Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Can adults learn by writing in a group?

To accompany the slides of a seminar presentation I am about to give next week, I have written out some of my thoughts around it. They form the tip of a theoretical iceberg that I am carving out in my thesis. 
One reason for my study is that facilitators and participants are excited about writing groups, but that it is impossible to explain how and why to those who have never been in such a group. To insiders it is obvious, for outsiders utterly elusive.
Little has been researched about group activities and interventions that generate sustained beneficial effects for adults, and even less where writing is the medium for their development.  I emphasise groups, to differentiate from the studies of the benefits of individual writing, which is mostly not shared with others (e.g. Pennebaker).
I hope to play a part in the formation of a systematic conceptual base, starting with my own experience. I want to find academically accepted concepts to tell what happens to people in the process of writing ‘together’.  

My experiences of facilitating writing groups with participants who had issues in common, like post-traumatic stress, showed me that people got much more out of the process than they expected at the start. Studying these reactions several years after the groups had ended, I concluded that the ‘much more’ above their initial expectations was a complex of changing behaviours and attitudes to the world. This combination of features I have come to call personal development in a wide sense of the term.

If ‘clinical’ writing groups (with persons who share particular problems) indeed possess such a developmental potential, they might be useful in non-clinical populations too. This is the heart of the study “Personal Development in Structured Writing Groups’, which is now in its last year before completion.

The immediate purpose of clinical groups may be easier to comprehend. In groups that share a common issue, like refugees or sufferers from and survivors of an illness, trust often begins with a helpful illusion of mutual understanding: ‘We’re all in the same boat’. 

In a similar vein, assessing the extent of coping with the affliction, rather than with life in general, appears a straightforwardly practical evaluation of effectiveness of clinical groups. It seems to me that if personal development can be convincingly shown to occur in adults who do not share a particular clinical feature, it would be a strong argument in favour of using structured writing in adult groups of any kind.

Four 12-session writing groups, 20 people, recruited from ‘general’ populations in the Leeds area provided much enjoyment and - not to forget the data. Will the analysis of these data show my belief about the developmental power of writing in a group to have some foundation? Well, this depends entirely on how I define personal development and on the assumptions underlying the concepts I use. More widely stated, it depends on my philosophy, my view of the world. ‘Science probes; it does not prove’, wrote Bateson (1979) and I learned that he was right. Other assumptions, a different definition, are likely to show other processes.
One basic assumption is that personal development is possible regardless of age.  
A second assumption is that people construct the meaning of their experiences together through communication and it is this meaning that guides their behaviour. In a writing group the individual world views of the participants meet with each other and can be contrasted and negotiated, possibly leading to adoption of more and wider perspectives.
Both assumptions are about learning and learning requires curiosity and openness, which thrive when feeling safe and shrivel when anxious. 
Feeling safe is related to feeling that one understands what is going on, in the group and in the world, that one can somehow cope with it and that whatever happens is somehow meaningful. These three components form the Sense of Coherence, developed by Aaron Antonovsky (1979, 1987), which plays an important part in my investigation.

Personal development as defined for this study is a perceivable change towards lasting flexibility in behaviour, cognition, emotion, coping, and (inter)personal communication, occurring in a person.
I strongly suspect structured writing in groups of engendering such development in the form of generative learning (Bateson, 1964), which is a change in the frame of reference, a shift to higher-order thinking, creating ever more changes that give access to behavioural options (Cune, 2010; Nicholas, 1984). An adequate, or growing Sense of Coherence serves to curb growing flexibility from causing harm to the person instead of benefit 4.
Antonovsky, A. (1979). Health, Stress and Coping. 1 ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Antonovsky, A. (1987). Unravelling the Mystery of Health, How People Manage Stress and Stay Well. 1 ed., San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Antonovsky, A. (1987) Sense of Coherence ­– Orientation to Life Questionnaire (appendix). In Unravelling the Mystery of Health. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass. 189-94.
Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and Nature, a necessary unity. New York: Dutton.
Bateson, G. (1964). The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication. In Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 279-308.

Cune, C. (2010). An Exploration of the Nature of Personal Development Processes in my Writing Groups. Unpublished MA dissertation. University of Sussex. Available via email: write.ingroup@gmail.com

Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, Self and Society. C.W. Morris ed., University of Chicago Press.

Neimeyer, R.A. (2009). Constructivist Psychotherapy. CBT Distinctive Features series, London, NY: Routledge.

Nicholas, M.W. (1984) Change in the Context of Group Therapy. NY: Brunner/Mazel.

Smyth, J M., and Pennebaker, J W. (2008) Exploring the Boundary Conditions of Expressive Writing: in Search of the Right Recipe. British Journal of Health Psychology 13, 1-7.


Monday, 1 July 2013


This post is triggered by the Carol Ross's blogpost, which I consider as the start of a fruitful discussion between facilitators.

How do we know what is or isn't working for participants?

The issue of evaluating the writing group process is all about comparing what a person's 'situation' was at the start of the group with the situation at the end. And in my view it is only the person, her or himself, who needs to do the comparing and draw the conclusions.

The main problem I've found over the years (similar to therapeutic contexts), is that people forget how they were when they started. Thus they cannot really compare the end situation with their baseline.
This led me to develop some subjective tools for participants to record baselines and to employ personal journal writing at each session in order to track the process. When it comes to evaluating the whole process at the conclusion of the sessions, each participant has this record to compare with.
(I am thankful to Celia Hunt and the 2009-2010 teaching team of the Sussex MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development for helping me to fine-tune these tools.)

To help people remember, I ask them at the first session (of 12 ) to write a letter to themselves, in which they set out their goal(s) and expectations of this writing group. Suggestions for this letter can be found at my blogpage titled 'First letter to yourself'. 
The letter is then filed at the back of their folder for future reference. No one else will read the letter, but if they want to share anything from it with the group they are of course free and welcome to do so.

Towards the end of each session about 5 minutes are set aside for personal journalling: "what I want to remember from this session".

At the last session they are asked to write a second letter to themselves, evaluating what they now feel/think/know that they actually got out of the group. (See blogpage titled 'Second letter to yourself').   
They are then invited to compare the second letter (any outcomes) with the first (any goals and expectations).
After all this there can be a questionnaire, but without any 'leading' questions. In my current study there is a follow up 6 months after the end of the group in the form of a personal interview, held by an external person. Questions are at the page entitled 'Evaluation interview topic guide'.

These intensely personal evaluations are meant for the benefit of the participants and serve as feedback for the facilitator. They do not fit any quantitative, standardised format that allows for comparisons between people and populations.

As always I welcome comments of any kind.