor one mode over the other, multimodal learning environments (where visualized, spatial, and verbal exchanges overlap) have the potential to produce more significant and widespread learning than traditional environments.

multi-modeal learning

So how does that get us to FJJMA?

I wanted to explore ways to activate my students’ understanding of the potential consequences of their clinical decision making. After attending a faculty workshop at the museum, I reached out to Jessica Farling, the FJJMA Director of Public Engagement, with an idea for a semester-long project that would culminate at the museum with students learning how to engage with art and use it to connect to and communicate their clinical experiences as well as the differential impact their clinical decisions may have on others.

To do this, students kept weekly journals throughout the semester detailing spatial experiences of clinical decisions they were making, and observing, in their practicum placements. Verbally, they processed in class about how those decisions impacted the lives of the people they were working with in profound ways. At the end of the semester, students explored their journals and identified themes from their professional and personal perspectives, and also the perspectives of clients, families, communities, and organizations.

Then the class met with Ms. Sue Schofield, an FJJMA docent, who led the students on a tour of the museum and through a discussion of how artists visually communicate issues such as those found in the themes from the student journals.


For the object visualization portion of the experience, students were tasked to identify artwork they could use to communicate a theme from their journal. Students were tasked with synthesizing their lived interaction and decision making, with the themes they identified from their written journals, and to use their selected art to help tell the story of how they believed those themes were connected to the lives of those they had worked with.


Student feedback on the experience was overwhelmingly positive. One anonymous student wrote in the course evaluation, “Using Grounded Theory with our journaling and pulling in artwork to think about alternative client perspectives was by far the best experience I have had in college.” Additionally, students suggested the museum tour with Ms. Schofield and learning how to engage with the art in the museum pushed them to explore the perceptions of their professional practice in ways they had never done before. The students reported it as a remarkable experience.

For more information on this assignment, examples of student interpretations and connections to the museum’s exhibits, the partnership with FJJMA, and the student perspectives on the experience, feel free to visit my blog.

image - Version 4


David Axlyn McLeod, PhD, MSW
College of Arts and Sciences
Assistant Professor | Anne and Henry Zarrow School of Social Work
Affiliate Faculty | Women’s & Gender Studies & Center for Social Justice
Faculty Associate | Knee Center for Strong Families
ZH 305 | 405.325.4647 | | @mcleodda



References & Bibliography

Blazhenkova, O., & Kozhevnikov, M. (2008). The new object-spatial-verbal cognitive style model: Theory and measurement. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23(5), 638–663.

Blazhenkova, O., & Kozhevnikov, M. (2010). Visual-object ability: A new dimension of nonverbal intelligence. Cognition, 117(3), 276–301.

Gardner, H. (1998). Are there additional intelligences? The case for naturalist, spiritual,
and existential intelligences. In J. Kane (Ed.), Education, information, and transformation (pp. 111–131). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill-Prentice Hall.

Groff, J.S., (2013). Expanding Our “Frames” of Mind for education and the arts. Harvard educational review. 83(1) 15-39.


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