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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Learning in the experiential group

Teresa Howard

The deepest links between training and practice need to be made at an ‘inner world’ level by each student both as an individual and as a group member and the main place in which such learning is encouraged on the MA programme is the Experiential Group. Here course members meet together each week without a formal agenda, but focusing on ‘the connections and overlap between the personal and the professional, with an emphasis on personal development rather than academic learning’, as they are told when applying for the course. My own role as convener of this group is to help them to make and understand these connections and to learn from personal experience (often at quite an intimate level) about many of the themes touched upon elsewhere in this book. In this chapter I will attempt to explain what I do and why I do it and how this work connects with the overall task of the course.

Context of the group

The Experiential Group meets for an hour and a quarter every week in a specially designated room which remains constant for the whole of the course. It is called an Experiential Group because the principal mode of learning involved is learning from experience and this is achieved by continually working together at understanding what happens between all of us in the group as we talk together, making connections between past and present, between family and workplace and between inner and outer worlds. It is intense and demanding for everyone, but it offers course members the possibility of exceptionally valuable learning about self, work and each other. Chairs are arranged in a circle and the room made as comfortable as possible.

The size of the group has varied over the years from seven to the present fifteen, which has often made it a larger group for experiential work than is commonly used in some other approaches. Indeed, some would argue that work of this sort is best carried out in small groups of about six to eight people. Our view, however, has been that the larger size of this group gives it strength and added Validity within the matching principle. The model of group work that I use is based on the concept of the median group, which has been described by de Mare (1991) and which itself is a development of group-analysis as applied to a setting of ten to thirty people. It is neither a small group nor a large group but somewhere between the two, and the size therefore matches well with the work groups or organisational settings of many of the participants, as well as with their extended family and social networks.

The distinctive principle upon which group-analytic theory is based is Foulkes' concept of the ‘group matrix’. This is defined as ‘the hypothetical web of communication and relationship that determines the meaning and significance of all events in the group and upon which all verbal and non-verbal communications exist’ (Foulkes 1964: 292). Everything that happens in the group is related to the matrix. In contrast to other forms of group work, group analysis focuses on the individual and the whole group at the same time. It as ‘a form of psychotherapy by the group, of the group, including its conductor’ (Foulkes 1975: 3).

As the individual does not exist as an entity without a group, each person is seen as a nodal point in this web of communication and both individual and group are seen as having mutual influence on each other. The `matrix' carries with it all the unconscious assumptions brought into the group by the individual members, assumptions which are usually described as transference from past important family relationships. In the median group, the matrix is seen as additionally including the transposition of large areas of experience from outside, in the world beyond the immediate family and it is through these associations that aspects of culture and society are included within the ‘group mind’ (de Mare 1991: 81).

The use of larger groups such as these in the training context is still seen as unorthodox in some quarters, although in fields such as training for group analysis (Lyndon 1997) and for therapeutic community practice (van der Linden 1988) it is well accepted.


de Mare, P (1991) Koinonia, London: Karnac Books.

Foulkes, S.H. (1964) Therapeutic Group Analysis, London: Allen & Unwin.

Foulkes, S.H. (1975) Group-Analytic Psychotherapy, London: Gordon and Breach.

Lyndon, P. (1997) The Median Group: An Appropriate Setting for the Negotiation of Hatred: An Elaboration of Ideas from the work of P .B. de Mare, Group Analysis 30: 131-7.

van der Linden, P (1988) How Does the Large Group Change the Individual? International Journal of Therapeutic Communities 9 (1): 31-9.ustralia, 24(4).

Howard, T. (1998). Learning in the Experiential Group. In Ward, A. and McMahon, L. (Eds). Intuition is not Enough – Matching Learnings with Practice in Therapeutic Child Care. , pp 132-133. London and New York: Routledge

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