Freedom to Learn Section IV: What are the facts? Researching Person-centered issues in education

1.   Why read this chapter?

This chapter presents convincing evidence for the efficacy of the person-centred approach, from Aspy & Roebuck - The National Consortium for Humanizing Education (NCHE) - in the USA and from the Drs Tausch in Germany. It begins with Rogers making a case for the data-averse reader to read on because the research on the person-centred approach to education:
1.    shows that students learn more, attend school more often, are more creative and more capable of problem solving
2.    provides the facts and support to convince skeptical administrators or boards of education

2.   Our research and our findings - David Aspy and Flora Roebuck

2.1. The basic question

Is person-centred education effective? The NCHE's research on interpersonal relationships in classrooms over 17 years and in 42 states and 8 countries reveals that: Students learn more and behave better when they receive high levels of understanding, caring and genuineness, than when they are given low levels of them. It pays to treat students as sensitive and aware human beings.

2.2. The NCHE approach

The approach was threefold:
1. adopted a fairly precisely defined theoretical model of humanistic interpersonal relationships
2. explored that position in a range of studies in real school settings
3. disseminated the information to the profession

2.3. Choosing a model

The chosen model focuses on some aspects of interpersonal relationship that could be defined, quantified and analysed, including Rogers' faciliatative conditions of empathy, congruence and positive regard. The model then allowed a move from subjective data to precise measures, mediated by judgements about statistical reliability and predictive validity.

2.4. Logistics

In order to examine the impact of Rogers' facilitative conditions on everyday life in the classroom, audiotape recordings were found to be a valid source of information. The tapes were assessed by trained observers at a central location. Empathy, congruence and positive regard were rated on five-point scales. Teachers developed personal meaning for the research, which was allied with training, by way of a feedback procedure so that the teachers could benefit from the data in their classroom environment. They formulated revised goals and were given systematic training in the chosen area. Data collection was anonymous.

2.5. Facilitative conditions and student outcomes

The statistical findings of five studies are reported in this section, each of which clearly demonstrates the efficacy of the person-centred approach on student outcomes.

Study one compared the effect of high and low levels of teacher empathy. The study nvolved 600 teachers and 10,000 students and it was found that in the classrooms of teachers who were more empathic, more congruent, and more respectful of their students, there was more student talk and problem solving, more verbal initiation and response to teacher, more asking of questions, more involvement in learning, more eye contact with teacher, more physical movement, higher levels of cognition and greater creativity.

Study two related interpersonal conditions to cognitive processes (using Bloom's Taxonomy) and "it was clear that teachers were more person-centred in the classrooms where students were thinking" (to explain this, the research did not find very much evidence of 'thinking behaviors' overall).

Study three examined the relationship of facilitative levels and disruptive behaviour in class and found that "more disruptive behavior occurred in classes whoe teachers were low in empathy, respect, praising, accepting student ideas, and asking for thinking."

Study four addressed the question of whether the observed benefits "were produced by high scores of middle- and upper-class students masking little or no gain by children from less verbal and less achievement-oriented levels of society." The study found that "for students identified as having learning difficulties, the teacher's level of interpersonal facilitation was the single most important contributor to the amount of gain on all outcome measures."

The fifth study reported here "sheds some light on how well students will choose when allowed self-direction." A class of students who were reading one or more years below grade level were offered the chance to design their own reading programme. This they duly did and "at the end of the year, not one of these 'educationally handicapped' children had made less than eleven months progress in reading; some had made as much as three years'' growth."

The section on student outcomes is summarised as follows: "In short, students learn that they can learn, and in so doing they are free to become productive and involved - more fully functioning in every way."

2.6. The interpersonal skills of teachers

The researchers found that "most teachers (principals and supervisors, too) generally operate at a low level of interpersonal skills" - thus necessitating basic training in procedures for responding to other people, the subject of the next section.

2.7. Increasing the interpersonal skills of teachers

Most classroom teachers were interested in those things that affect their students' immediate schooling behaviour - learning, discipline and attendance; they were less interested in maintaining facilitative interpersonal behaviours as an end in itself in the classroom. So, the researchers developed and carried out training procedures in order to "close the gap between researchers and practitioners by depicting the relationship between faciliatative interpersonal behaviors and outcomes the teachers valued."

The overall finding is that "teachers can be trained to use higher levels of interpersonal facilitative conditions."

2.8. Interpersonal skills and physical fitness

The researchers investigated physical fitness and found a (self-avowedly common sense) relationship between this and interpersonal skills: "...fatigue, poor nutrition, and lack of physical exercise are deterrents to positive interpersonal relationships."

2.9. NCHE studies in non-school settings

Investigations in settings other than schools also show how high empathy relationships have a positive outcome for the persons involved - which include special education children and parents, primary-grade children and parents, teenage pregnant girls, teenagers with gonorrhea and physicians and their patients.

2.10.            Impediments

Given this seemingly overwhelming evidence, why is there not more emphasis on supporting humanistic interpersonal relationships in schools? Common threads are:
1. There is a dichotomy of 'interpersonal skills' and 'on-the-job success' in the classroom resulting in a choice of tender or tough in the classroom, with tender teachers choosing also nonpromotion and tough teachers also choosing isolation and loneliness.
2. Schools operate in terms of immediacy rather than long-range needs, leading to the neglect of interpersonal skills.
3. Administrators, parents and board members are not usually included in interpersonal skills training programmes.
4. Overzealous human relations specialists.
5. Interpersonal skills programmes are not personalised and thus fail to bring success to trainees.

2.11.            A brief summary of our journey

The researchers summarise this presentation of their years of research.

3.   Corroboration from Germany

Aspy & Roebuck's findings were tested in German schools by Reinhard and Anne-Marie Tausch.

3.1            Findings regarding teacher-student interaction

In all of the school studies the facilitative conditions were proved to have significant positive outcomes for both pupils and teachers in interaction. 

3.2            The encounter group as a means of helping teachers

Experience of extended encounter groups led to long-lasting positive changes in teacher's personalities, leading to changes in their teacher-behaviour towards higher empathy and trust.

3.3            Other findings

A study of child-centered counselling for maladjusted and disadvantaged children resulted in very positive outcomes.

4.   Brief Comments

Rogers points out that the replicated study in Germany agrees with the Aspy & Roebuck studies in all essential respects, validating the outcomes. He takes issue with the original researchers' focus on the use of a narrow skills-training approach to improve facilitative attitudes in teachers, much preferring the German encounter group approach, which is more likely to lead to the  experiencing of a different attitude.

5.   Some final questions – and answers

Rogers asks a number of questions of teachers, supervisors, administrators and teacher trainers. The desirable outcomes implicit in the questions are a result of the person-centred approach reported in this chapter and which applies to all education. And, although the number of teachers with the facilitative qualities is small, the research has shown that these qualities can be acquired and developed. The findings of the research reported here constitutes a challenge to everybody involved in education and Rogers concludes by asking "how will we respond to that challenge?"