“No man is an island, and yet we wish to believe that we are independent of forces of which we may not be conscious either from outside ourselves or within. At times we are aware of these pulls from within ourselves, at other times they overwhelm us and become the source of irrational group behaviour” (Stokes, 1994, p.14).
My experience of working with different groups of students and staff is often powerful and overwhelming. Whilst working with a group it is difficult to consider the group processes of which one might be part. However, it is important that we are able to reflect on our ‘experiences in groups’ as a means of exploring in what ways the unconscious may effect the learning and teaching.
The work of Wilfred Bion helps us explore group dynamics. Bion (1961) published a small volume of papers called ‘experiences in groups’ which introduce a new way of looking at groups and group processes. For Bion, the group is an important field of study, which offers us a deeper understanding of the individual. “The group, therefore, is more than the aggregate of individuals, because an individual in a group is more than an individual in isolation” (Bion, 1961, p.60). The group mentality, group culture and the individual are interdependent phenomena, which must be observed to fully understand the tensions in the group. I have found it useful to think about the concept of a group mind when reflecting on my experiences.
Bion uses the concept of valency as a means of exploring the social functions carried out by the individual for the group. Bion described valency as “the individual’s readiness to enter into combination with the group in making and acting on the basic assumptions” (1961,p.116). We all have the capacity to shift between dependency, fight-flight and pairing mentalities, however the concept of valency suggests that as individuals we all have a tendency towards one of the basic assumptions above and that we will often fulfil the functions of that role. This tendency is an unconscious, instantaneous and an irrational function on behalf of the group.
Obholzer and Roberts (1994) suggest that individuals are unconsciously sucked into performing a function on behalf of others as well as themselves in all groups and institutions. From this perspective, the troublesome individuals are needed by the group to express some of the feelings and anxieties that cannot be owned by the group as a whole. Through a process of projective identification, the group is able to locate these difficult emotions into vulnerable group members who have their own valency for one or other aspects of these anxieties.
Kelly had been excluded from school and attended a pupil referral unit in the College that I taught in until she was 16 years old. She had managed to progress onto a level one course with the desire to work with children. She admitted that she quite liked the naughty ones and felt she would be good at dealing with them. Kelly had a history of conflict, a very difficult relationship with her mother and had recently moved into a bedsit on her own. This had been a difficult process with a degree of confrontation with her social workers. There had been a number of behavioural problems in the previous year, but we were all hopeful that she could have a fresh start.
It was difficult from the beginning with Kelly often being the flashpoint for conflict within the group. She would come in late, do the work when she wanted to. She had a difficulty forming relationships with the other students. In the third week of the academic year there was a serious fight involving Kelly, which resulted in her leaving the College on the grounds of gross misconduct. I do not doubt that Kelly was dealing with numerous personal issues during this time, but I cannot help but wonder whether there was also an unconscious group dynamic at work. The first three weeks of term, on a new course in a new environment would provide ideal conditions for heightened group anxieties both conscious and unconscious. I wondered whether this powerful group mentality was able to use Kelly’s talent for confrontation with students and staff as a means of dealing with its own unconscious needs.
Immediately after she left, there was a noticeable reduction in tension as you could sense the group’s sense of relief. It felt as though we had conveniently got rid of something rather unpleasant. The group quietened down and there was much less conflict in the room and the group seemed more cooperative. However, this utopia did not last for long as another member of the group soon became a focus of attention, Andre. Not before long the tensions in the group had risen to a similarly high level. I wondered whether it was important to have a difficult, belligerent, confrontational member who can be sacrificed when things get too difficult.
It seems clear that Kelly had learnt a painful lesson in this classroom. She was sacrificed for the good of the group. I wondered whether anyone with Kelly’s valency could ever have a fresh start or whether this was part of a more continuous, destructive and unfulfilling pattern. I also felt a sense of failure in my inability to deal with the wider group anxieties and find ways for both the group and Kelly to cope with the anxieties of the beginning.
There is a sense of reparation in Kelly’s choice of returning to college and having a second chance. Her aim at interview was to get qualifications and become a youth worker with the ‘naughty children’. However, it is interesting to consider how quickly other powerful and primitive forces may overrun the desire for reparation.
