Prof. James Edward Maule in the School of Law at Villanova University, Pennsylvania, has the job of teaching students US federal tax law. Phew!
On his blog, Mauled Again, he explains in a twelve-part series of posts that his approach to each course he teaches begins with an overview that he calls “Student Focus”:
Because early in my teaching career I discovered that my students weren’t doing what they should be doing, seemingly because they did not know what they should be doing, or if they did know, they did not understand why.
The entire series is well worth reading, even if you have no interest in US federal tax law, or in teaching. It’s just unfortunate that blogspot presents the twelve parts in reverse order, making you scroll almost to the bottom to find Part I, and then work your way back up to the top, but maybe that’s some kind of metaphor for US federal tax law.
What you can usefully do, if you have no interest in US federal tax law, or in teaching, is imagine that Prof. Maule is instead describing psychotherapy, because much of what he has to say applies.
Absorbing the facts
I tell them that the learning process requires then to try doing the problem, even if they get stuck part way through the process, or even if they end up with a result that does not make sense. I stress to them that effort matters more than outcome. I explain that the process of trying immerses them in the material. I also explain that even if they fall down trying to apply the law to the facts, they need to absorb the facts.
You only have to substute two words in that passage from Part II (“therapeutic” for “learning” in the first line, and “theory” for “law” in the last) to make it true of psychotherapy.
How life works
…I share with the students the struggles of their predecessors who, when dealing with a problem assigned for the life insurance topic, simply gave up because they did not understand what life insurance is and how it works. Their reaction was intensified by the second half of that particular day’s assignment, the taxation of annuities. For every student who was afflicted with ignorance about life insurance, there are three who have no clue about annuities.
This from Part III is also true of psychotherapy. Your patient is terrified of her husband, but you are not married and have only seen terrifying people in horror films. Your patient is dying of a progressive illness, but serious illness and death are beyond your experience.
As a psychotherapist you need to know about how life works, in many many ways that lie outside the textbooks of psychology. This is a very difficult thing. Of course you must draw on your own experiences, and the experiences of you family and friends, on your supervisor, on documentaries and on biographies, but there is always more to know.
The transcription game
Too many students enter my courses continuing to think that the key to learning is to write down everything that is said, as close to word-for-word as is possible. In doing so, they divert their cerebral resources from what they should be doing…
The goal, I elaborate, is understanding and comprehension…
If a student is fully prepared for class, much of what is being said or worked through already is in, or should be in, the student’s brain and preparatory notes.
The transcription game in psychotherapy is just the same as the game Prof. Maule describes in Part V. I’ve seen case notes and referral letters that are little more than page after page of: “He said… I asked… He replied…”
Instead, what you should be doing as a psychotherapist is constructing an understanding of your patient. In this construction process, what is said in the therapy sessions is only a part. Much of the work happens in your head (and in your patient’s head) between sessions, and some of it happens between you and your supervisor.
Then I share one more secret. It is worthwhile, I advise students, to teach one another. It does not matter whether it takes place in tutoring, in study groups, in participation on the Blackboard classroom for the course, or in some other way, but the best way to learn something is to teach it.
This, from Part VI, is what we (misleadingly) call “supervision”. What do you do if you cannot understand your patient? Describe your patient to someone else.
A, B, C
…a student, who had come to my office several times to complain that something was wrong with my teaching and grading because she was a top student but was doing poorly in my tax course, returned to exclaim, “I figured out what you are doing. We spent a year being given A and B, with the objective of getting to C, and you’re telling us we have A and want to get to C and are asking us what we need to get there.” Bingo. That’s the essence of transactional work…
It’s the essence of psychotherapy, too. You get A: a set of symptoms. Then do you get B: a diagnosis and standard treatment from the book? Do you hope to arrive at C: a cured patient that way? It’s not the way it works.
You have to understand A: your patient as he is now, and C: your patient as he could be if he were cured of his illness, and then use that understanding to construct B: how you get there.
Being given A, having the objective of getting to C, and trying to figure out “what we need to get there”, is an excellent ordinary-language account of the theory of meaning advanced in e.g. Hobbs, Stickel, Martin and Edwards, “Interpretation as Abduction“, ACL 26, 1988…
The referenced paper is about the interpretation of sentences in discourse:
In a discourse situation, the speaker and hearer both have their sets of private beliefs, and there is a large overlapping set of mutual beliefs. An utterance stands with one foot in mutual belief and one foot in the speaker’s private beliefs. It is a bid to extend the area of mutual belief to include some private beliefs of the speaker’s.
Abduction refers to a process of arriving at the meaning of a sentence by using your own knowledge to make assumptions that would explain why the sentence is the way it is:
Abductive inference is inference to the best explanation. The process of interpreting sentences in discourse can be viewed as the process of providing the best explanation of why the sentences would be true.
This work relates to the TACITUS Project, which takes the lubrication system of a ship’s air-compressor as an example of a domain of knowledge, and aims to develop ways for a computer system to interpret natural language statements in the domain.
For example, the system should be able to make sense of a problem report like:
Air regulating valve failed.
Gas turbine engine wouldn't turn over.
Valve parts corroded.
The temporal structure of this text is 3-1-2; first the valve parts corroded, and this caused the valve to fail, which caused the engine to not turn over. To recognize this structure, one must reason about causal relationships in the model of the device, and in addition one must recognize patterns of explanation and consequence in the text.
In this approach, A is the problem report and C is the system's interpretation of what the problem report means. To get from A to C, the system has to construct B a scenario that fits in with its prior knowledge about the compressor and also explains the wording of the problem report, making whatever assumptions are necessary along the way.
This process is entirely recognizable in psychotherapy, where you think to yourself, "What would make her describe her mother like that?" and then you use your knowledge of your patient and of mothers to construct B. Your understanding of your patient emerges from the construction process. It cannot be derived directly from what the patient said.
The thing that these approaches in tax law and information science have in common is that they address the question, "How do we go about understanding?"
In psychotherapy there has been a tendency to run away from that question and instead develop methods that can be applied to patients without understanding. But understanding can itself be understood, and gifted teachers and information scientists are doing just that.
Without an understanding of how to go about understanding, it is not very surprising that so many therapists (adapting Prof. Maule's words):
...aren’t doing what they should be doing, seemingly because they do not know what they should be doing, or if they do know, they do not understand why.