constructivist ideas in practice

chris walker Mary: Chris, I am hoping we can explore your thoughts about the value of PCP in educational psychology. I know that you have played a very active role in introducing PCP in education, along with Tom Ravenette.

Chris: I feel honoured to be thought of along with Tom – I am one of a small band of people actively using and promoting PCP. I first met Tom when training to be an EP in Exeter. I remember Tom as an interesting man - I liked his ideas and his approach - but he did a lot of work with grids at that time and that didn’t grab me at all. But something stayed with me and gradually took root, and I joined a PCP foundation course about 10 years later. I had had a student on placement with me who was very interested in Kelly’s work and the key element of PCP of alternative ways of looking at things. So we dug out Tom’s old papers I began to really enjoy the ideas and possibilities. We found key things to integrate into practice, especially laddering questions, and exercises based on Self Characterisation and Ideal Self. It seemed such an interesting way of approaching the world, and made such an impression, that I wanted to know more.

How did it fit with EP practice at that time?

The prevailing practice was behaviourist. The emphasis was on behaviour correction - reinforcement, encouragement, discouragement - it was very positivist and very directional. The focus was on what was happening, but with little theory to explain or to explore why, and no interest in the importance of the interaction between the people involved. The practice of Educational Psychology has always been pushed towards measurement and at that time there was a lot of emphasis on IQ testing, so PCP presented something quite different. It chimed with how I thought and how I approached work with children, families and schools. It helped me find ways to understanding people’s motivation - exploring why they were doing things and what was important to them. It seemed to offer a huge potential for looking into the concerns about learning and behaviour presented to Educational Psychologists.

Do you have any examples of early experiments in practice?

I had a great relationship with a secondary school at the time. They asked me to see a 6th form girl who had physical symptoms but wouldn’t see a doctor, she agreed to have time with me. She told me about her life and her family situation and the kinds of responsibility she felt for the troubled relationships at home. She spoke of feeling immobilised. When I asked more about her self, she tended to use animal names - feeling like a mouse in her Saturday job, and like an elephant when having a dress made. We did some work with a Self Characterisation using animal metaphors, and including one she might prefer. This was a seagull, which for her was a real contrast to feeling immobilised. We explored various ideas and experiments about what it would be like to be a seagull in various settings. She found it helpful and began to see herself in very different ways with more power to choose her responses to things. It was a good early experience of creative experiments in PCP.

It does sound creative and probably not what she would have expected from a visit to the Psychologist?

No, probably very different. But she was very ready to work and explore herself, and was much more comfortable as a result. We didn’t talk about her symptoms at all. The key thing her experimentation confirmed for me was the value of coming at things from different angles, led by the person themselves, always holding options open, and thinking together about how to experiment.

Were there difficulties using such creative methods given your comment about the dominant practice models and the emphasis on testing?

I don’t think I ever undertook an IQ test with a child. I was sometimes asked about intelligence when children weren’t learning. In those situations my first response was to find out how the child approached learning, and how they approached their wider world rather than measure their intelligence. The discussion always generated useful data for everyone involved, but from a very different angle. Dyslexia was another issue that came up, a topic that polarizes people working in education. The expected practice at the time was that the psychologist would carryout a reading test and an IQ test, the discrepancy between results would assist making the “diagnosis” of dyslexia. I have always seen dyslexia as a multifactorial issue and so I wanted to find out what children were making of literacy, their learning history and how they were approaching reading. I didn’t use standard tests because I believed they weren’t of any relevance to the questions we were trying to answer in relation to the child’s difficulties with learning literacy skills. As an EP and particularly one using PCP, the relationship with the school is crucial – the staff need to know how you think and how you work, and knowing this hopefully encourages them to refer early, to share thoughts and concerns before they become big problems. There is a very important role the EP can play in helping the school reflect on their practice and plan change. Being an Educational Psychologist really was the best job in the world much of the time. Of course there were sometimes differences with Head Teachers, but in dialogue we would generally find a way forward – I don’t recall there ever ultimately being a problem. Now many EP’s are employed by the school - a big change and a very different relationship.

I remember you becoming very involved in training and spreading PCP ideas in the field.

