Beyond the Classroom: Psychodynamic Principles in Post-school Organisational Cultures

© Neil Béchervaise

Electronic publication: AARE/ERA Conference papers BECHN96:338


Beyond the world of the classroom, learning takes on an apparently informal and 'accidental' air. Stripped of the discipline of school, we seek to learn for survival, self-improvement and personal satisfaction. The application of psychodynamic principles in the life-long learning process has yet to be explored in detail though the underpinnings have already been established. This paper focuses on the meaning-making power of psychodynamics in informal learning situations while stressing the cross-cultural and inter-cultural imperatives constraining the 'world view' of the intended learners.



The more I know, the more confident I feel with my ignorance.

As Arnold (1991) has drawn freely on the inspirations and observations of Michael Polanyi and George Kelly to clarify her own deeply empathetic insights into the relationship between cognitive and affective processes in the education of children, this paper projects the principles of psychodynamic pedagogy from the complex yet constrained world of the classroom to the world beyond school; in this case the world of modern corporate managerialism as it is played out among tertiary academics in Australia and New Zealand. In theorising this forward projection, the paper draws particularly from the managerial theories of loosely coupled systems developed by Forrester (1969), Orton & Weick (1990), Argyris (eg 1982, 1990), and, more recently, Peter Senge (1995).

Forward movement, however, springs eternally from backward reflection. Arnold's identification of the importance of mirroring demands a deepening understanding of the depths from which we are emerging as an essential substantiation for the forward movement or enlightenment we trust we are achieving. Newton demanded in his third law of motion that for every action there be an equal and opposite reaction. So, borrowing from the intertextuality which underpinned Kuhn's (1970) intellectual quantum leap in understanding of scientific paradigm shifts, this paper argues that every increase in our understanding of how people learn implies, indeed necessitates, an equal increase in understanding how that learning becomes possible.


Psychodynamic theory in education

Arnold's development of psychodynamic theory in education to this point demands that we tap empathetically into how people feel (affective) before we can expect to help them to harness their knowledge (cognitive). More importantly, she implies a necessary and inseparable linkage between these two apparently separate realms of knowledge acquisition. The 'effective pedagogy' Arnold submits for classroom action requires what she describes as a 'dynamic reciprocity between thinking and feeling' (Arnold, 1994:21). More importantly, from a pragmatic point of view, she identifies mediation points affecting significant learning opportunities: the power of interaction between peers; the role of the empathetic teacher who listens for the sub-text rather than just hearing a child's voice; and the potency of emotional discontinuity (Kelly, 1955) as triggers to the emotional memory and hence to what she terms the psychic templates. from which and through which we filter all experience in our search for meaning.


Loosely coupled systems

Moving from pre-school and school-room education through post-compulsory education to voluntary adult education in the 'loosely coupled system' (Orton & Weick, 1990) of a tertiary educational staff training environment, however, demands recognition of the culture of the institution within which tertiary education is intended. Moreover, as will be demonstrated, it requires cognitive and affective knowledge: of the cultural dynamics underpinning the group at an organisational level; and of the individuals comprising the group. As Thomas Kuhn (1970) observes, there is a cultural 'metaphysic' which informs human action, learning in particular, at all levels and for all purposes. If the culture is changed then the 'metaphysic' or, as Arnold (1994) describes it, the 'psychic template', becomes a barrier rather than a resource in adjusting to the change.

Loosely coupled systems theory, in acknowledging the powerful dialectic between the needs of the organisation and the needs of the individual, establishes the potential for heightened performance in an atmosphere of reduced ambiguity (Ouchi, 1980) by accepting the necessarily dynamic nature of both individual and organisational needs in periods of flux. As opposed to the linear, push/pull structuralism of the traditional top-down hierarchical organisation of the Industrial era, loose coupling facilitates dynamic grouping of staff and physical resources for specific purposes followed by recoupling as needs and purposes change. In consequence, it provides recognition of the needs of individuals and groups within an organisational culture to adjust their understanding of the organisation before they can adjust to their changed role as individuals within the organisational culture.

Application of loosely coupled theory to the organisational structure of the Australian University acknowledges the fiercely guarded right to academic freedom within the University - of both staff and students; the right to pursue - and the responsibility to report - research within acknowledged ethical frameworks; and the responsibility to teach with a strong underpinning of currently substantiated theory in fields of practical and socially responsible endeavour.

