In this article I explore what we as teachers can do in order to invite the best version of our students into our classroom, taking my cue from Solution Focused coaches, who are experts in inviting a version of their clients into the session that wants to make their life better and has the resources to do so.
We co-construct our students
In the past months solution-focused approaches have become more and more important for my thinking. As a therapeutic practice Solution Focus1 is ultimately about empowering clients to improve their life, and a lot of its premises and insights can be applied to teaching as a way to empower people as learners.
As teachers, we get to choose which version of our students we want to meet in our classroom because we co-construct our students by the assumptions we make about them and the way we treat them.
Sometimes when Solution Focused therapists are being asked why their therapy is so effective, they jokingly respond that they only work with clients who will be successful. One of the most powerful things Solution Focused coaches do in their practice is inviting a version of their client into the session that wants to change and has the resources to do so by addressing the part of the client who knows how to move forward. The Solution Focused approach takes seriously that therapists and coaches co-construct their clients: if you believe that they are stuck in their problems, then you will meet a problem-focused and stuck client in the session, and if you invite the best version of them into your session, then that’s who you are very likely going to meet.
The same is true for teaching. As teachers, we get to choose which version of our students we want to meet in our classroom and our office hours because we co-construct our students by the assumptions we make about them and the way we treat them. If you have ever felt that the students you teach seem to be somewhat different people than the students a colleague describes, then the two of you are probably doing something that invites different versions of your students.
So how do you invite the best version of your students into your classroom?
I think we can learn a lot from Solution Focused therapists here: First of all, they always, on principle, assume that every client has good reasons for meeting with them and is motivated to make improvements in their life. In order to invite the version of their client into the session that wants to change and has the resources to do so, Solution Focused therapists believe that the client has the resources to improve their life and that some of the improvements, however small, are already underway. They don’t see their client as someone who needs fixing, and instead of focusing on the client’s problems they are keenly interested in the life the client wants. Then they ask questions that are based on these beliefs and aimed at the version of the client that knows how improvements in their life would show themselves.
For teaching, this means:
- We step into our classrooms believing that we have something to offer to every single student in the room (even if it’s simply getting formal credit for the class2) – only what exactly that might be is for them to decide.
- We assume that every student who steps into our classroom wants something, has their own good reasons for being there and is motivated and able to learn something – irrespective of any outward impression that might suggest otherwise or the things our institutional discourses want us to believe about them.
- We take seriously that learning belongs to the learner and that it is the learner who determines what they want from our classes.
- We assume that the students in our class are doing the best they can and want to do at the moment to make the most of what we are offering them. If students are not behaving according to our expectations (like not attending class as often as we’d like, not participating in class discussions as much as we’d like, not putting as much work into assignments as we’d like) we assume that they have good reasons for doing so.
- We focus on strengths, resources and strategies instead of on deficiencies or the lack of competencies. We see our students as competent learners who already have resources to be the learner they want to be and achieve what they want to achieve at university.
- We cooperate with what our students can do instead of trying to get them to conform to our ideas of how they should be or what they should want. We take seriously that they are the experts on their needs and priorities.
- We check our own investment in our students’ learning goals and performances. The more restrained we are in our influence, the more they will experience agency as learners and will experience their learning as their own.
I believe that the inner stance (Haltung) with which we approach teaching is our most important ‘tool’, so these points will already get us a long way. In addition to that, here are some more concrete methods:
Solution-focused teaching methods
Acknowledge that things might be hard
An empathetic acknowledgement that students have good reasons to find something difficult (like academic writing or reading theoretical texts) or to dislike something (like high-stakes group work or showing their bedroom in an online class) is one of the most powerful things we can do to show students that we are taking their perceptions and experiences seriously, which will make it much more likely that they’ll cooperate with our teaching.
Problems are not found, they are constructed.
Normal difficulties instead of inability
Problems are not found, they are constructed, and as teachers we always co-construct our students’ problems by viewing them, talking about them and treating them in a certain way. It is much easier to resolve problems that are seen as a normal difficulty that is likely to occur in the process of academic work than to resolve problems that are attributed to students’ inabilities, character traits or even pathologies. So the more we talk about students’ difficulties as a normal part of academic researching and writing processes, the bigger is the likelihood that they’ll find a solution, which will then become part of their collection of strategies for doing their academic work.
Treat what students already do as resources and strategies
Explicitly reframe what students are already doing as strategies. As Tyll has explained in more detail elsewhere, speaking about strategies is a resource-oriented way of taking into view what students are doing. (Whereas a competence-oriented view of learning is deficiency-oriented by default because, by definition, here the need for learning and teaching arises from the learner’s lack of competencies.)
Focus on the things that work and do more of them.
One of the cornerstones of solution-focused approaches is to focus on the things that work and do more of them. Thinking in terms of strategies is a way of facilitating that because it opens up a wealth of things that students are already successfully doing. Some questions we could ask to that effect:
- What are your reading/writing/researching strategies? How are they working for you?
- When you think of times when writing went well for you – what were you doing differently?
- When you do manage to start writing – how do you do that?
- What do you think you did that led to you getting this good grade?
- What did you do in order to make that deadline?
- Have you resolved a difficulty of a similar kind in the past? How did you do that?
A beneficial side effect of asking students these questions is that it helps us appreciate what students as learners do to overcome difficulties and to think less normatively about learning. An overtly non-normative approach to strategies of academic practice increases students’ sense of possibilities and options and hence the likelihood that they’ll find what works for them.
In order to facilitate thinking in terms of strategies it is also useful to make the strategies visible we ourselves use as scholars and to exemplify how different professional scholars work. Talk to your students about the specifics of how you read, write and do research – not with the intention of telling them how they should do it but as one among a great variety of possible processes and practices.
In education we regularly explore failures (“what went wrong?”, “what was missing?”), but we rarely explore successes. We rarely talk to students in detail about what they did that led to their good results. Exploring success doesn’t only mean that we explore obvious successes like a very good grade – another important point in solution-focused thinking is that small successes or even instances where someone prevented a situation from being worse are instances that are worthy to be explored for the resources hidden within.
Here are some solution-focused questions we could ask to explore success:
- What went well?
- Which aspects of your learning/writing are you finding relatively easy?
- What were you pleased with (both in terms of product and process)?
- How did you do that?
- When do you feel good about your learning/writing?
- How did you manage to start working/writing even though things were difficult?
- How did you manage to hand in your work in time even though the writing was difficult?
- When were there moments when you were doing a little better with your work?
- What did you do to achieve that?
- What do you know about yourself that makes you confident that you’ll be able to achieve the grade you aim for?
- What does this achievement tell you about yourself?
- What have you learned from achieving this that will be useful to you in the future?
- What would a good friend say impressed them about the way you achieved that?
- What would a good friend say impressed them about the way you dealt with that difficulty?
A note on the choices we make as teachers
We always co-construct our students as a specific kind of learner – so why not choose the one with the most likelihood of leading to motivated, confident and successful learners?
A potential objection to this approach might be that making the choice to treat students as if they were competent learners and motivated to learn something in our class just wilfully ignores the reality that this might just not be true for some students. The important thing to take into account here is that whatever we do, however we think of students and treat them, is a choice we make that has consequences. We always co-construct our students as a specific kind of learner – so why not choose the one with the most likelihood of leading to motivated, confident and successful learners?3
I am using the capitalised version ‘Solution Focus’ to refer more specifically to the approach of Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) as developed and taught by Chris Iveson, Evan George and Harvey Ratner at the British BRIEF Institute. A good first introduction are these videos by Evan George: Solution Focused Practice in 8 minutes: 5 key features, What is Solution Focused Practice in 2020? and Becoming BRIEF. As a more extensive introduction I would recommend their book Brief Coaching: A Solution Focused Approach. Routledge 2011. ↩
Which is an entirely legitimate concern after all since it is what the university itself puts the most value on with its elaborate system of acquiring credit points that build up to your degree. ↩
We tend to be sceptical towards such a choice, as if it is untruthful and ingenuine. But thinking like this is the result of markedness: the unusual approach is the marked, odd one, the one we are sceptical towards, but the normalised, unmarked approach is also constructing students in a specific way that is neither neutral nor objective nor natural nor authentic. ↩