Faisal was a very young looking male student in a GCSE re-sit group. There were 22 female students and only 2 male students in the class. At the beginning, Faisal quickly paired with the other boy in the group. I considered what a powerful pair they might make, they were always together and seemed to hang onto each other in this large group of girls. However, this coupling did not last very long as the other boy began to make other friends. Faisal found it very difficult to fit into the group on his own, his attendance and punctuality quickly deteriorated. He spent a lot of time going to the toilet which upon investigation meant hanging around the common room playing pool with a large group of business studies boys. The group began to pick up on this and Faisal became the butt of what seemed at the time as gentle jokes or ribbing. It started with comments about his regular toilet habits “he is in the loo again” which later became accusations “what could he be doing?” On reflection, I wondered what sort of communications might have been going on. On the one hand, these absences may have been Faisal’s means of communicating how difficult it might be to fit into this group. On the other hand, I wondered whether this was the start of some sort of group attack and whether this may also serve a function for this group.
After a while, Faisal began to fall behind on his work but this seemed to serve a function for the group. No matter how badly the other students were doing, no one was failing as much as Faisal. Halfway through the course I made a progress chart for the students to tick off their achievements as we went along. In an individual tutorial, I tried to use the chart to point out how far behind Simone had become. She replied, triumphantly “at least I am not as far behind as Faisal”. Whilst I reminded her that this meeting was about her progress and not about Faisal’s, part of me could not help but sigh a sense of relief that she had not fallen as far behind as he had.
I was aware of this feeling again a few days later when I met Faisal to discuss his progress. For some reason, I did not feel able to push Faisal on his progress as much as I would have done with other students. We talked about the units he was struggling with and we made some future appointments for me to provide one to one support. I should have put him on a first warning at this point, but I did not. I was also aware that he would probably not meet his appointment with me as he had failed to meet any of our previous meetings. I wondered whether at some level I was colluding with group to maintain Faisal’s position, why did I not feel able to challenge Faisal more thoroughly? What was to be gained by keeping Faisal at the bottom of the group?
It is helpful to consider Faisal’s experience in the context of the group. I wondered whether Faisal had served some function for the group. It seems clear that in a group of anxious adolescents in might be useful to have a ‘troubled’ individual who could not cope with the work or the group. It is difficult to be different from the rest of a group and I wondered whether this difference made it easier for Faisal to carry a sense of failure for a group who already have ‘failed’ at their GCSEs.
I also felt that I had failed Faisal, it seemed impossible for us to have a worthwhile relationship. My sense of failure also needs to be thought about. Whilst this could be seen as a projection, I wondered whether thinking about our failed relationship might also be useful and help make sense of Faisal’s experience in the group. I reflected on how difficult it was for him being the one of only two males in a large group of girls and whether I could think about what this might be like for him. Faisal lived at home with his mother and sister but had no contact with his father. I was aware that the situation in the classroom may have replicated some of his earlier experiences.
Societal stereotypes about the ‘caring’ professions are still quite strong and to be a young man on a caring course leaves one in a very exposed position. However, I wondered whether a more unconscious gender agenda might also be considered. The re-emergence of the oedipal conflict can stir up considerable anxiety which in turn may lead to renewed defences against this anxiety, such as splitting and repression. In adolescence, this may result in a preference for friends of the same sex, detachment and hostility towards the parents to defend against the unconscious fears of intimacy and aggression. Faisal was a likeable student, but it was impossible for us to have a worthwhile relationship. My interventions were politely rejected and I found it extremely difficult to put down firm boundaries for him. He truanted most lessons to be with a larger group of boys in the canteen and I was the one who was left feeling rejected and unwanted. I wondered whether his rejection of my role and my failure to have any authority was the working out of some form of reawakened oedipal struggle.
What had Faisal learnt from the course? It seems clear that it was a painful experience, which may have been driven by powerful unconscious forces. Teaching and learning may be affected by unconscious group dynamics as well as the reworking of earlier experiences.
Although these interactions happened over a decade ago, the feelings they evoked remain fresh in my mind. I often think about these two students and wonder who will occupy their position on behalf of the group in my next class and what I can do to be aware of these forces and reduce the anxieties inherent in the learning relationship.
Stokes, J. (1994) The unconscious at work in groups and teams: contributions from the work of Wilfred Bion in Obholzer, A and Roberts V. Z. (Eds.) The unconscious at work. Individual and organisational stress in the human services. London: Routledge.
Bion, W. (1961) Experiences in Groups. London: Tavistock Publications.