How can learning be therapeutic – and why should it be?
What comes to mind when you think about a therapeutic experience? For me, it is a period of time when no threats or anxieties are present. During this time I feel calm and safe. I might even feel energised. There is something warming about the experience. I sense that I am being given something. If other people are part of this experience, they want me to be comfortable. They will not be judging me in any way, or have expectations of me that I cannot fulfil as yet, and my presence seems valued. This experience might make a personal problem become a little less weighty for the time being. I feel there is some meaning in this experience.
Hopefully, we all have times like this, whether we are alone in a place we love, or with people who want to contribute positively to our life.
We know that all kinds of situations have the potential to be therapeutic, but equally, they can become the opposite. We could think about someone going for the first time to a sporting event, concert, faith or social gathering, workshop, or even for a massage. Their enjoyment of any one of these experiences could be reduced or completely disappear if they are made to feel uncomfortable because they are not responding in ways that are considered the norm, or they are made to feel that they do not fit in because they are failing to understand what is happening. They will almost certainly feel embarrassed, anxious and inadequate. Even if we usually feel that we are perfectly adequate, these situations can leave us feeling wounded.
It is very difficult to consider new ideas when we cannot perceive any meaning in them. And if we feel afraid, we are even less inclined to engage with something as yet unknown to us. So we can imagine how difficult it is for children and young people to feel worthy and confident in an educational environment that pressures them to learn, rather than providing experiences that enable an opening-up. Unfortunately, even with the best intentions, the institutional nature of school life and the often hostile social structures that accompany it can be laden with negative rather than fulfilling experiences. Many of these negative experiences can arise during lessons, when young people fail to grasp what is being presented but feel too embarrassed to express their confusion.
Every learning experience can and should be at the very least an affirmation of those who are taking part. This does not mean giving constant and artificial praise. A child or young person, and many adult learners may not be able to articulate their needs in the ways that I am expressing them, but every human being, even a very young child, will have an awareness of the elements that I named earlier:
*No threats to my feelings of self-worth are present.
*I feel calm and safe.
*Perhaps I feel energised.
*People in this environment want me to be comfortable.
*These people won’t be judging me in any way, or have expectations of me that I can’t fulfil as yet.
*My presence seems valued.
*The personal problem that’s worrying me feels a bit further away at the moment.
*There is something warming about this experience.
*I feel I’m being given something.
*This thing that’s happening is beginning to have some meaning for me.
It may be useful to describe this list as ‘elements that allow engagement’. Perhaps you can add to these elements, based on your own experiences of feeling at ease and confident in learning situations. Alternatively, you could make a list about what arose for you during situations that felt intimidating or uncomfortable.
What can this really have to do with literacy? You may be wondering what a therapeutic experience of education can possibly have to do with literacy. Almost everything that a young person takes part in at school or in further education involves the need to speak and write. Speaking and writing can be extremely difficult for a young person who lacks the confidence to express themselves clearly. They may understand a topic better than we realise, but feel unable to articulate their knowledge either verbally or in writing. In some instances they may be a confident speaker, but be afraid to put pen to paper because of untidy handwriting, inaccurate spelling, or a lack of skill in transferring their thoughts to the page. They may feel that what is seen on the paper represents them as a person, that it says something about their overall ability and character. This is hardly surprising when we consider the importance that is attached to neat handwriting and correct spelling and the praise that accompanies these. Of course, legible handwriting and accurate spelling makes it far easier to understand and appreciate someone’s written work. However, when we prioritise these aspects over a young person’s efforts to express their understanding of a topic or to share an idea, we invariably reduce real engagement. And this will almost always result in a reduction of confidence.
Above all, literacy in any form is a means to communicate ideas, information and feelings. So we must make it clear to young people that language belongs as much to them as anyone else – no matter how they are using it. Corrections to grammar or spelling and encouragement to make writing more legible can all happen later. In fact, when young people see that their current use of language is treated with respect, making corrections and improvements becomes desirable to them. This is understandable, because having our input appreciated is almost always a motivation to enhance it. In this course we will look at the many ways we can create a therapeutic environment that enables a calming, reassuring experience of learning.
