The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Solution Focus in the Classroom



Central to de Shazer’s work, right from the very early days was the centrality of the idea of expectation, which lived on in his work like a thread throughout his thinking. As early as his first, Solution Focused book, Keys (1984), de Shazer wrote ‘What seems crucial here is that solutions develop when the therapist and client are able to construct the expectation of a useful and satisfactory change’ (p 45) and this idea regularly turns up in his writing from them onwards. However this idea, the power of expectation, whilst relatively novel in the world of therapy, was already well knows in education. In 1968 Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson published Pygmalion in the Classroom which focused precisely on the expectancy effect in an experiment with first and second grade students suggesting that “self-fulfilling prophecy might operate in the classroom such that teachers’ expectations for the intellectual performance of their pupils might actually affect those pupils’ intellectual performance” (Rosenthal, 1980). Since that time Rosenthal and Jacobson’s findings have been challenged but no-one would doubt that whatever the mechanism of mediation, that expectation impacts on children’s performance. So we could say that the world of education was ahead of the world of therapy but since that time Solution Focus has developed a series of practices and techniques that could perhaps be of use to teachers’ and to their students.

1. Working well together. This idea involves inviting the class or group to describe in detail how they will know over the course of the year, term, week that they are working really well together. Maybe the teacher could use a list structure – 50 things that we will notice that will tell us all that we are working really well together. Naturally it is useful for the ‘noticings’ to be things that will be happening, not things that will not be happening, and for the details to be as concrete and observable and thereby as noticeable, as possible. This may involve the teacher in lots of ‘so what will we be doing instead’ or ‘so what will take the place of . . . ‘ and lots of ‘so how will that show’. The working well can be described in relation to a range of key school times – so how will we know that we are working well together first thing in the morning, as we go out to break, at the end of the day. And of course the ‘working well together can be described through the eyes of others – if the headteacher were to visit our classroom what would she notice that would tell her that we are working well together, and what would (other key figures in school life) notice.
The teacher can change the focus of the noticing: how will we know that we are cooperating well, communicating well, that we are at our best, that we are the very best Year 6 class that we can be, that we are being kind to each other, that we are supporting each other, whatever fits the needs of the moment. Some teachers might choose to invite the class to record the descriptions, but what seems crucial is that the class describe what working well means and takes ownership of their description.

2. Students can then be asked to think about their very special way of contributing to the class working well, or being the very best class it can be, or class kindness; what will they be noticing about what they are doing and who will notice that and what will they see? So here we link up the big class picture and the individual parts, each different that each student can contribute.

3. Intermittent scaling reviews. So on a scale of 0 to 10 with 10 standing for ‘we are working as well together as we can hope’ and 0 ‘ the opposite of that’, where would we scale ourselves over today, this week, this term? Many teachers might ask students to specify their numbers and to generate an average, ‘so on average over the course of this week you would put us at 7 so let’s think of 30 things that you have noticed us doing that put us at 7 and not lower’. The class can then reflect on what they have been doing that has been working, and of those things which is most important, which makes most difference, which surprised them, which pleased them.
And then they can reflect on ‘let’s imagine that tomorrow, next week, next term we move one point higher what will we be doing, 30 ways that we will know, developing as much detail in the descriptions as is possible.

4. Students can also be asked to scale their own contribution, although there is a risk if these ‘self-scorings’ are public, a risk of other students disagreeing and of students self-scoring for public presentation rather than for themselves. So quietly on a piece of paper just write down your number, and 5 things that put you there and not lower and 5 ways that you will know that you have moved up one point tomorrow or next week or next term.

5. When the scaling framework is well-established in the class all sorts of things can be scaled, ‘how did we do walking out to the playground’ or in assembly or tidying up. There are infinite possibilities as long as the scale is not used as a means of criticising ‘you were terrible this morning class settling down to work so where would you put yourselves on a 0 to 10 scale with . . . ’. Scales work when they can be owned by the students and where the numbers given become a matter of curiosity and interest and a basis for debate and discussion rather than a game within which the students have to somehow guess the teacher’s view and get it right.

The scope for using these sorts of ideas in a classroom setting is endless. ‘OK what would you like to get better at this week and what would you like me to be watching out for to see what you do that works well?’ The same ideas can be used in learning and individual students can focus on what skills they would like to be developing, whether that be sitting quietly, contributing appropriately, paying attention, cooperating with others and the teacher can become the observer of success. Children could have turns in having the teacher’s special attention in relation to a project that they are working on ‘I’m trying to improve . . . could you watch out Miss for what I am doing that is working’.

Of course managing a class and facilitating their learning and progress is a complex and highly skilled enterprise, however the questions that the Solution Focused approach has developed can be flexibly put to work supporting students in taking some ownership of their environment, their behaviour and their learning, allowing them to define the ways that they want to work together and inviting them into greater responsibility for the outcome.

de Shazer, Steve (1985) Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
Rosenthal, R. This week’s citation classic…/A1980JD87300001.pdf accessed 17 November 2017
Rosenthal R & Jacobson L. Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968.
Evan George
November 2017.

If you are interested in more ideas about using SF in the classroom Harvey Ratner and Yasmin Ajmal will be publishing a book designed for teachers in 2018. The publisher will be Routledge.
And I will be writing up some more of my thinking about SF in Education sometime in the New Year.