Sunday, November 05, 2006

Blaming the student

On Friday, I heard an excellent lecture by my supervisor about coping with “impasses” in dealing with students.

He based his lecture in large part on a book that’s not about teaching chaplains and seminary students at all, but rather on the struggles psychotherapists have with difficult patients (Psychotherapy With "Impossible" Cases: The Efficient Treatment of Therapy Veterans by Barry L. Duncan, Mark A. Hubble, Scott D. Miller).

The issue of ‘blame’ really jumped out at me here. We are so often so quick to blame the student when there are problems. But the idea here is to throw out the entire concept of blame altogether and to assume that neither the teacher nor the student is to blame.

Rather, the idea is to focus on

  • Relationship (between student and teacher), and
  • The students desires, thoughts and feelings, etc.

That is, the teacher (or therapist or CPE supervisor) should not be so rigidly wedded to his or her own (learning or therapeutic) theory or curriculum. Rather than blaming the student when the student resists the theory or curriculum, the teacher should ask what it is that the student really wants to learn and ask whether this can be accommodated and nurtured. That is, the student should largely be directing his or her own learning and/or supervision.

This is an idea that has long had tremendous attraction for me. My main two experiences in university-level learning during my life have been my undergraduate education (Grinnell College) and my rabbinical school education (The University of Judaism). (I also have another couple of masters degrees from other institutions, but that's a story for another day!)

At Grinnell, believe it or not, we had _zero_ required classes. That is, there was no core curriculum at all. Students could sign up for whatever courses they wanted.

You might think that this would lead to laziness. But it was anything, but. Students – despite taking on something of a slacker and/or hippy exterior appearance – were amazing motivated and hard working. It was just an incredibly exciting learning environment. People wanted to do well. They cared about their classes. They studied things that interested them. Often, they hero-worshiped their teachers.

Rabbinical school was almost the complete opposite. Almost every class was required. There was almost no choice in the curriculum. The result worked very well for some people. But not so much for others. It had its strengths, but it lacked flexibility.

None of this tension between non-structured and highly structured approaches to learning is new. One prominent advocate of a non-directive learning approach was the famous psychotherapist Carl Rogers.

Now, in an age when cognitive-behavior therapy and other _hard_ and directive approaches have taken over the world of psychotherapy, it seems positively old-fashioned to cite Rogers.
But, I find myself more and more attracted to him. Here is how one web site sums up his approach to learning:

Rogers distinguished two types of learning: cognitive (meaningless) and experiential (significant). The former corresponds to academic knowledge such as learning vocabulary or multiplication tables . . . . The key to the distinction is that experiential learning addresses the needs and wants of the learner. Rogers lists these qualities of experiential learning: personal involvement, self-initiated, evaluated by learner, and pervasive effects on learner.

To Rogers, experiential learning is equivalent to personal change and growth. Rogers feels that all human beings have a natural propensity to learn; the role of the teacher is to facilitate such learning. This includes: (1) setting a positive climate for learning, (2) clarifying the purposes of the learner(s), (3) organizing and making available learning resources, (4) balancing intellectual and emotional components of learning, and (5) sharing feelings and thoughts with learners but not dominating.

According to Rogers, learning is facilitated when: (1) the student participates completely in the learning process and has control over its nature and direction, (2) it is primarily based upon direct confrontation with practical, social, personal or research problems, and (3) self-evaluation is the principal method of assessing progress or success.

I’m convinced by Rogers (at least for learning for professional adults). But, suprizingly, so much of the professional learning I see (especially in the medical setting) moves in the opposite direction -- it is very much what Rogers calls “meaningless” and which I might call content-oriented (the assumption being that you can indeed successfully shovel a certain amount of information into people’s brains as long as it is on power point slide). I also think this emphasis on standardized testing (for schoolkids) is moving us more and more towards a content-focused approached.

The problem is that non-directive learning -- as superior as it is overall -- requires a leap of faith. You need to trust the students and the teachers (especially that the teachers be both motivated and talented). It's very hard to certify and/or quantify that the learning is happening. Having a set amount of data in a powerpoint presentation that we can at least certify that someone sat through gives us the illusion we are _certifying_ that they are learning all the material in the presentation. So, we can certify something. We can measure something. We feel like we can justify what we are doing. And -- in a society that is more and more obsessed with numbers and evidenced-based approaches -- this kind of approach has a growing attraction.

Clinical Pastoral Education seems to be an island where what I would call a relationship-centered approach to education can still find a hold. . . I'm glad to be a part of it!!!


No comments: