Towards a more rounded curriculum

Esther Ford questions what is missing from the education system: might aspects of psychoanalytic thought be part of the answer?

08 February 2018

Like many, I am increasingly frustrated with our education system. Can we go on being slaves to the curriculum, in light of rising anxiety and depression in young people? There has to be another way, and in this context I find the recent interest in an emotional component to learning to be a breath of fresh air. As an Educational Psychotherapist in training, I wonder whether that could be at the forefront of change.

Educational psychotherapy is a specialised educational and therapeutic intervention using the educational task as a means of exploring complex emotional barriers to learning and development in children and young people. That focus is the key difference between the work of an Educational Psychotherapist and that of either a child psychotherapist or educational psychologist. There can be one-to-one intensive therapeutic work, but techniques and insights from Educational Psychotherapy can also be adapted and used in work discussion and supervision groups with staff, therapeutic story and art groups with students, and story work and ‘nurture groups’ to offer children a space within which they can explore emotional blocks to learning.  

Educational Psychotherapy was developed by Irene Caspari, the principal Edsych at the Tavistock Clinic in the 1970s. She explored how teaching can be a more informed practice, taking concepts from different psychoanalytic schools. Principally informed by the theories of Melanie Klein, Wilfred Bion, John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott, Caspari developed the Forum for the Advancement of Educational Therapy. This is now The Caspari Foundation, offering training in Educational Psychotherapy and Therapeutic Teaching. For example, training may explore the impact of concepts such as Attachment: how might Attachment behaviours be transferred from the parent/caregiver to the teacher in the classroom, and how will this impact how the child will best relate to the teacher and the task? Another insight reflects Bion’s concept of containment and how the teacher, the classroom and the school itself can act as a container within which the teacher must act to contain the huge amount of feelings being thrown at them. Teachers trained in therapeutic teaching can come to understand that management of children’s feelings can allow them to move forward to living beyond their emotions, developing the capacity to think and therefore learn.

Some current educational initiatives sit well alongside educational psychotherapy. There are attempts to bring emotion into the curriculum, for example psychologist Marc Smith’s recent book The Emotional Learner. Increasing the time given to outdoor pursuits – for example through Forest Schools, Beach Schools, and Newquay’s ‘Wave Project’ – may give children that much needed space to ‘feel’ and think. And of course ‘Emotional Intelligence’ remains a buzz phrase: a recent article in the Times Educational Supplement described a postitive effect of the ‘RULER’ programme, with reported benefits ranging from improved grades to a drop in bullying and mental health problems. The programme was also linked to better outcomes for staff; both in terms of their relationships with students and a generally more positive frame of mind in respect of their work.

But educational psychotherapy goes deeper than any of this, to a general philosophy informing the curriculum. 19th century writers often pondered what it is that should be taught, usually emphasising the need for formal instruction over informal methods of teaching. This has been consistently challenged by writers within the field of education and human sciences, with an overwhelming sense emerging that what we teach must be scrutinised to see what bearing it has on human beings. Carl Jung himself argued that pressing too much factual knowledge onto the child is not in the interest of self-development, and that children have a right to work on things themselves and work things out in their imagination.

Jung did not write extensively about education, but post-Jungian writers have explored the usefulness of his concepts, citing active imagination in advocating more creative practice in the classroom. Thomas Gitz-Johansen has written that ‘[in exploring the] burgeoning interest in Jung, analytical psychology has the potential of functioning as a counterbalance to the tendencies in Western Societies to focus upon measurable learning targets and increasingly standardised measures of teaching and assessment.’ Play is central to this: using our imagination to tap into the use of faculties that will later be used in creative tasks. Essentially this is the precursor of a more formal operational style of thought as posited by Piaget, in the secondary phase of our education. Children who cannot play find transcending the ‘concrete’ stage of thought so difficult that it impedes their ability to think ‘outside of the box’. Even sentence construction remains simple, rarely moving into the more complex domain. Educational Psychotherapists may work through toys, puppets, sand, playdough and art and craft materials, in games connected with learning tasks. Building creativity and a relationship with the child is a central focus of the work.

Personally I wonder whether the current need to measure attainment and impress factual thinking upon the child at such an early age is actually repressing the imagination. Jung suggested that if the ability to fantasise and release creative potential is repressed, it may remain so for good. Is this repression of our core self the key to understanding any rise in anxiety and mental health problems? At the very least, I feel, there is a real need for a more rounded curriculum which considers all facets of what it is to be human. Educational psychotherapy may have been born of a time of quite distinct educational and social change in the UK, the 1970s, but as we experience further such shifts perhaps the next phase for educational psychotherapy has arrived.