The aim of the Personal Synthesis Programme
The purpose of PSP is to empower students to deal with life challenges on their own and to be more competent in personal matters, which is more likely to be effective than assuming that we know what their problems are and how best to manage them. To put it simply, the aim is to enable students to be more in charge of their lives. This is achieved through increasing their skills, understanding and knowledge of various ways they can relate to themselves and the world around them. There is unambiguous evidence that internal locus of control has a great impact on both academic achievement and adjustment, and it also has desirable social consequences. The programme is compatible with SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) requirements.
PSP aims to be predominantly educational, as opposed to being remedial or preventative. Emphasis on education makes the programme relevant for all students, not only for those who are or may be experiencing (or creating!) problems. In other words, PSP is designed to optimise the functioning of all, rather than merely concentrating on individuals ‘at risk’.
The content of the programme
The programme focuses on the basic areas of human life; on the underlying ‘building blocks’ (such as thinking, feelings, decisions, desires, coping, motivation, behaviour, communication, etc.) that comprise other complex experiences. This has several advantages:
- The ability of individuals to deal with challenges they face is largely based on these underlying components. For example, how somebody will respond to recreational drugs depends on a number of factors such as: openness to new experiences, risk taking, susceptibility to peer pressure, recognising one’s motives, balancing one’s feelings, developing self-control, accepting responsibility for oneself, relating to pleasure and one’s own body. If these factors are not attended to, education on drug-abuse prevention will have a minimal effect.
- Addressing students’ problems directly can be perceived as patronising and obtrusive. Starting from general topics is a better way to motivate students to face and deal with their situation in a constructive way.
- Concentrating on the basic areas of human life makes the programme relevant to all students (from different cultural backgrounds, for example) and yet sufficiently flexible, so that they can adapt it to their personalities and circumstances.
- There is a limited number of these basic areas of human life, whereas there is an unlimited number of their combinations. Therefore, this approach enables the programme to be comprehensive, despite inevitable time constraints.
On the basis of several criteria, 64 of these basic areas are identified. They are also organised in a two-dimensional model that provides an overall view and indicates links between them. The benefit of the model for students is that it shows the relations and connectedness between various areas of life, which enables them to perceive the whole field in its complexity. In a nutshell, the model consists of four categories: the Personal category, the Being category, the Doing category, and the Social category. From an educational perspective, these categories reflect the four different purposes of learning that are specified by UNESCO report: learning to know, learning to be, learning to do, learning to live together. (ICE, 1996).
The structure of the session
Each area is approached on three levels: theoretical, practical and reflective. Of course, the priority remains to engage students in considering the subjects in relation to their personal experiences, so this structure is flexible (meaning that these levels are interlinked in practice).
The theoretical level consists of relevant information about a particular area drawn from psychology and other related disciplines. Pieces of information that have mainly academic value are not included, but only those that can be utilised by students in their everyday lives. For example, in the area Emotions, rather than focusing on the neuro-chemistry of emotions, various ways of regulating emotions are examined. Wherever it is feasible, materials present the whole spectrum of possibilities, so that all students can find something relevant for themselves (e.g. those who lack self-confidence, as well as those who are overconfident). The materials are also constructed in a non-biased, balanced way to minimize any possible indoctrination. Both, desirable and undesirable aspects of each area are examined (e.g. sincerity and lying in the area Communication). This has several advantages: it enables students better awareness and control over their own actions and motives, it allows better recognition of the motives and actions of other people, and it preserves students’ autonomy.
The practical level introduces various methods and exercises that can increase the awareness, quality of experience and mastery of an area. A wide range of techniques are included (from relaxation and meditation, to brain-storming and conflict resolution). All of them – and there are over a hundred exercises all together – are designed in such a way that students can continue using them on their own.
The reflective level. There are some aspects of human life that do not have universal answers. The choice will always depend to some extent on subjective, personal experience. On this level, students are encouraged to consider some questions relevant to the topic and engage in a reflective activity which can help them to clarify their views and values.
What happens in the classroom?
Each session addresses a different topic. A variety of methods are used: presentation, questions, discussion, instruction, exercises and writing. This is necessary because effective personal education needs to involve perceptive, cognitive, affective and behavioural aspects. Also, different students are inclined towards different ways of learning, so it is easier to engage them if they can find a suitable learning mode. Furthermore, the sessions need to be adapted to students’ cognitive and language abilities, so in some cases activities such as games, role playing, telling stories and drawing need to be incorporated. The activities sometimes involve the whole group, working in pairs or small groups. Students are encouraged to participate throughout the session by making suggestions, sharing experiences, expressing doubts and conflicts, and receiving help and encouragement from other students and the presenter in resolving them. This requires a non-judgmental, open and supportive atmosphere. Such an approach enables building confidence, sensitivity, openness, concentration and trust, as well as raising self-awareness, self-esteem and awareness of important personal and social issues. Once the method becomes established, students usually express a real desire to work in this way. The classes are usually lively because students realise that the issues discussed relate to their immediate experience. From the perspective of presenters, it should be emphasised that this method is flexible and does not require a radical departure from existing teaching practices. We encourage the practitioners to utilise their own strengths, expertise and experience. They are also not expected to be “all-knowing”, students are encouraged to help each other. Materials, guidelines, and students’ hand-outs for each session are provided. On-line support for new practitioners is available too.
It needs to be recognised that there is no panacea of personal development that would be the answer to everything, because various areas of life relate to and affect each other (negatively and positively). This means that ideally, all the areas from the programme should be addressed (this would require one to two hours a week over the period of one academic year). Nevertheless, potential time restrictions need to be taken into account. So, in some cases, it may be necessary to focus on one category or groups of areas that are deemed especially relevant. This could substantially reduce the time required. In our experience, these shorter modules can be beneficial if they are carefully designed to meet the needs of participants. If required, students can receive a certificate at the end of the course, based on their regular attendance and participation.
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