In addition to this, we need to acknowledge that at school or elsewhere, the use of language by both adults and young people can cause distress as well as pleasure. Language is so commonplace that it is easy to disregard its impact. It can enliven us or lower our mood. We are able to please or offend someone with the words we choose, encourage or discourage, show concern or indifference, spark or crush ideas, open or close minds.
We might still ask, “How could the simple acts of speaking, writing – or even reading aloud – be therapeutic?” The answer is that language is at all times connected with our experience of the wider world and other people, and of course, that’s how language came about. When we start helping young people to develop their literacy skills, it is useful to begin with a conversation about language itself – what we use it for and how we use it. We can talk and write about how we ourselves react to the different ways that language is used. We can experiment verbally, using a variety of intonations and attitudes while giving each other small pieces of information. Then, we can experiment similarly in writing. In these ways, we enable young people to experience the acts of speaking and writing as valuable extensions of themselves. Mistakes, untidy presentation and unconventional grammar are all allowed to play a part, because content and meaning matter the most. In this atmosphere, young people’s interest in literacy can begin to flourish, because they feel at ease. And very quickly, young people become aware of the effects of their expression in terms of courtesy, boldness, imagination and questioning. If this kind of experience continues, they will want to share their work in its best light by seeking out the correct way to spell their words, and they will gladly accept suggestions for adjusting grammar.
By changing the way that we ourselves engage in learning and teaching, we can alleviate the fears that so many young people have around being sufficiently literate. (Including reading, which we will look at later on.) Many young people are secretly anxious about appearing ‘silly’ and are afraid of producing work that might be deemed inferior. When this fear is removed, either in the moment or over time, these young people can quite literally find a voice, and transfer that voice to paper. This inclusion in the world of literacy can contribute significantly to their sense of well-being.
The importance of connecting with a topic – how true learning is a felt experience. During the course, we will be looking at the importance of connecting with a topic, so that literacy is placed in the context of real life.
In almost all educational situations we are encouraged to consider only what we think, so our involvement is limited to an intellectual appraisal of what we are studying. But when a young person is encouraged to feel something about a given topic, they are enabled the freedom to speak and write about it movingly and expressively. Development of this kind usually appears when young people are invited to call upon the things that are important in their own lives. This may not seem significant, but it is, because allowing a personal response to a subject of any kind opens up an awareness in a young person that discoveries are to own and reflect upon. This takes the focus far away from compulsory achievement and places it soundly on personal fulfilment. Yet if this type of learning happens regularly, a young person is very likely to achieve, because they will almost always become able to discuss and write about their studies with greater fluency. Additionally, many young people would like to enjoy art and poetry, but believe their efforts are unacceptable. That can change too, because every individual is inherently creative and can be shown how to re-value and enhance everything they do through personal connection with the essence of a topic.
It is essential to bear in mind that we adults have become so familiar with particular concepts that we may assume their ‘simple’ meanings are obvious to the young. Perhaps we believe that one or two explanations are sufficient in enabling a young person to understand something new. Very frequently this is not the case at all, so we must be imaginative and find different ways to illustrate the ideas that we are trying to explain – and make them relevant to a young person’s current knowledge and experience.
Potentially painful topics All unpleasant topics have to be approached with sensitivity, and sometimes it is not appropriate to invite a young person to relate a difficult topic to their personal experience. When an unpleasant topic is going to be studied it is best that we make enquiries to find out if a young person is living with trauma or grief. If necessary, we will speak with the young person and their parent or guardian in advance, to see if taking part will be of benefit or if it might be harmful. If contact of this kind has not been possible, there are ways to introduce and explore a difficult subject without explicit references to disturbing information. We will look at how to do this later in the course.
We must note here that it is inappropriate to try and compare our own experiences with experiences we have not had. It is rarely possible to empathise sincerely with something we have not encountered, and attempting to teach young people such a profound level of empathy is misguided. During the course we will look at the benefits of discussing this with young people.
Aside from the exceptional circumstances that I have mentioned, when we help young people to experience a range of topics as being relevant to their own concerns and aspirations, we are doing our best to make each learning encounter a life-enhancing experience that equips them to take part in the affairs of the wider world, should they choose to.