There was recently a very interesting discussion on the LDHEN list about the role of Learning Development in shaping the university as a therapeutic community. I was interested in the word ‘therapeutic’ as it relates to Learning Development, and my contributions were largely about whether what we do could be construed as therapy, given that we sometimes work in similar ways to therapists such as counsellors. I pursued this line of thinking further offline, in discussion with other colleagues but also with my family members, who are clinical psychologists and social workers and very insightful on the topic. This was really useful in helping me further articulate what I think LD is, and where the boundaries are. I’ve reproduced some of my comments on the email list here together with the further thoughts from discussions with my family and colleagues.
I don’t think Learning Development is a therapeutic activity. For me, therapy is a healing activity – very worthwhile, but to speak of learning development as therapy therefore implies that the student is unwell and needs to be brought to health, is disordered, and needs to be helped to good order, is abnormal and needs to be brought to normality. Learning development, on the other hand, I think, accepts that learning is by its very nature challenging, destabilising, unsettling, ‘troublesome’. Learning is more than just accumulating more facts. To learn something is to integrate new knowledge with old and reconstitute it, not just to add it, to challenge your worldview, to unlearn what you thought you knew and see it differently, to transform yourself. That moment when the lightbulb goes on and shows you the world you thought you knew in a whole different way, and everything’s changed! To experience this, you need to take risks, make mistakes, push beyond into the unknown, let go of certainties and security. We’re talking threshold concepts here, which in themselves are neutral. Students can have very strong feelings about them, though, and these feelings can be positive or negative: wonder, exhilaration, joy, or frustration, discomfort, anxiety.
As Learning Developers we do help students explore their feelings around learning, which are bound to be strong if they are really engaged and learning deeply. But I think to call this therapy implies that the feelings that come with learning are in some way problematic instead of a perfectly natural and inevitable part of the process. Or that only the positive feelings are appropriate, and the negative ones are abnormal or not a healthy response. Learning can be therapeutic, certainly; but that’s incidental and down to the individual, rather than the aim that we as professionals are trying to achieve. Learning can also be stressful by its very nature. Helping students address the feelings that learning necessarily gives rise to is part of our role. But it’s not therapy.
Where the problem arises is that due to various political agendas, universities have become a very unsafe place to experience this unsettling, troublesome activity of learning. None of this – the employability agenda, fees and student debt, the examination regime in schools, the economic climate, the commodification of HE, has really got anything to do with actual learning and in fact is profoundly unhelpful. How can students feel secure enough to take risks, explore the unknown, make mistakes in this environment? How can they, when the environment itself is so unsafe? How can they learn in such a culture? The rise in students reporting mental health issues and stress, and the pressure that we can see they are under, has led to a more problematic range of emotional issues arising in our work, and it’s no wonder. It’s heartbreaking to see, and we naturally want to help.
Where to draw the line? If something is impacting on a student’s learning, then it is my job to listen carefully to that, to take it into account in the guidance I offer, and to refer if needed. One of the Five Ps of Learning Development which I outlined in a previous post is Pertinent Factors – anything we should be aware of that is impacting on learning. But we aren’t counsellors and for individual students, I can’t support mental health issues or other things that impact on their ability to learn. I can take them into account in my work, but I can’t help resolve them. Sometimes an individual has so much going on in their lives that the upheaval of university isn’t a good thing to add to the mix at that time. And there comes a point when a person is so distressed that learning ain’t going to happen, and further LD work isn’t possible at that time.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs might be helpful here.
I’d say that Learning Development addresses the top two levels – we can help build confidence in learning and we can help them realise their potential as learners. Sometimes there is another level above Self-actualisation: Transcendence, or the need to help others achieve self-actualisation. Not only does this drive us as Learning Developers, but it also applies to the peer mentors we support and the group interactions in our workshops as students work together. But those levels of need aren’t possible unless the lower ones have been met; if a student is feeling hungry, ill, unsafe, unloved, then learning isn’t going to go well. I can’t help with the lower levels, but there are professions dedicated to each to which I can refer (Counselling. The Police. The Doctor. The University Canteen…) and I can help the student in making the decision to seek appropriate help.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t care, that I won’t listen sympathetically. But I have to be very clear with the student and myself that this isn’t therapy – it’s not going to help them therapeutically. Given that they are interacting with me in a professional capacity, they may have false assumptions or expectations about what this professional encounter can achieve. And I might feel awful for them and really want to do something to help (or secretly feel that helping them meets my own social and esteem needs of feeling good about myself). But that’s not my particular professional role or my expertise and the most helpful thing I can do is to refer.
Trying to help might be actively counterproductive. Allowing them to talk to me may be distracting them from seeking real help. Why go to counselling when I’m such a sympathetic ear? In holding onto the issue, I’m blocking them from better avenues of support. And what if they won’t seek appropriate professional help? If they were sick, but wouldn’t go to the doctor, then I would still not be justified in giving medical advice or medication; if they won’t seek counselling or their personal tutor, I really shouldn’t be offering a placebo either. It might sound harsh, but we need to feel able to say ‘that’s not my job, I can’t help’. We don’t mean it in a jobsworth way, it’s not that we can’t be bothered or don’t care, but we need to accept, and help the student to accept, that we don’t have the expertise. We can’t be what the student needs, and won’t really be helping if we try. But we do know someone who can help and signpost them there.
I can’t do therapy, I can’t heal, and learning isn’t something to be healed anyway. But I can fight for a university community which does its best to create a safe place to experience the unsettlingness of learning in a compassionate way, which is as inclusive and diverse as possible, remembering that its whole purpose is to help students learn and to assess that learning, and try to fight against the whole culture that counteracts learning. In the meantime, what I can do to help is to familiarise myself with the sources of support in the university (and to some extent beyond) who can help them, and learn how to refer effectively. I’ve done Mental Health First Aid, I’ve looked at resources such as the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, I’ve been over to Student Services so I can physically see how it works and how a student would navigate it, and I’ve made sure to speak to colleagues in other services in the university about how and when to refer, so I can do so in a supportive, effective way rather than just waving a distressed student off to more pillars and posts.