I used to do some teaching on the Institute of Education’s Masters course for Educational Psychologists. Also in conjunction with Robin Stoker we set up termly seminars which were well attended. They were held at the University of Birmingham where the EP training course had for many years been organized with PCP as a central theme, under the leadership of Brian Roberts and later Sue Morris. For two or three years this was a very active group but the spread of PCP ideas has been patchy, the interest waxes and wanes. I think people can be put off by the terminology and by the scale of the theory, perhaps in the same way I was put off initially by the emphasis on grids, where the structured technique seemed more important than what it might offer. Very little is written about PCP practice in Educational Psychology. Tom’s work is still key, Butler & Green’s book “The Child Within” extends the literature available but it is still sparse. People tend to relate bits of PCP to other things they know - they perhaps take a couple of useful ideas but not a comprehensive approach. Thinking about the available work on PCP, I must refer to Phillida Salmon. Her gently crafted books looking at schools and learning were very inspirational for me,

I have the sense that education has become more structured and pre-designed, more manualised in a way. I guess that’s a move away from PCP practice which relies on the practitioner’s creativity underpinned by a comprehensive theory. Your animal-metaphor method would be a good example as it was developed for that student and probably never used again. It would be nonsense as a manualised method for other students who would have their own unique ways of seeing things.

Yes I do think that can be a problem. We can write up cases, but there’s no commonality of language when people don’t share the background of theory. Stories about our work are specific and maybe unique instances. There’s no way to have a description in advance of what to do next, and then...and then... and so often that is what is being looked for. The only way I have found to describe using PCP is to encourage people to get behind the eyes of the child. The experiments that emerge will be different each time. It’s what I’m trying to do - to get behind the eyes of the child, or the teacher, or the parent, and try to dance with them. Of course we will tread on toes from time to time, but I can see and feel how they respond and be curious about why, and why that matters. It takes time to tune into their music and be a responsive partner, like any dance.

I have had the impression whenever we’ve spoken that your key client has often been the teacher, even though the referral was to see a child.

I would say that in 90% of cases it is one of the adults involved who are concerned about the child, not the child themselves. I am always interested in working with the teachers and parents, understanding their concerns, what they are trying to do, what questions they are trying to answer. When beginning to work with a school I would regularly ask for time to speak to a staff meeting, to explain a little of my approach and encourage school staff to seek me out to talk over concerns, bounce ideas, share experiences… Working alongside the teacher, for example. There was a boy of about 7 with very limited skills and very little English who seemed terrified of the world. The teacher was at a loss to know what to do to encourage his learning. She had no clear understanding of what was happening for this boy. With the help of some inclass support the teacher was able to work with the boy to discover what was impeding the child’s learning: language? physical difficulties? stress? family expectations? or a wish not to be independent? In discussion with the teacher we considered possible hypotheses that might explain the child’s difficulties and planned possible experiments. The teacher worked with the child and developed her own hypotheses. We worked together on the development of strategies but the teacher crucially was in control of the exploration and the planning of support.

If you had the chance to pass on a few key ideas from PCP practice to teachers generally, what might they be?

That our own history, behaviours and preconceptions will have a core influence on the work we do, and so it is critically important to be aware of our own approaches and thinking; we can’t just assume we know how the child sees things, we need to ask. Our language, however clear we think we are, can be confusing, through the interpretive stance of each child (I’m reminded of the story of Laurie Lee’s first day at school when he reported that the teacher had never given him the present she had promised - his misunderstanding arose from being told to ‘sit here for the present’); and that our dislikes and pet hates are all about us, not about the children. I had a teacher once with an absolute abhorrence of nose-picking - which children do a lot! - and so we un-picked her constructs of nose-picking in terms of its implications and associations. That changed the ways she could then deal with these children. More choices!

I’ve been struck through this conversation, by the practical power of a good theory, and I find myself wondering whether educationalists have good theories?

It’s an interesting question. I was once involved a conference about learning - we wanted teachers to feel more expert in the field of learning. We had a variety of very well-known psychologists and educationalists to talk about their work and their underpinning theories. We invited teachers to question, debate and critique what they heard. We wanted to help them develop and articulate their own theories of learning, as these drove their daily practice in the classroom. It was a delightful experience helping people uncover and develop their working theories. I had no preconceptions of what their theories should be - if teachers believed children to be empty vessels needing to be filled, so be it - the important thing was for them to become aware of their theories, articulate them coherently, and understand the implications, and limitations, for teaching practice. It was great event for everyone involved and one that seeded many ideas. What I love about PCP as a theory is its total coherence with practice. If there’s a mismatch between your theory and your practice, you feel it straight away because your experiments are not working. Using PCP the theory will guide you into how to go about refining the next experiment. I like to think that teachers are more aware of theory now - we now hear pedagogy talked about, and people like Guy Claxton have an increasing influence educational practice. I am really so pleased to have bumped into PCP. Without it I might just have been anti-everything, an anarchist!

Well we might be one of very few schools with a core text on ‘being a personal anarchist’!

The interest in PCP seems to come and go, it depends upon who finds it and holds it for a while. As an EP it has kept me fascinated in learning, and in processes of development. It’s been critical to how I embrace the world. Learning is so profoundly interesting.

August 2014

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