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Teaching Systemic Thinking

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Therapists recognise that the practice of systemic family therapy is as much about the way one thinks as it is about what one does, and this book was the first in this field to address specific ways of teaching people to think sytemically. It discusses the way people learn; the components of a successful teaching event; and many exercises which have proven helpful in changing the way people think. The book is based on seminars and courses given by David Campbell and Ros Draper over a twelve year period, and it is clearly and methodically written so the reader can easily apply the exercises to their own practice and teaching. Since systemic thinking is a growing field being applied to many different areas of work, this book has been enjoyed by a wide readership of people who work with families as well as large and small organisations.

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1. Important Principles

ePub

The basis of teaching for us is the creation of a co-evolving system between the teachers and the participants. The co-evolutionary process provides the setting in which learning happens, but it also is the learning; it consists of the exchange between participants and observers and is about all of us being able to observe, in some way that exchange. In creating a co-evolving system, we are aiming to create a context in which the participants are learning and we are learning. They are learning about systemic thinking and family therapy and we are learning about teaching systemic thinking and family therapy.

We place great emphasis on the way we get feedback from participants about what they want right from the start of a teaching event, and this governs the way we spend the first day. It is important for us to let ourselves respond and be organized by what the group needs to develop, and not to teach from a script. We watch to see, for example, the differences and similarities among them relative to where they are in their learning. We try to get a sense of whether they are at Stage 1 or Stage 5 in that process, and what kind of blocks they might have that prevent them from moving on to the next stage. We speculate about that as we listen to their first bits of feedback; usually, for example, their expectations of the teaching event.

 

2. What Teaching does for the Teacher

ePub

The teaching that really works in getting teachers engaged with systemic thinking is the teaching that gives people the experience of participating in a co-evolving system. As teachers, we are actively involved in finding ways of responding to the participants’ ideas. If they can observe the teachers being influenced by their feedback and taking this feedback to a higher level of organization in which the teacher’s comments to them have included their feedback, then participants see the systemic process in action. This is what is exciting for everybody.

The working partnership between us (D.C. and R.D.) as teachers can also be seen as a co-evolving process from which the participants might learn. While there are differences in style which influence the way we teach, we are affected by and interested in what each other has to say This is the reason we have worked together for such a long time.

Our roles are not fixed in that, although D.C. often leads the theoretical discussion and R.D. begins an interview, these roles might be reversed to generate some new ideas for both of us. During a workshop we tend to alternate taking charge of a discussion and exercises, in order to create differences for the participants and give each other the chance to step back, rest and observe the process of teaching and learning.

 

3. Teaching Contexts

ePub

We have been teaching family therapy for many years in many different contexts. These contexts have been important in affecting the way we teach by presenting certain limitations and possibilities. These provide the basis for making a hypothesis about how best the participants will be engaged in new ideas. We are always asking ourselves what is the minimum intervention that will produce the maximum change? The experiences described in this paper are taken from four important teaching contexts.

These can involve up to 30 participants, or even more, depending on the demand. The aim is to challenge people’s way of thinking and to give them an introduction or overview of the main theoretical ideas and techniques. One small goal is to make a punctuation in people’s thinking rather than expect them to have a co-evolutionary experience, since the time constraint and group size means there is less opportunity for feedback and interaction of ideas.

Our main task is to keep the participants engaged in the events of the day. We have to work hard to generalize from what the participants say to create a conceptual framework which fits their goals and allows us to cover the material planned for the day. If the group is smaller or we have more time, it is more possible to let things evolve. In a group of 30, however, we would still attempt to give the participants some experience of working in a smaller unit, so some of the exercises would involve working in small groups of 3 or 4.

 

1. Theoretical Input

ePub

We tend to teach theory in several ways. We have found it is very effective to link a theoretical discussion to an exercise. For example, an exercise about formulating the family as a system can be followed by a discussion during which we might elaborate the concept of the interconnectedness of meaning and behaviour by referring to the experiences which the participants had during the exercise. This is a powerful method of conveying ideas.

We also like to have periods of general discussion in the large group, and from the questions raised, one of us might go to the “blackboard” to make a diagram, or outline some points which help to clarify a theoretical point During each of our workshops we would inevitably present the theoretical framework which underpins our own thinking and the concepts presented during the workshop. This presentation usually takes about an hour, as it is accompanied by diagrams and key words and phrases whenever possible.

The content of the the theoretical framework is slightly different each time we present because we are inevitably influenced by the most recent discussion or case we have taken part in and also because changing the approach keeps us fresh and interested in our own presentation. There is nothing worse for a teacher than to become bored by the sound of his or her own voice.

