Teaching as a Helping Alliance: An Analogy

The Start and Finish Line of the "Inishowen 100" Scenic Drive

I wrote earlier about how we frame learning in higher ed.

  • Is it a question of the teacher ladling out knowledge into the students’ heads, like soup into bowls? Is the teacher not accountable when the students fail to learn? Is the point of teaching to separate the sheep from the goats?
  • Or is teaching a kind of helping? Can we not help students to learn better––and thereby to know themselves (and vice-versa)?

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that teaching is a kind of helping, and that the latter framework is preferable to the former––in conceptual, moral and practical terms.

What then? How do we do it? Aren’t there a few hundred theories and methods of teaching and learning out there? Are some more suited than others to our shift in frames?

Here an analogy is helpful.

For a long time, those who have studied psychotherapy and counseling have recognized that whatever differences amongst schools and techniques, much of the effectiveness of psychotherapeutic helping comes down to what are called “common factors”––elements common to all forms of psychotherapy, counseling, intervention, and psychoanalysis.

Of course, teaching is not therapy: students are not sick, and teachers are not healers. But if teaching is a form of helping, then the analogy with therapy can form a useful comparison.

Each scholar analyzing these “common factors” takes a different approach, but a few elements crop up again and again.

  1. Alliance. The therapist and client are able to form an alliance based on the client’s belief that the therapist is a caring, genuine person who is able to help. (This includes cultural beliefs that the therapist is a qualified professional, that hallowed medical procedures are efficacious, etc.)
  2. Goals. Together, the therapist and client are able to agree upon worthy goals. Without goals, it’s difficult to take any steps, and without agreement, there is no meaningful alliance.
  3. Tasks. Together, the therapist and the client find do-able tasks which the client undertakes.
    • Failure can be just as meaningful as success. The goal is not perfection or 100% success but rather: finding out what is possible and making progress.
    • Choosing which tasks requires some theory and method of treatment, but there must be tasks, and so whatever the variety, the common factor is the task, not the type.
  4. Feedback and Progress. The client is able to measure progress by clear indicators.

These factors suggest some underlying hypothesis about why people get therapy. One such hypothesis is demoralization.

  • The client suffers from low morale. He has lost hope. He doesn’t have the confidence that he can master the problems the faces.
  • He may need information or new skills. The skills may require training––hence something akin to teaching.
  • The demoralization hypothesis resembles Bandura’s work on self-efficacy, though Frank’s work seems to have somewhat preceded Bandura’s.

In this framework, therapy is a kind of remoralization.

  • The client feels he is getting help. There is a therapist or counselor, who has no other agenda but to help and support, and who seems genuine in her interactions. The client is no longer alone. There is support and partnership.
  • From not knowing what to do, where to go, from being overwhelmed, the client is able to form a goal––with help. Life is amorphous and chaotic. If you can’t identify any goals or buy into them, you will likely become demoralized and immobilized.
  • Immediate tasks give focus. If you are able to master or even attempt a single concrete task, you will get a better sense of self-efficacy, of your own ability to get things done, to move forward. (Some studies show that a small percentage of patients improve before their first therapeutic visit. The simple act of making an appointment gives some people a greater sense of self-efficacy.)
  • When you see that you are making progress, when you have benchmarks of change and growth, you can become persuaded that you can master at least some of your problems. It may be slow. It may only be with help and support. But you can get a better sense of the kind of support, goals and information you need to give yourself.

Not to be obvious, but don’t all of these things have some relevance to teaching?

  • What if the teacher were a partner, a helper? An authentic person whom the student genuinely believed was there to help the student succeed? Not an obstacle, a gatekeeper, someone trying to force students to fail so they will go seek other majors.
  • What if the teacher helped orient you to a goal? Helped you to find your own goal? Formed a partnership with you to achieve something meaningful to you? Not someone who holds obscure standards for occult goals, who’s trying to trip the student up to prove who’s in charge. Not someone who throws down a gauntlet and leaves, offers no support or hope, only a Rubik’s cube the student has no help of solving.
  • Doesn’t a good teacher provide tasks which enable success? “If you can do this, you will be better prepared to take the next step towards your goal.” This is very different than “If you fail this quiz, you have no hope of passing this course.” That’s quite a different message. It may be a difference in emphasis, but surely it matters.
  • Shouldn’t good teaching involve helping students see and understand their progress? Shouldn’t good teaching give meaningful and timely feedback, so students can make changes and adjustments? Doesn’t the feeling of progress improve the student’s sense of self-efficacy, of “yes, I can do this.” This is quite different than the grade that appears with no comments, or comments more obscure than the original assignment.

Now ask yourself: How often did you experience this kind of helping relationship in your education? Chances are, where the education felt good and was excellent, you did in fact feel these things.

But then consider also the times a teacher did something to demoralize and discourage you, failed to help you understand what you were supposed to do, gave you inscrutible feedback on your work. Perhaps it drove you to work harder. Or perhaps it made you up & leave, decide you were no good, that you didn’t have what it took. And did that help your education?

And here’s the even tougher part: if you are a teacher, ask yourself Are you doing this in your teaching?

In short: Are you helping your students to succeed? Or are setting up a series of obstacles to force them to fail? And are you then giving them the message that failing is their responsibility alone?

Of course, a teacher is not a shrink. Nor a nursemaid. Nor a babysitter.

But surely at least a part of the teacher’s job should be: coaching, leading, guiding, encouraging, helping. How to learn should not be off the table. And a sense of authenticity is surely preferable to a stiff mask of obscure authority which sets us apart and tells the student “you will never be in my shoes.”

Unless we think that helping others and helping others to learn is beneath us.

In which case, it’s higher ed itself that needs the shrink.

–Edward R. O’Neill


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