What moves and motivates people to make changes when working within the framework of a profession or a particular form of practice?

For the Collaborative Exploration “how do people have their thinking changed?” I chose to examine the Human Givens approach to therapy and mental health. My exploration led me through various steps to frame the question what moves and motivates people to make changes when working within the framework of a profession or a particular form of practice. Let me explain.

As a preliminary, let me admit that my interest in examining approaches to changing people’s thinking arose from a skepticism that has three sources:

  1. Several years ago, when I was a young member of the panel reviewing 30 years of teaching critical thinking, one of the senior statesman in the field noted that he was not sure how well teaching thinking skills worked. I wondered why he had persisted with that approach without evaluating its effects.
  2. Some years later, after reading Richard Paul’s study of how few educators understood critical thinking even though they claim to support it or teach it, I wondered why he had not moved to consider alternatives to directly teaching thinking skills.
  3. I have a sense, though I have not systematically studied this, that most people can think critically about some topics, even if they do not think critically about all topics. This has made me concerned with building a context of support in which people can mobilize their intelligence, rather than emphasizing the teaching of thinking.

When I put these three sources together, my expectation was that many approaches to changing thinking would not fare well when the subject to critical thinking about the approach, that is, when we scrutinize the assumptions, evidence, and reasoning for the approach.

In a previous post I have described a five-year evaluation of the effectiveness of work done by members of the Human Givens Practice Research Network. This effectiveness was of the approach as a whole, as practiced in not necessarily uniform ways by the members of the Network. There was no information for the evaluation study about the effectiveness of the specific elements of the approach. My inquiry subsequent to that post has primarily been conceptual, not finding more evidence, and goes as follows:

  1. An emphasis on examining specific elements is akin to the all-other-things-being-equal approach of randomized controlled trials. That approach is well suited to testing of drugs, but is not so relevant to testing of psychological therapies. (There has been, it should be noted, attempts to subject psychotherapies to strict evaluations that mimic randomized control trials, namely “manualized treatments,” but these reduce practice to following rules, which is very unlike therapies in practice.) At the same time, it need not be that case that each and every component of a practice is essential and effective.
  2. Suppose we stay with the practice research network approach. This is not exactly the same as the practice-based research approach that is undertaken in education. As far as I have been able to find, the latter approach does not assume a network of practitioners committed to an identifiable approach and to systematic collection of practice-based data based on that shared approach. A question remains for further inquiry, do some of the approaches to teaching critical thinking resemble practice research networks even when they do not use the term.
  3. The idea of evaluating the effectiveness of an approach as a whole, as pursued by the practice research network, led me to think about how practitioners change their thinking and practice. On one hand, the active exchange in a network might allow new ideas, if they seemed fruitful, to be gestated and spread. And the network would foster ongoing professional development so that practitioners improve their ability to implement the approach. At the same time, a network of professionals is ripe for professionalization, in which standards are defined and policed, and those who do not abide fully by the standards are excluded. Moreover, the sharing and ongoing professional development as well as the imposition of standards can be shaped by social pressures, such as the push for matching teachers’ salaries to student’s performance on high-stakes tests, yet also serve as a basis for resistance to such pressures.
  4. The question about how practitioners change any of their thinking and practice when they are embedded in networks or professional organizations recalled for me some of my thinking about what moves and motivates people to make changes. Instead of repeating that here, let me point to a video podcast, in the process of being transcribed, that posits two kinds of “gaps” (see schema below): the size of the constituency built to support any action around changes in knowledge or technologies; and the depth of counterfactual social arrangements entailed by a proposal to change knowledge or technologies. The final thought I had after revisiting the schema on the gaps was that an effective idea or practice may change existing social arrangements without requiring counterfactual social arrangements – the key work is to enlarge the constituency of people applying the idea of practice.


Conclusion: After working on this collaborative exploration, my emphasis has shifted away from wanting practitioners to show that they have subjected their approach to critical thinking.  I now want practitioners to develop practice research networks committed to supporting ongoing professional development and to systematic collection of practice-based data while fostering allowing some space for tweaking or even challenging specific components of the practice.  Just how people do that is a matter for further inquiry.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see bit.ly/pjtaylor). He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (bit.ly/tbhblog)

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