 

2. Group Discussion

ePub

We see discussion as a means whereby the system interacts and creates new information. It is also an expression of the connectedness in the group over time. For the teachers, managing a discussion means managing the balance between the needs of the group and the needs of individuals. The same question from one person has a different meaning when asked by somebody else in the group who has a different history. We ask ourselves, “What does this question represent for this person? What has precipitated this question in this person’s struggles in their own work?” We try to answer in a way that allows them to reflect back on that context. If the question seems disconnected from the systemic process and is asked in a didactic way, we might be more cheeky and challenging: “What difference would it make to your thinking if we answered this question?”

We listen to see how people have been affected by our feedback to them. People start asking questions based on premises presented by the teachers. Sometimes people seem not to have been part of the group process and ask questions based on the premise they came with.

 

3. Video Presentation and Live Family Session

ePub

Video presentation creates a context in which people can match their expectations of what they see people do and don’t do in family therapy. It allows people to become engaged through learning what is safe. They are able to put their own learning into that context by asking themselves what do they do that you don’t, and so on.

A visual experience like this can be very powerful if the participants are asked questions in such a way that they place themselves in relation to the video material.

1.  In a group, look for 3 ways in which verbal and nonverbal material conf irms/disconf irms the hypothesis.

2.  What is the interaction between the hypothesis and the feedback from the family that would lead you to be stuck as the therapist? Give 3 examples.

3.  What contradictions are emerging from the questioning in the belief system and behaviour of the family?

4.  What issues need to be addressed in an intervention?

It is not possible, in our experience, to remain engaged with video for longer than about 10 minutes.

 

4. Reading and Writing

ePub

Our general approach to reading is to ask people how they have been challenged by what they have read. In this respect, it is congruent with the feedback process, modelling the theory of the relationship between beliefs and behaviour In order for behaviour to change, beliefs must be challenged, leading to the creation of a new context in which alternative behaviours are possible. We start by asking, “What difference has it made to people to read this paper or book?”, “Which ideas does it threaten and which does it validate?” We are far more interested in the effect the paper has on the reader’s thinking than in clarifying the meaning of the paper as intended by the author. We find that clarification questions arise out of the participants’ attempts to answer the questions about what difference the paper has made. We then spend some time asking, for example, what Karl Tomm means when he is talking about ‘reflexive questions’, and whether he means this or that particular thing.

We organize the reading from the key references found at the end of this booklet. We have found the following references most helpful under each of these general headings:

 

5. Homework

ePub

We set homework questions throughout courses to begin the process of creating feedback in the back-home situation. These tend to be questions that address change more generally with the aim of creating ripples in a wider range of thinking and practice. They give course participants a chance to step back and evaluate what is happening to them during the time they are on the course. In answering such questions participants get a different perspective on the course from simply participating in it. At the same time, we are aware of the practical issues of fatigue and the fact that participants sometimes wish to forget the course for a while. We usually spend some time at the beginning of the next session using the homework as a focus for discussion.

Write down the question that is most important for you to have answered at the moment. Then pass it on to someone else to answer overnight. This person is asked to write a response to bring to the course the next day. The written answers to the questions are shared in large groups or in foursomes if the group is too large for each question to be shared around.

 

6. Taking Notes

ePub

We are always trying to take feedback to another level. We tend to ask people to structure their feedback to exercises and other experiences on courses in order that people monitor their own learning. Some examples follow.

We ask trainees, who are acting as team members, to take notes as they are observing family therapy sessions. In the context of a supervision group, the recording can take the form of verbatim notes often linked to annotation of the video tape, recording the place in the video where a particular question was asked or a significant piece of interaction observed. This is also useful for the therapist when he/she is reviewing the tape. Sessions can also be recorded in terms of themes emerging like competition, mourning or loyalty; how the hypothesis is developed; how the family respond to certain questions; the supervisor’s comments; contradictions between beliefs and between beliefs and behaviour; reflexive questioning and responses to these; and so on.

We ask trainees to write brief notes on each family therapy session covering the following topics:

 

7. Exercises

ePub

Creating exercises is an essential part of the process of teaching systemic thinking. Primarily it allows us, as teachers, to respond to the feedback we get from course members and transform it into a structured event which allows the participants to push their learning on to the next stage.

The structure of the exercise enables the participant to experience specific conceptual features of systemic thinking (such as the role of the observer and the problem-determined system) through action. We believe that learning is more profound when it takes place in a context that combines thought and action. An exercise also creates the space for participants to reflect on their own experience, and they learn only what they are ready to learn. We expect each participant to ‘need’ different experiences to advance their learning and we find the use of exercises allows participants to have many different experiences while relating to a common theme which has emerged from the group process during the workshop.

 

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