Saturday, June 02, 2007

Talking with Dave: Self-Appraisal and Large Groups

Entry for 2 June, 2007:

After dinner on Friday, Bill headed back to his hotel and Peter, who had had only two hours of sleep the previous night, soon retired to bed, leaving Dave and I on our own to talk for a couple hours. It was one of those memorable, wide ranging conversations, and this time, as he talked about his experiences teaching at Strathclyde, I had the proper context to appreciate much more fully what he had to say. I have been at Strathclyde for almost a year now, including the month I spent in Scotland last summer before we moved, and I will take over as Chair of the Counselling Unit Management Team in August. So it was very helpful and timely for me to be able to pick his brain on various important matters.

Self-appraisal. In particular, we discussed my reservations about the self-appraisal process in the Diploma Course, its philosophy, context and implementation. Self appraisal in education (i.e., allowing students to evaluate their performance and, ultimately, to decide whether they should pass or fail) is a fascinating, complex and controversial topic. Dave believes that self-appraisal was his most successful educational innovation, and argued that unless one gives students power to decide whether to take the diploma or not, all other attempts to share power are meaningless. He further argued that in terms of quality control, more students “unfit to practice” slip through on tutor-assessed courses than with self-appraisal, because the student him- or herself understands their context and abilities more fully than it possible for teaching staff. From his point view, allowing a few unfit students to “slip through” is necessary in order for self-appraisal to be truly effective.

Large Groups. Another thing that I have found quite puzzling is the function of the large groups, in which all 30-odd students spend about 90 minutes/week in a large unstructured group. I have been questioning staff about these groups for a year, without really getting a satisfactory explanation. Often, it comes down to “that’s what we did in my training”, which has always struck me as about as meaningful as saying, “that’s what we did in my family.” This year, we had Beth do an input on the function and uses of large groups for the students, but roughly half of the students I talked to in the consultation process still found the large group process to be meaningless, unhelpful or even potentially harmful. I have also noticed PTSD-type reactions from former students when they enter the room in which the large groups took place during their training.

According to Dave, the purpose of large groups is to put students in a situation in which they can’t fall back on their standard roles or ways of self-presentation; this is supposed to enable them to access aspects of themselves that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to, which helps them to be able to work effectively with a wider range of clients. So basically, what this comes down to is that large groups create a chaotic situation in which Weird Sh*t (=WS) routinely happens. Students learn how to deal with WS by dealing with WS in large group.

Now, this makes some sense, but I am left with at two questions:

First: Aren’t there other, less chaotic, more focused ways of helping students learn to deal with WS? For example, closely supervised clinical work with diverse clients; experiential work with difficult therapy situations; and viewing recorded examples.

Second: Isn’t it possible to do harm if the WS is not properly managed? This is certainly what appears to be what many students are reporting can happen in large groups. It seems to be the case that it takes a great deal of trainer skill to active facilitate successful resolution of WS processes in large groups. It is one thing to be nondirective when working one-on-one with clients, for there the therapist’s power is much more manifest and problems of client deference are more likely. However, as soon as we start dealing with couples, families or larger groups of people, it seems to me that relational or group dynamics take hold, making it essential for the facilitator to respond actively in a strongly process-guiding way to help the process move forward to a successful resolution. Otherwise, the usual, often destructive patterns, just run their often-circular course, often leaving emotionally injured students in their wake. It further seems to me that being able to hold such processes is likely to be the most difficult teaching activity that teaching staff in a person-centred therapy course are called upon to do. As Dave finally said, if facilitators can’t successfully hold this process, then there shouldn’t be large groups.

I found this discussion to be very useful for helping me think about these and other issues. I have resolved to try to get together with Dave from time to time for further background discussions!

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