The organisational fluidity theorised as loose coupling has accurately described the Australian University at a number of levels until the recent spate of structural changes which have come to be known as 'amalgamation'. The, perhaps unwitting, consequences of amalgamation [which term will be described later in this paper] has been to generate arbitrary changes in the role definition of large numbers of tertiary level teachers, researchers and administrators at times in their careers when they are ill-equipped to handle unilaterally-imposed change.


Changing the 'world view' of the learner

Thomas Kuhn (1970) acknowledges the impact of his discovery of B.L Whorf's speculations about 'the effect of language on world view' (Carroll, 1956). In doing so he foreshadows his redefinition of what it means to 'know' in the world of modern scientific endeavour. As a consequence, it comes as no surprise when Kuhn observes that his release from the world of theoretical physics to the teaching of history of science left him sufficiently unprepared, sufficiently inexpert to query the accepted paradigms of experimental scientific research and to recognise 'the integral part so often played by one or another metaphysic in creative [my emphasis] scientific research. (Kuhn, 1970:vii). Robert Hughes (1991) observes a similar openness to change in artists such as Rothko and Pollock when describing the impact of Andre Masson's surrealistic interweaving of modern urban fantasies with the dark imagery of prehistoric cultures. Hughes might as easily have been describing the development of the school as visualised by A.S. Neill, Ivan Illich or Paolo Friere but successfully resisted to this point by most centralised schooling systems. Changing the 'world view', the 'metaphysic', the 'psychic template' of an individual is a cultural change of major significance.


Whorf's recognition of the restrictive filtering of 'world view' through language has been, and is increasingly described as, a cultural restriction. The observation that someone 'does not speak my language' may appear as a linguistic truth but it is more likely to be a cultural rejection; accountants 'do not speak the language' of teachers, scientists 'do not speak the language' of historians - the communication break-down which follows is more culturally than linguistically inspired [though socio-linguists may wish to argue this point at length].


This paper suggests that a failure to accept the 'metaphysic' informing individual consciousness must result in failure to recognise the source of what D.H. Lawrence described as the 'knowledge of the blood' and which Jung might have described as the 'collective unconscious'.


Positioning the teacher to learner

Former teachers/researchers/administrators who, after amalgamation, find their role changed to require reskilling and role redefinition may be seen to have been arbitrarily positioned as learners-without-portfolio, as teachers-redefined-as-learners. Whatever terminology is used to identify these employees of the newly amalgamated institution, the need for positive responsive learning in an atmosphere of substantial and undefined change is essential to their survival in productive academic employment. The newly defined academics, their world views unchanged but severely challenged are, in consequence, under-qualified, inexperienced in their new role and, because of the rate of change, frequently under-resourced to cope with the change.

Through a brief exploration of the effect of research training programs undertaken at three university sites in Australia, this paper argues that a judicious application of psychodynamic principles to the professional development of the newly-defined and essentially disempowered post-amalgamation academic provides an effective investment in the human capital of the tertiary institution and in the academic as effective tertiary educator. More importantly, it establishes the value of application of psychodynamic principles within loosely coupled organisations where structural flexibility, rapid re-skilling and re-deployment and responsiveness in the face of change are requisites for both individual and organisational health.


The context of the study

This paper describes the participants, the organisational imperatives and cultures, the program implemented and the observed outcomes of staff professional development programs in research training facilitated at three tertiary educational sites in Australia in 1995 and 1996.


Each of the three sites involved University staff from a range of personal cultural backgrounds and a range of academic training and experience. The commonality between the groups was that each of the individuals was an inexperienced or previously unpublished researcher. The demand of each University for increased tertiary qualification or identifiable research output in terms of grant applications, publications or research proposals provided a common motivation for the participants.


At this point, the research training programs have been completed in two of the sites and form an on-going project at the third. For the purposes of confidentiality, the identity of the sites has been obscured and comments relating to the programs have been included without identification.


Organisational culture underpinning the groups

The groups at each of the sites in the study comprised teachers from a range of faculties including: Agriculture, Economics, Education, Engineering, Health Sciences, Marketing, Nursing and Science together with several TAFE educators whose role intersected with that of the Universities in provision for International (Fee-paying Overseas) students.


