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A Gestalt Approach to Learning and its Facilitation

by John Bernard Harris

"The challenge of all teaching is to integrate a genuine authority in the facilitator with the autonomy in the learner" [Heron 1993]

The current explosion of interest in training and accreditation in Gestalt and other psychotherapies has, so far, taken a largely practical emphasis. People are setting up training institutes and running courses, and many are without teaching or training experience. Where this is the case, they may not have thought in any depth about the training values and methods they use, thereby ensuring that both the content and style of their teaching are appropriate to and consistent with the subject they are teaching. For example: at a recent conference, I sat through a two hour monologue by an eminent Gestaltist. The subject was field theory, and how we must always take the context into account in therapeutic practice, but in his non-interactive teaching style, he did not practice what he preached.

In this piece I want to try to fill some of this methodological vacuum by presenting some of the ideas and views I am developing on learning and its facilitation. These are presented by someone who is an trainer and teacher of twenty five years experience, and who is personally committed to a Gestalt perspective in education as well as therapy. I believe that Gestalt therapy theory, and its parent disciplines of phenomenology, existentialism and field theory, can offer us a coherent approach to this complex subject, and it is in that hopeful spirit that I offer this article.

I want to cover two topics. First, I outline some basic ideas about learning which ground my practice; and second, I want to talk about the facilitation of learning in a training setting.

About Learning

The Gestalt perspective on growth [Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, Book Two] puts learning right at the centre of human life, and tells us that, in the broadest sense, living, growing and learning are inseparable.

From a biological point of view, the capacity to learn is what separates living from non-living things. Learning is the capacity the organism (and hence the species) must have in order to grow and survive. We maintain a satisfactory equilibrium with the environment by a variety of active mechanisms: aggression, accommodation and assimilation - all of which enable us to make 'creative adjustments' to our situation. Gestalt theory emphasises novelty in our experience; but the world, though it constantly surprises us, nonetheless displays regularities - the past often resembles the present - and so we can use past experience as a guide to future conduct. This is at the heart of our learning capacity; a world in which everything was always completely new would be unknowable.

It follows from this biological perspective that human beings, the most sophisticated learners in the animal kingdom, cannot help but learn. We do it from the earliest days of life and when we emerge from the womb, we set about it with gusto. The qualities that encourage learning - curiosity about our surroundings, a sense of excitement at the new, and a desire to explore and experiment - are programmed into us. Though in later life, we refine our initial learning skills by 'learning how to learn' in certain ways, we arrive in the world as already expert learners, ready to discover the world we find confronting us.

Defining Learning

This is my definition of human learning:

"Learning is the acquisition through human activity and the exercise of human faculties of knowledge, skills and attitudes".

Ultimately, all learning is 'experiential', deriving from human experience. We learn by awareness and action (and sometimes our action is retroflected into thinking); by interacting with the world in a variety of different ways; and the end result is that we change ourselves in the process. We think, behave, feel and act differently as a result of 'the learning process'; we acquire new patterns which we describe as knowledge, skills and attitudes. However, there is no such thing as 'the' learning process; learning may be the outcome of any activity or experience. If we actively involve ourselves in what we do, if we participate, we will learn something - about the subject matter, ourselves, the teacher...there are no limits to the possibilities of learning in any situation.

A Gestalt View of Teaching and Facilitation

An existentialist approach to human behaviour indicates that people learn more when they take responsibility for their learning. It is this view, highlighting the autonomy of learning, which leads to the student-centred approach of Carl Rogers, exemplified in this quotation:

"I know I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only provide an environment in which he can learn." [Rogers 1965]

Even if we don't wish to go as far as Rogers in downplaying the role of teachers, it is nonetheless true, as John Heron points out, that learning is by its very nature an autonomous activity:

" is constituted by understanding and skill, retention and practice, interest and committment...there are all necessarily self- generated: no-one else can do your understanding or retention or practice for you." [Heron 1993, p. 14]

A full awareness of the autonomous nature of learning implies that in designing learning environments, we should as far as possible let the students decide what they will learn, with whom, when and where, to what level and how. They are also in an excellent position to take part in evaluating the results, and assessing what they have learned. This is not a new idea - Plato's Socrates was one of the first exponents of 'student-centred learning' - but it is still revolutionary in most educational circles. It goes against the conventional wisdom that some people know, and others don't, and the former should attempt to control the content and process of learning for the latter.

The role of the teacher on my 'Gestalt' model is very different - he facilitates rather than controls the student's learning. The nature of the 'learning environment' thus becomes central. The expert knowledge of the facilitator remains important, but his use of it is clearly related to a view which sees that the teaching is the servant of learning, and not vice-versa.

Part of what I try to convey in my work is that we know how to learn from experience; we've been doing it all our lives and have acquired in the process a massive amount of (often unorganised and unaware) knowledge about subjects which are of vital importance to us.

