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Karen Swanay Jan 18, 2012

Are We Learning The Right Things?

I have been thinking about this for a while but when I read the final blog post by Ray McKinnis this morning I was moved to put my thoughts in print. My thanks to Ray for publishing his thoughts over this last year. His posts never failed to prompt me to think and challenge what I believe and that is something that is invaluable. I will miss his voice.

Ray said, “Much of what I learned in my MA in community counseling major, the courses that CACREP require, a majority of the questions on the CEE, and much research in counseling has been irrelevant to my ability as a counselor.” I believe this to be true of my education as well. A good chunk of my classwork has to be viewed in a socio-historical perspective to remove the offensive edge. It must be reframed to be at all useful. And if that’s the case, why is it not relegated to undergraduate course work and Intro to Psych at the graduate level as a refresher? If CACREP is a “new” thing, which is meant to standardize and quality check the content of our education, why is so much of that education course work still largely removed from our current time and place?
For example, one of my courses was an exercise in how to start up a non-profit agency, and while that might be useful to someone somewhere, it did not speak to me, nor to the area in which I live. Yes, we need better access to services for people who cannot afford them, but anyone here should not spend time trying to start a non-profit in this economy. If the will exists to do this work, a provider would be better off to partner with one of the staggering numbers of 501c3 agencies which already do work here. It’s likely the same story in other places in North America and Europe. That course is better suited to an MBA program. My time could have been spent doing or learning something else. That is not to say that business courses aren’t sorely needed — but they need a different focus.

There are a startling number of people with advanced degrees who are having trouble managing the business part of their lives. Veterinarians, lawyers, doctors, and mental health professionals hang out their shingles but how many of those know how to manage payroll, advertising, or assets? Many don’t know the basics of the business sphere but forge ahead which often leads to turmoil in their lives. Yet I know of no program which gives any instruction in those areas. Why not?

Ray would, “require courses that taught me how to ‘read’ another person to gather that information that would be helpful in bringing about change” and he’s right again. I have a background in animal training, and because animals don’t use the spoken word, I had to learn how to read them. I need to continue to work on my skills in non-verbals in humans but I know that I pay attention to body language more than my cohort does and that’s distressing. We have to learn how much of communication is non-verbal but our programs do not teach the skill. Why not?

The need for actual skill training is important. I do understand that the history and foundation theories are important to know, and I’m not saying we should not learn them. I believe that we are coming out of our programs not knowing the necessary skills to be effective and that’s a problem. The time to learn these important skills is not after graduation, it’s before. How many of us can say we know (or knew before our graduation) the terms: Othello Error or Brokaw Hazard? Not enough of us. Perhaps we should have a discussion about what is being taught and why; there should be a shift in the learning template to more accurately reflect the skills we need to be effective counselors.
Self-study and on the job experience can and do generate effective counselors but the learning curve doesn’t have to be so steep. Ray’s blog post addresses other issues which he felt he had to divest to be effective. Those are worth considering in any review of standards as well. I hope that as we as counselors and counselors-in-training are enjoined to check our biases and triggers, that those people who maintain control over this career field’s educational standards do so with the template. Let this be seen not as a complaint, but as a soft-confrontation which shines the light on the difference between what is taught and what is needed.

Karen Swanay is a counselor-in-training who is passionate about many topics, some of which are: international adoption, autism, and military life.

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