The academic experience and responsibility of the groups ranged from Associate lecturer to Professor and from undergraduate degree to doctorate at each site. Group sizes ranged from 9-14 at site 1, from 23 to 35 at site 2 and from 7-9 at site 3 depending on teaching release time and administrative commitment at the time of each session and from session to session.


The training program

The groups at sites 1 and 2 worked for five sessions with a primary facilitator across a period of seven months. Single-issue focus-sessions on identified concerns such as ethical approval application, action research methodology, grant application preparation and funding sources were provided for each group between full group meetings with the primary facilitator. In addition, telephone, fax and email access between individuals and the primary facilitator were maintained though used only irregularly.


Sessions with the primary facilitator were organised to incorporate full group and small group discussion, in-session writing tasks, development of critical friend pairs for work between formal sessions, and individual consultation during and following formal sessions. Participants were encouraged to keep journals of their research journey but these, for the most part, were subsumed in unrecorded and informal group debriefing sessions which took place across morning tea and lunch breaks. Their essence was later captured in session evaluation sheets generated and disseminated within the groups for their own use in developing collective response papers to their learning experience (eg Stewart & Fantin,1996)


The organisational structure of the Site 3 group was far more heterogeneous than that of the two other groups reported in this study. Its members identified themselves as wary of group development programs as a consequence of prior experience with post-graduate studies and indicated a broad range of staff preparedness to embark on such a program. This demand for difference results in a poignant example of the flexibility of the psychodynamic approach in adult education.


Selection of the facilitator at site 3

While school-aged students have little control over the selection of their teachers, autonomous adult groups, having identified both an educational problem and a means to solving it, may also have the power to negotiate both the teacher and the educational process.


Site 3 participants chose to access a consultant with whom they could negotiate individually targeted access to develop collaborative action research programs in the field of their particular interest and expertise. Weekly personal access to the consultant was negotiated and the contract was reinforced with telephone, fax and e-mail linkage to provide continuity between visits.

Initially it was proposed that the consultant would collaborate with identified individuals. This was quickly discovered to be impossible as the close collaboration and teaching links between staff resulted in their identifying joint research interests and concerns. In effect, the cultural wisdom of the group as a loosely coupled organisational system made the initially identified task description for the consultant untenable and this role was redefined to include negotiation with all staff.


Negotiating access with the group

The consultant was initially invited to meet with and address a regular staff meeting at site 3. The consultant introduced himself to the largely female staff group with an outline of his previous work in the field and of a number of possible ways of working. The group shared a summary of their research interests and current commitments.


At this initial meeting it was indicated that the consultant would be available all day one day a week for all staff members who wished to speak about their research interests, current projects and needs. The meeting generated little group discussion and the consultant moved to the lunch room and waited, available.


Consequences of the initial meeting - two views


view 1 - from a bridge: before jumping

During the remainder of the first day, one of the staff sought feedback on the quality of materials to be presented at a colloquium he was preparing for the following week. A second indicated that, as she was undertaking tertiary study, she had no reason or need of assistance. A third stated that she had unsuccessfully sought a grant in the previous year and might do so again but had no time to develop the proposal. A fourth staff member indicated he was otherwise occupied and had no time to embark on a research project.

In summary, seven of the nine potential participants approached the consultant on the first day. Five indicated that they were too busy with student support demands to make the extra commitment demanded of researchers.


view 2 -from the runway: before take-off

A second reading of the first day of the consultant provides a more optimistic view of the outcomes. Two staff members were not actually present so all available staff met with the consultant both collectively and individually. As a consequence of these meetings, research interests and collaborative partnerships were confirmed.


The tertiary student expanded the conceptions of her current assignment to involve her previously unavailable colleague in an action research project on a specific classroom management problem, to write a description of the project and to meet with a written project outline in the second week. This same participant, in her role as staff member identified a second writing project - less directly related to her immediately perceived function as a teacher - and a process for integrating work with study to reduce the overall work-load in both areas. The potential grant applicant reviewed the short-comings of the existing application and proposed a review if not, at this stage, a revision.

All seven available participants expressing interest in the research training opportunity sought to meet more formally at the second opportunity to discuss potential parallel and collaborative projects with their previously less willing colleagues.


How time flies when you're having research

In week two at site 3, both of the previously unavailable staff approached the consultant to discuss potential projects, to share sections of projects already tentatively begun and to clarify the role of the consultant.


