The “Wounded Healer” Archetype in the PBL Teacher

I have been doing a lot more work with teachers this year as I am not in the classroom.  I love watching people teach and talking to them about their teaching.  It is clearly a passion for so many people and the modeling of lifelong learning has been so inspirational for me and their students.

One issue that seems to arise in all PBL classrooms, no matter how progressive the teacher, is this feeling that they need to somehow, someday really just not allow the students to be frustrated.  Even those who buy into the whole PBL, student-centered, productive struggle pedagogy – deep inside they understand the belief from their own education, that math is black-and-white there needs to be some resolution that is acknolwedged and /or provided by the teacher.

I was talking to a friend about this dilemma a while ago (thanks @phiggiston!) and saying how interesting it is to me that a teacher’s belief from their past can, in the moment, while teaching, often override their beliefs in the current pedagogy.  In other words, if a teacher has not experienced independent learning as needed in PBL, it is extremely difficult to not give into the impulse to “save” the students from that feeling of struggle or unease.

Well, coincidentally, @phiggiston has a background in both religious work and in psychotherapy training, so the first the he says to me is, “it’s kind of like the patient-therapist relationship in a way.” And I’m thinking, my teaching is nothing like being a therapist, but of course, I listened intently.  I guess there is a Jungian theory that says that “sometimes a disease is the best training for a physician.”  In fact, Jung goes as far as to say that

“a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor examining himself, for only what he can put right in himself can he hope to put right in the patient.”

_____________________________________________________________________________

So what does this mean for PBL teaching?  I had to think of this for a while and also read some Jung as I am not up on the psychological theories that connect to education.  I wasn’t quite sure that this “Wounded Healter” achetype paralleled the PBL teacher as much as I originally thought.  Here are some points:

  • Jung says that for the wounded healer the therapeutic encounter should be regarded as a dialectical process  It’s not just I’m going to the doctor and she’s going to tell me what wrong with me.  There needs to be some kind of dialogue in order for a real healing to happen.  In the classroom, I would argue that this is true about the teacher-student relationship.  Traditionally, it has been that not having dialogue would result in learning that was not as long-lasting, effective and/or connected to the students own ideas.  It is pretty clear that the PBL teacher needs to create the dilectical process in order for the best learning to happen.
  • Jung argues that the physician must help create a safe space where the “patient’s “inner healer” is made available to her unconsciously.” At the same time the physician, should let go of the way she is activiated by the same wounds. This idea is extremely relevant in the PBL classroom.  Why do we want to make students comfortable and relieve their anxiety about mathematical learning?  My take would be because we hate the way it makes us feel. Knowing that struggle is all to close in our memory can actually help us hand over the power to “heal themselves.”  If we can get over that feeling, it will become more of the norm in the classroom.
  • There are risks to this type of teaching – the risk of being vulnerable because you are looking at your own wounds, and also looking fragile to the patient (or student).  This is a very common concern of teachers who are beginning PBL teaching.

“The experience of being wounded does not make him/her less capable of taking care of the patient’s disease; on the contrary, it makes him/her a companion to the patient, no longer acting as his/her superior.”

In other words, it is worth the experience of creating that open relationship.  I go back to Hawkins’ theory of learning (I-thou-It) in which the relationships that exist form a triangle between teacher-student-material.

Hawkins (1974)

Hawkins (1974)

All of these relationships must be nurtured in order for the best learning environment to exist. (For more on this check out Carol Rodgers presentation slides here.)

_____________________________________________________________________________

So does this mean if you did not have this type of experience learning math that you can’t learn to empower your own students in this way?  I think not.  When I ilook back on my own mathematical experiences many of them were extremely traditionally taught.  However, I think what you need to have inside you is both the belief that students are capable of owning and constructing their own knowledge and the ability to create a space that allows them to remain uncomfortable.  You have to be willing to let go of your own insecurities and anxieties about learning math and realize that the more you do that, the more the students will feel it as well.

I am currently working on a quasi-research project about this and when/how PBL teachers choose to intervene in class discussion.  If there is anyone who is interested in helping me out with this, I’d really appreciate it.

Can you undo an adolescent’s fixed mindset?

Yes, it is this time of year where I have to stop and wonder – what the heck am I doing wrong? Is it me?  Is it the kids? Is it the combination of us? In the spring, many of the kids are breezing through and finding ways to problem solve and have gotten really comfortable with being uncomfortable in doing their nightly struggle – they’ve learned to trust that when we get together the next day, their questions will get answered and all will come together, if not that day, then the next.

This year is somewhat more frustrating for me and I can’t figure out why.  I feel as if the students are still attempting to get everything right every night.  It’s as if they created habits that I did not see somewhere along the way.  Reading the beginning of Andrew Gael’s blogpost on Productive Struggle  made me realize this was true and I’m more frustrated than ever now.  I’ve noticed that the conversations that I am “facilitating” are actually either one student talking about their ideas (basically the kid who thought they got it right) and everyone listening intently checking if they agree with him/her or everyone remaining silent until the one or two kids who are willing to take the risk speak up and take the risk to see if they are right.  I’m not quite sure what this is about.

In prior years, there have been kids that really felt much more comfortable with attempting something and being wrong.  I am really wondering what I did differently this year.  There is much more of a feeling of holding back – many more caveats of “I don’t think this is right…” before someone puts their ideas on the board (even though I repeatedly stress that that is not important.)

I have in the past few years become very disillusioned with the idea that high school students are capable of undoing 12-14 years of fixed mindset.  I think I tweeted about this last year sometime when, after a conversation and exercise about Fixed vs. Growth Mindset a student said to me “Is this supposed to make us feel bad?”  I was in shock.  I couldn’t figure out what I had done to make him feel bad at all as I had done just what Carol Dweck suggests and presented the two mindsets as a continuum – a journey of learning about yourself and how you learn best.  Some of the kids saw it as a good tool to know about yourself, but many of them saw it as just one more thing they had to “overcome” in order to get in to a good college or to be the “best they can be” – because you know, if you have a fixed mindset, that’s not the “best you can be” – you have to change that too now.  Oh god, what have I done?

So, maybe there’s a little part of me that feels bad for them and truly understands the fear of being wrong. My goals are to prepare them for the thinking, for problem solving in life and their immediate goals are getting good grades, doing the best they can right now to get into a good college, etc.  Sometimes these goals are definitely at odds and it’s really tough to compete with the immediacy of what they perceive as success for them and those people they want so much to make proud. And as always when there are two parties who have goals that are at odds – there is ultimately conflict.  And the battle continues.