The classroom as laboratory

Recent moves to improve the use of research to evaluate teaching practice and empower teachers to undertake their own classroom-based study are to be applauded.  My experience of the teach-meet phenomenon and new social media networks has been overwhelmingly positive and given me much-needed ‘chicken soup’ for my teaching soul.  It is truly heartening to engage with a smorgasbord of ideas, approaches and resources to improve my own practice.  Colleagues, I thank you.

In parallel to this paradigm shift in the use of empirical evidence in education, I am also trying to hold onto my observation skills and perhaps consider a different use of the classroom as laboratory to reflect on the psycho-social aspects of learning and teaching.  Whilst teaching itself can be a lonely existence, it is made less lonely by developing the tools to reflect and describe the phenomena we experience.

Colleagues and students do not always want to talk about the feelings aroused in everyday life and it sometimes becomes difficult to hold onto this way of thinking.  This is compounded by the fact that it has been over  9 years since I studied at the Tavistock and I wonder if I have along the way lost my ability to dip into the perspective in anything but a superficial way.  I guess this blog and these vignettes are an attempt to re-engage with this approach.

Michael Rustin (2001) suggests that the ‘object of study’ in psychoanalysis is resistant to the kinds of measurement and standardisation found in the ‘normal’ sciences. In contrast, psychoanalysis has its own set of research procedures, which promote ‘self-reflection and question the taken-for-granted constructs of mental life’. The main method of investigation is the consulting room, which is the psychoanalytic equivalent of a scientific laboratory. It is only in the consulting room that unconscious phenomena can be clearly observed. Unconscious mental phenomena can be investigated through understanding the transference and counter-transference.

 “You want to see ‘the unconscious’ at work? You want to see ‘transference’ – the patient’s ‘irrational’ feelings towards the analyst, or the ‘counter-transference’ – the states of mind evoked in the therapists by their patients? Then come into the consulting room, close the door, follow the rather minimal routines prescribed, and there the phenomena will be available for inspection.” (Rustin, 2001, p.36)

The classroom can provide another form of ‘laboratory’ to investigate unconscious processes. As long as the teacher has some training in what Rustin calls psychoanalytic ‘craft skills’, namely, evoking, recognising, encoding and interpreting. This method follows a long tradition in psychoanalysis of using the lived experience over all else and the classroom-laboratory can provide a wide range of empirical evidence, which can be used and interpreted.

I want to use this blog to reflect on the conscious and unconscious processes at work.  Where useful, I will attempt to record observational details in an attempt to refresh my skills and use of the key terms. It is from these small vignettes that I hope to be able to think about the concepts of projection, transference and counter-transference and how they may affect learning and teaching.

On of the most useful experiences of my time at the Tavistock was the regular task of presenting a work discussion paper to my seminar group.  I dreaded the build up to this task but found catharsis in the presentation and group discussion of the issues on display.  It helped develop my observational skills, which have in turn improved my understanding of classroom encounters. Instead of being in a permanent crisis mode and reacting instantly to situations, the course has enabled me to develop a mental space to reflect and consider the meanings involved.

As teachers it is essential that we are able to reflect on our experiences and interactions, become more aware of the verbal and non-verbal communications, the responses of others in the group and, most importantly, be able to reflect on our own emotional responses to a situation. This awareness of my own evoked feeling states means I am able to use my own experience of the situation to help provide an understanding of the processes involved.

This mental space allows us to consider the impact of both conscious and unconscious processes in the classroom setting. If we can reflect on the quality of the interaction it might help us understand what the meanings might be. For example, the student whose behaviour I find irritating beyond all proportion because they get right under my skin is communicating a powerful message. It is also interesting to consider what communication is offered by the student who fades into the background and slips my mind during routine class work. A psychoanalytic approach helps me consider what else might be being communicated in these interactions.

A basic understanding of psychoanalytical concepts has helped me cope with the intense emotional demands of the classroom. I feel less bewildered by the force of these emotions and more able to recognise where they come from and why they may reside in me. I am much more aware of my students’ states of mind and how this may affect their learning and behaviour. Furthermore, I am much more aware of the anxieties associated with development and the learning process and more able to help my students bear some of this unbearable pain. With a more observant approach, I have been able to pick up the more painful communications, which are projected into our interactions.

This mental space has allowed me to reflect on the idea that universal emotions such as anxiety, unhappiness, dread and envy may underlie behaviour, which is commonly understood as disrespectful, disruptive and disobedient. The students who appear the most disruptive, difficult or insensitive may behave in this manner because they feel the most disrupted; are unable to cope with their difficulties; or are the most sensitive and perceptive to what goes on in their relationships.

In the spirit of end of year reflection, I pledge to make my classroom my laboratory but not just for experimenting with approaches to teaching and learning.  I plan to use my laboratory to map the emotional landscape of learning and to notice more the emotions on display in my students and those evoked in myself.

Rustin, M. (2001) Reason and Unreason. Psychoanalysis, Science and Politics. CT Wesleyan University Press.