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Recognising prior learning in psychotherapy training:

A critical appraisal

Author - Aine O’Reilly


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There is a difficulty, I am suggesting here, when psychotherapy attempts to place itself outside complicity with dominant discourses, with socially constructed value-laden systems of meaning that limit who people are and what they can be – whether client or learner, or indeed therapist or trainer. Recognition generally, and recognition of former learner experiential learning in particular measures psychotherapy training – and the people who inhabit that training – by academic standards, and the differences are highlighted and made visible as results. We can say (ignoring the critical portion of this project) how unrigorous our previous training was by academic standards (and by implication how good our current training is, by these standards). Or, applying only the critical perspective on academia, we can glorify our past; the purity of psychotherapy training can seem to speak of some global age of freedom and flexibility. Neither response, I am suggesting, holds up to critical scrutiny. Or, we can see all professional discourses as complicit with dominant, restrictive discourses and look for a way to move forward within these restrictions.

To move forward, I think we need to see people as both the inhabitors of discourses and more than the inhabitors of discourses and regulatory practice; to have some hope in a diversity of human responses possible within regimes of meaning and value setting – choice, resistance, agency; perhaps even humour, rebellion, waywardness – not highlighted in the telling of Rose. This could be seen as related to Foucault’s notion of resistance (Butin 2001), perhaps, but is concerned, unlike both Rose and Foucault, with finding a practice position that allows for choices that impact on people’s lives to be made. People, my argument goes, can be more than the discourses they inhabit, even if they cannot move outside the totalising impulses of grand narratives and their interplay in the practices and procedures of a profession. And perhaps even those people who make up the professions and the institutions that construct and propagate various regimes of truth can lay claim to these qualities; and can act to initiate, facilitate and encourage resistance. From this perspective it is not the stepping outside of regimes of truth and meaning that matters – we cannot do this anyway – but it is how we foster the differences to and the resistance to these regimes that matter. And this, perhaps, is the critical reflexive project. Recognition of prior learning, and the measurement of experiential unaccredited former therapeutic training becomes not only subject to procedural scrutiny by the various stakeholders, but subject to ethical, professional theoretical and critical scrutiny and position taking on where this scrutiny might lead us.

A way forward?

There is of course no solution or resolution, merely an ongoing formulation and reformulation of a position that is always subject to critical reflections and also allows us to continue. This critique in itself is part of the response. As Foucault states, the function of criticism is ‘to show that things are not as self-evident as one believed, to see that what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such’ (Foucault 1989: 154). Recognition of prior learning is, self-evidently, a useful way of proceeding where learning has occurred outside of mainstream institutions of learning and has not been formally recognised. This in particular allows ‘non-standard’ learning to be given value; and non-standard learning is so often the learning of those outside of mainstream society; those who by virtue of income, gender, culture, class and family circumstance could not gain access to mainstream higher education. From this perspective RPL is a critical, reflexive project – it challenges the operation of power in producing exclusionary practices in education, and furthermore produces mechanisms by which those excluded can challenge and overturn their own exclusion. However, recognition also implies a non-recognition of that which could also be designated as learning – that which is not measurable in terms of specified outcomes. While this may make sense within the necessary but decontextualised exploration of RPL as an education practice it does not always make sense or fit with the personal and interpersonal with the world of psychotherapy. Crucially, this process of recognition occurs within a web of meaning-making and valuing that produced those exclusionary practices in the first place, and through its decontextualising a focus on RPL procedures can obscure these connections.

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