Between May and August 2010 I did a pilot-study on developmental processes in my writing groups. This group-work, which I created especially for people using Elah's services, shows itself capable of setting in motion personal development. Participants discover through writing and through the interactions in the group a widening repertoire of behavioural choices. More choices starting in their writing, speaking and thinking leading to greater flexibility and thereby strengthening of their coping skills in life.
25 participants of 5 groups, facilitated by me between 1996 and 2009, responded to the questionnaire.
The processes of personal development in these writing groups occur in a strongly supportive framework that fosters a sense of coherence. My findings show that the supportive structure of group work, with writing as a tool, can optimise conditions for personal development that are processes of generative human learning*. As such they can be mapped in various ways. These maps may serve facilitators and participants alike in following and enhancing their processes consciously.
* Generative learning occurs when 'learning one thing leads to another on a higher level of abstraction'. Unlike learning a simple skill, such as riding a bicycle or setting the table, when you develop your writing you start to think differently about things, to discern more than one perspective and become more aware of what you feel and want to express. Writing serves as a means to stimulate this self-expanding learning.
The findings of the study
I gathered experiences of the participants in long-term writing groups to answer three research questions:
1. What is the nature of developmental processes in my writing groups at the individual and the group levels?
2. How do the outcomes of the group as described by the participants compare with their stated goals and expectations?
3. How do the outcomes of the group as described by the participants compare with the outcomes as assessed by the facilitator for each participant?
The answers to these questions are to date (as this was only a small study):
1. Developmental processes in my writing groups are a form of generative learning. These learning processes are hierarchical in that they are organised along a continuum from learning simple skills up to deep insight and the art of living. These processes can be mapped and the maps may serve as tools for facilitators and participants. The current report is too compact to present the three maps I have created in this study.
2.Participants’ outcomes relate to their goals in three ways:
a. Most participants have attained most of their goals. In addition there are more outcomes than goals overall.
b. The ‘extra’ outcomes are in the category of ‘general personal development’, which do not seem to be connected to writing. This category includes goals of the facilitator that were not explicitly stated before the groups started. They correspond to sustained changes for positive coping with stress in life.
c. Participants’ outcomes of the group, after a long time, largely correspond to the outcomes assessed earlier by the facilitator at the time the group was concluded.
I wanted to discover how you express your experiences of participating in the writing group in your own words and what you think, after several years, it has given you. In other words, if you think you have benefited from writing in a group, with structured exercises, and if so, what 'kind' of benefit.
I was curious to know if there are similarities between your experiences, for example if certain motifs of personal development recurred in the descriptions of several participants. And also if there are similarities between your own evaluation in retrospect of your experiences and my observations as the group's facilitator of your processes at the actual time of the group.
I hoped to discover if (and how) participants of writing groups react and deal differently with this work-method; benefit more or less and, for example, work in different tempo from each other. Findings on these questions may direct adaptations of the method to individual circumstances, ages and background.
The main purpose of this pilot-study was to clarify how participants in long-term writing-groups develop according to their own criteria. This in comparison to 'external' evaluation by the facilitator. Do participants 'learn' anything and is this connected directly or exclusively with writing? What does writing contribute to the group-experience? What does a group contribute to the writing? After all it is possible to write on your own! Do exercises add something? And sharing your written experiences with others? Can't you share experiences in 'talking-groups' just as well? For which people is a writing group a good choice and for which is it not suitable?
This study is qualitative, in contrast with the better known quantitative research method, where results are presented in percentages, numbers and tables.
Qualitative research tries to represent as accurately as possible the experiences of the participants. To accomplish this, the researcher needs to put aside her own opinions and preconceptions, to be open to what the participants express and to understand what they mean by their words. This gives us a chance to discover new things, not thought of before by the researcher according to some theory. So far there are no hypotheses in existence about processes in long-term writing groups, because they have not been studied before. We only have the accumulated experiences of group facilitators, like me, that were acquired while working with groups and not in any systematic way. My research wants to change this.
Personal goals and outcomes
The 7 most frequently named goals for participating by respondents are:
– To share an activity with people having a similar background to me.
– To write my life/family story.
– To leave testimony for future generations.
– To communicate better with myself (clarify feelings and thoughts to myself).
– To learn to write a story.
– To cope better with issues in my past and/or present life.
– To take part in a supportive group.
The 7 most frequently named outcomes are:
– Development of my writing skills.
– Receiving personal support from the group and from the facilitator.
– Development of my coping skills in life.
– I have published a book/story/poem/article.
– Improved with others outside of the group.
– Improved communication with myself.
Goals and outcomes are divided in three categories:
1 – Writing skills (e.g. learn to write a story, express myself in writing)
2- Group experience (e.g. receiving support from the group, communicate better with others)
3 – General personal development (e.g. communicate better with myself, cope better with life's stress)
Participants in the study differed in the number of goals and outcomes they mentioned, but almost all noted more outcomes than their original goals. This was clearest in the responses to the open questions, where each wrote about their experience in their own words, without a list of answers to choose from.
A very small minority (2 of the 25 participants) did not benefit from participating in a writing group. I am deeply grateful to these people for taking part in the study and providing me with the opportunity to gain insight into their unpleasant experiences. Their descriptions are essential in order to discover the boundaries of the writing-group method.
It has also become clearer to me how some participants benefited only in a limited way from this activity and this will enable me to improve the work.
It may sound strange, but the most enthusiastic texts of participants who feel themselves greatly enriched by the writing group form the least innovative part of the study. As heartwarming as these expressions are, this is the part that was already known to me and which always stimulated me to continue to develop this form of group-work! These texts, the great majority of the completed questionnaires, prove that writing groups are valuable. But testimonies of less enthusiastic participants were necessary to receive new insights.
I wish to express my thanks to all participants, to Elah and especially to my colleague Idith Ninari, who assisted me in Israel under the umbrella of Elah.
A meeting for the participants will take place in October where I will explain the study in more depth.