The potential for mixed-method research in several projects was explored productively and the potential for a number of small and large grant applications to extend work previously unidentified as research was explored.


The role of the consultant-as-facilitator at this early stage in the project was based in the belief that positive listening is more useful than information for the neophyte researcher/learner. Assuming the role of 'critical friend' the consultant was able to mirror an understanding of the projects being proposed, to query details which appeared unclear and to generate questions from within the body of information presented by the learner.


The strategy of mirroring demands, as Arnold (1994) observes, 'picking up nuances' but it also involves becoming involved with, excited, appalled by and, most importantly, immersed in the story of the story-teller.


To change the role of a teacher to that of researcher requires acceptance of the cultural framework within which that teacher identifies themself as self and then an exploration of possibilities for congruence between self-identity accepted and self-identity required for continued success within changed organisational demands. Senge's observation that 'embarking on any path of personal growth is a matter of choice' (Senge, 1992:172) is embedded in a recognition of the centrality of emotional memory to motivation. The initial defensiveness described above (View 1 From the bridge) appears to have been firmly based in earlier contact with post-graduate research courses and with instructors in research methodology. The exclusion of a place to grow and a friend to share effectively eliminate the need to tell a story; eliminate the feeling of being needed and valued for our potential to learn rather than our potential to contribute to a completions table or a result sheet.


Participants in all three sites chose to initiate their contact with the program and they chose to continue with the program. The recording of their completion of the course and their subsequent reporting of the success of their grant applications, proposals and publications has, similarly, been their personal choice. The efficacy of the approach is reflected in remarkably high retention rates across each group program (73 per cent at site 1 and 71 per cent at site 2) and the level of involvement at site 3 (all 9 participants involved in 12 projects including 4 shared projects, one successful grant application, one accepted publication and 4 post-graduate assignment papers). The lack of time identified by participants at site 3 prior to and during the first day of the program has been resourced largely by collaboration and redefinition of ongoing projects and problem-solving strategies as research opportunity.


Kuhn was involved in a personal journey from which surprising connections between history and science sprang daily.


Much of my time ... was spent exploring fields without apparent relation to history of science but in which research now discloses problems like the ones history was bringing to my attention (Kuhn, 1970:vi)


The psychodynamic facilitator is involved in a similarly complex and frequently surprising journey.


The consultant as facilitator

The role of the consultant as facilitator is apparently ill-defined. Who will be there next week? What new ideas will have been spawned in some chance conversation or observation? What writing problem will have been generated or solved? These have become real questions on a daily basis, yet they are questions for celebration rather than censure because they suggest a growing confidence between the participant and the facilitator:


I have nothing to teach you. There may be a large number of things you can learn by including me in your work but I am not an expert in your field. (Béchervaise, from journal of participant at site 1, 1995)


Roslyn Arnold's identification of mirroring as a crucial element in effective pedagogy ensures that learning is a shared activity. While some might argue that the students cannot learn if the teacher does not teach, psychodynamic theory would suggest that the student cannot learn if the teacher does not learn!


The success of each of the programs reported in this paper has emanated from a sense of shared need or purpose developed between the facilitator and the individual involved within the group at each of the three sites.


Leaving the minute by minute demands of teaching behind and moving into an environment that assisted me to turn on creativity, and reflective and critical thinking. This effect continued during the week, but at a less conscious level. I would have moments of inspiration during the week that clearly had their roots in the last session.


In one sense at least, the heterogeneity of each of the groups has been its strength; the need to 'suspend all assumptions' identified by Senge (1995:244) has been facilitated by a lack of common organisational identity because most individuals came from different organisational groups or different faculties within the organisation. Where this was not actually the case, small groups and critical friend pairings were developed to discourage the sense of organisational collegiality where the mind wants to keep moving away from suspending assumptions ... to adopting non-negotiable and rigid opinions which we then feel compelled to defend. (Bohm, 1965 in Senge, 1995)


Where the regrouping to discourage collegiality was resisted among participants, as occurred between two participants at site 2, the effect on the full group was demoralising, discussion broke down and the two did not return to further sessions.


Changing culture and emotional memory

The learning context of each of the reported sites is constrained by its hierarchical organisational structure and threatened with a need to produce potentially meaningless products. Werner Heisenberg's famous 'Uncertainty Principle' is recontextualised and a learning culture exists where the learners have been disempowere