First Published in Dutch on the 13th of July 2015
I prefer counselling students in a group. This preference does not stem from laziness. Counselling a group is really not easier than counselling an individual. I have to prepare more thoroughly and be more alert during the meetings. I prefer this method because it is often more effective than individual counselling. It may sound contradictory but the individual learning process flourishes in a group.
In practice, I often come across very different views about group teaching. One side prioritizes efficiency and considers this educational form to be unavoidable, even though not every student receives the attention she deserves. Others consider group education to be completely unacceptable, for this very reason. The individual development is said to be limited too much. Only few seem to think that group education is essential to the learning process. I am of this opinion and want to devote this essay to this issue.
The well-known educational thinker, Ken Robinson (See video), does not beat about the bush: the current educational system murders creativity. His reasoning is simple. No two children are the same and an educational system that treats the entire population of children as one entity cannot be good. The individuality of the child is not acknowledged, and it is especially that which needs attention.
In recent times there seems to have been a turn towards “tailored education”. In primary education, people work with individual developmental perspectives and personal growth documents; in secondary education, people want to provide the pupils the possibility to take exams tailored specifically to their level. Every single exam would be based on the student’s own level (vmbo, havo, or vwo) in order to create a tailored degree. On my own university, the medical faculty will commence coming academic year with allowing the students to give shape to their own learning path.
To be clear: it is good when educational systems centralize the student and take their individual capacities and needs into consideration. This is inevitable since the learning process is ultimately a personal process. What I wish to claim in this text is that education should not be completely subjected to the individual character of this process. Customization has to have its limits.
People such as Robinson put the individual against the system, creating two sides: the “free educational thinkers” who claim that the natural curiosity of the individual needs to have unlimited space, and the “system thinkers” who prefer working from the educational organization and therefore prioritize the system. Do you choose the individual or the system?
I believe this is not a matter of a logical opposition, but, again, a false dichotomy. I have written in earlier essays that educational systems that centralize quantification, protocolization, and standardization can seriously fail short of the individual and his or her learning process, but this does not mean that the development of the individual is necessarily obstructed. In my previous essay I argued for this by pointing out that it is definitely possible to codify and organize the development of creativity.
Even though I appreciate Robinson’s arguments, I have pointed out before that I think his claims are too extreme (see essay: Blinders). His claim reminds me of The Borg. Every Trekkie knows what I am referring to. In Star Trek’s science fiction universe, this is the name for the population of creatures that have merged into a collective where their individuality has been lost. The individuals do no longer have their own agency or personality. It has been replaced by the will of The Borg which is predatory and wants to incorporate and assimilate all new creatures that it encounters.
The creatures of the collective are portrayed as gray and grizzled zombies without any feeling or warmth, spontaneity and (there it is!) creativity. For people such as Robinson, classical education is comparable to this monster. Maybe it is not as much “assimilation” in the rigid sense, but “the system” is certainly hostile towards our freedom or at least our mobility and developmental possibilities.
Task of Education
The conflict is ultimately about the question what the purpose of education is. Two extreme opposite perspectives receive most attention: the individual serves the collective (education or society) versus the collective serves the individual (the Self-as-Business). This is very two-dimensional.
Gert Biesta, professor of pedagogy and educational science, claims that the goal of education is related to three domains that are closely connected. It is about qualification, socialization, and subjectification. Qualification is becoming competent in a job or work field; socialization is about being able to participate in society; and subjectification focusses on identity-formation.
These three domains are not perpendicular to the individual needs. On the contrary, they are closely connected! In Self-determination theory (SDT), researchers distinguish between three fundamental categories and needs: competence, relation, and autonomy. These connect very well to Biesta’s domains. The system and the individual are not completely opposed!
Autonomy is often unjustly aligned to complete independence. In SDT, it is deliberately defined and positioned in relation to others. Within these dynamics, I create my identity. If everybody turns their back on me, I am not free at all; I am lost.
Every educational system – whether old-fashionably classical or modernly individual – falls short when it does not focus on all three above-mentioned domains. The current educational system is dominated by a focus on the cognitive (and possibly affective) aspects of the individual learning process. This way, we only satisfy the goal of qualification/competence. The ability to participate in society – where rational skills and the formation of autonomy are essential – is not stimulated enough this way. Only part of the learning process is addressed, and complete learning therefore does not take place.
The Value of a Collective
I see the confirmation of this in my practice. Recently, I rounded off counselling a group of students that were struggling in their study Dentistry. They failed to carefully manage their patients’ documents and independently keep track of their own activities. From the perspective of the study they fell short in their professional behavior. Until then, the study implemented the procedure to talk to these students individually and after insubstantial improvement, forward them to individual coaching.
Despite this customization of counselling, the department was still dissatisfied with the results. The students in question considered the problems to be separate incidents of bad luck, clumsiness or thoughtlessness, but never as signs of a deeper attitudinal problem. The desired change of view did not occur. Following my advice, they opted for group counselling because skills in rational thought and autonomy are addressed and stimulated to a much greater degree.
What happened is what I always hope to attain with a group. The students slowly came into contact with each other, first cautiously and superficially, but later more extensively. All relevant issues, some suggested or structured by the coach, were explored. They were encouraged to question each other and the coach. Sometimes they agreed; sometimes they didn’t. There were no judgments. They supported each other where it was possible and provided critical feedback when necessary. This way, they positioned themselves in relation to their field. This led to a deepening of understanding and insight. Eventually, every individual understood what they had to do.
Limits to Individuality
This group was not an exception. In my practice, participants continually indicate in their evaluations that they appreciated the classes with their fellow-students. They often initially think that their questions and problems are unusual or complicated. In my experience, this is never the case. Their problems and how they deal with them are remarkably similar. They also notice this in the group. Others acknowledge and recognize their problems, allowing the student to proportion their own problems accurately. The students that truly follow their own individual path, by distancing themselves from their peer group and others, are the ones who remain stuck in their problems.
Our need for an individual path and customization is not as strong as it seems. The American philosopher, Eric Hoffer, once wrote it succinctly: “when people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other”. One only has to look at playgrounds, fashion, or a concert or festival to see that this is a truism. In counselling in study stress, we explore the ultimate fears of students that could follow from not passing a test or study. Without exception, these feelings can always be traced to the fear of being cast out by their community or to stay behind, alone. The prominent psychologist, Martin Seligman, who researches happiness, also concluded that a stable social network makes individuals the happiest.
The development of qualification/competence, socialization/relation, and subjectification/autonomy can only be reached collectively. Education must provide this collective, obviously not in the rigid sense as The Borg, but pervasive enough in order to strongly limit and structure our Corporate Self. Only in a group do these limitations become meaningful. Truly valuable education can only be established collectively.