“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don't find myself saying, "Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner." I don't try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.” (Carl Rogers)

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

On strangling the holy curiosity of inquiry

A few months ago, I chanced upon a new (to me, although it's been around for 25 years) and quite lively eLearning network called... the eLearning Network. As I'm in eLearning and as I'm making some changes in my professional life, I joined and attended an event by the network, which was mighty fine (blogged previously). Whilst there, I picked up their associated publication, e-learning age and was pretty excited to see ON THE COVER a key article about rehumanising learning: right up my street, I thought!

Not to be - this article was badly misinformed about the person-centred approach and parodied the approach in the most heinous manner (admittedly, this was not the main thrust of the article in question, which itself made some fair points). Anyway, outraged I sat down and worked up a response - which I'm glad to say has been published in this month's magazine, so I thought I'd reproduce it here for wider perusal and comment.

As an eLearning professional who is deeply interested in person-centred approaches to learning, I was really excited to see the cover feature in the December/January issue devoted to ‘rehumanising the personal learning experience’. Tim Gibson’s entertaining article takes a nicely imaginative scenario relating to the therapy room – however, Tim is misinformed about what he calls the ‘Rogerian, or non-directive, psychiatry’. I can illustrate just how wrong by taking direct issue with that definition:  
·       Rogerian – this refers to Carl Rogers, who is best known as the founder of client-centred therapy, but Rogers in fact refused to recognise the burgeoning ‘movement’ of ‘Rogerians’ in his lifetime because his whole point was for human beings not to give up their being to some other person (or computer...).

·        Non-directive – Rogers moved away from that definition and towards ‘person-centred’ because it was more about the human being at the centre than about the process of therapy itself.

·        Psychiatry – Carl Rogers was a psychologist, and although the distinction is not easy to make on a surface, non-practitioner level, it is important. The strong, central (and magazine cover) image of the psychiatrist’s couch refers more to that Freudian psycho-analytical model where the psychiatrist is the one who gets to tell the ‘patient’ what their dreams mean and how they should solve their problems. Carl Rogers broke decisively with this tradition and trusted his ‘clients’ to find their own way towards growth and learning.
Why does this matter? Tim clearly acknowledges the skit as parody, [i] but, he also talks about Pygmalion’s Eliza pretending to be something she is not and this, I think, is the central point – if we really wish to rehumanise learning, including eLearning, then we have to provide an environment where human beings can feel, well...  human. As it happens, the choice of Carl Rogers’ approach is serendipitous when considering rehumanising the personal learning experience. Rogers took the central principles of his theory and applied them to contexts other than the therapy room – including, to education.[ii]
Rogers shows how learning can involve a change in our perception of self and so can very often be perceived as threatening - and so, resisted. I guess readers are very familiar with this when technology is added to the mix. Therefore, to make learning possible, external threats must be minimised so that significant learning can take place. This means a change in roles as we have understood them in ‘formal’ education and in the power-relations that are often the context for ‘informal’ workplace learning:
·         The learner needs to be empowered and have control over the learning process
·         The teacher gives up much of their authority and becomes a facilitator.
This is not an easy task. However, Rogers has given us the means by focusing on the facilitator, whose main task is to create a warm, welcoming, unconditional space in which learners feel they have the freedom to be themselves, take ownership of their learning, and work creatively and collaboratively with other learners. The most important element is the attitudes the facilitator takes, how s/he is existentially - and these are:
·         Be a real person,
·         Empathise with learners (understand their point of view),
·         Trust (or prize) learners.
The goal of a person-centred approach to learning is to create an atmosphere that promotes a person’s inherent self-actualising tendency so that learners wish to learn, want to grow, and desire to create. I finish with the same quote from Albert Einstein that Rogers uses to front Freedom to Learn:
“It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail.”
I’m certainly not going to argue with Einstein.

[i] Like any simple idea, it is easy to parody and, indeed, there was an even harsher parody from the 1940s where a suicidal ‘patient’ in therapy eventually says “I’m opening the window Dr Rogers”/”I see, you’re opening the window”/”I’m about to jump”/U-uhm. You’re about to jump.”/”Here I goooo...”/ “There you go.”
[ii] Tim acknowledges the power of an older text and so shall I. Carl Rogers’ Freedom To Learn for the 80s (1983, Columbus: Merrill) is a passionate and very human book which has helped move (some) education into a more person-centred approach – it’s a must-read for committed learning developers...

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