If people know (and have known all their lives) how to learn from their experiences, then it follows that they often don't really need me to tell them how to do it. I therefore see my role as a facilitator as primarily involving two tasks. The first is to help people to recognise, access and use their life experiences and the knowledge and skills they have gained through them. And the second is: to help them make full use of all their faculties in the presenttask. If they are aware of their surroundings and themselves - what they perceive, think, feel and want - I believe they will find creative ways to solve their current problems. Conveying to students my belief in their creativity is, of course, a powerful permission for them to be just that!

Let us now take a step back and see how this approach can be developed and sustained in terms of both theory and practice.

Approaches to Learning

The traditional approach to learning and teaching is derived from empiricist views of human nature; learners are tabularasa, empty vessels, into which the teacher pours knowledge. This is a passive view of the learning process. A Gestalt approach is completely different, and recognises that human beings are active co-creators of their own experiences through a wide range of learning processes.

We have seen above that human beings are, by their very nature, highly skilled experiential learners. But as we get older and need to learn more and more complex concepts and skills, our innate capacity to learn (and to learn how to learn) becomes developed and modified by experience. Our desire to learn, the subject matter of our learning, and the ways in which we learn are all affected by socialisation and education processes in families and schools. Such processes are necessary for social beings, but they always have a normative element and are often designed to channel our behaviour in certain directions, depending on our family and cultural background. The end result is often that we come to believe that we know little or nothing about certain areas of our lives, compared to 'experts'.

Often this belief is mistaken. Take, for instance, human psychology. 'Interpersonal Relations'- is an important topic for all of us, yet most people would admit to knowing little about it. This subject, they might say, is the province of psychologists, or counsellors. But this ignores the simple truth that all human beings have taken a practical course in interpersonal relations (it's called 'living') and are often veryhighly motivated when they do it [Enright 1980]. On this course, we learn how to size someone up almost instantaneously; to know what's important about them in regard to themselves, and much, much more - unless our environment is very deprived. Many people do not realise just how well-developed their skills in this area are; and most of us lack a way of drawing out and talking about them.

My Gestalt approach to learning starts from the premiss that as part of our socialisation and education we erect myriad blocks and inhibitions to learning in response to 'the system'. Thus we learn (are told) that we are 'good' at one thing, and 'bad' at another. If these blocks can be brought into awareness and removed, people will regain their natural ability to function in a healthy manner and learn what they need to learn.

Learning and Motivation

This is an important (but oft neglected) lesson from a Gestalt-influenced approach to the biology of learning, and so important that I will repeat it, for it is the key to all effective facilitation of learning. Learning follows interest and motivation: we learn best what we want or need to learn. And that in turn is always related to our current 'organismic' state - what I perceive to be lacking in my life at this moment. The answer to the question 'What's in it for me?' will drastically affect my willingness and ability to learn in a given area, both in terms of short and longer term goals and interests. Both my immediate needs in the training situation ('I need a break and a drink, and time to digest all this') and my longer term interests ('I'm fascinated to find out more about (my) anger') are relevant and important.

This leads to a golden rule for trainers: always start by finding out where the student is, rather than where you think they are, or where you would like them to be. Why are they here, what is it that they want to get from this learning session with you (and their peers)? Part of the facilitator's skill lies in being able to get this information from a group at the outset, and being flexible enough to fit your teaching around it. Of course, you may have from past experience a good idea of what is important and useful knowledge in a given area; but this needs to to be offered as a response to the student's self-identified learning agenda, rather than as an attempt to dictate it. Making regular checks on whether you are continuing to meet student needs ('Are you getting what you want here?') is important. The parallels with good practice in therapy are plain.

Holism in Learning

I take a 'holistic' approach to learning; I believe that when we learn something, we use all our faculties: perceiving, thinking, feeling and acting. Most of what we traditionally call learning concerns 'knowing that' - the acquisition of knowledge, and its subsequent manipulation through writing, discussing, thinking and so on. Recently, there has been a re-evaluation of 'knowing how', the acquisition of skills, but 'knowing that' is still the starting place for much 'formal' (and often more highly valued) learning. This emphasis on learning as a purely or mainly cognitive activity is misguided, not just because much of what we know and do as human beings we cannot put into words, but because both the acquisition and exercise of knowledge involves us as perceivers, feelers and actors, as well as thinkers.

Consider here two aspects of the relationship between learning and emotion. First, I want to assert (with feeling!) that the process of acquiring and using knowledge is not an emotionally neutral subject, something carried out by disembodied minds, though it is often treated as though it were. No: ideas are something that we can feel passionately about if we are allowed and encouraged to do so. This should be reflected in our facilitation style: good teachers engage not just their student's brains, but their hearts as well; each must play a part in learning.

There is another strong connection between feelings and learning, which follows from taking, as I do, a field theoretical perspective to teaching. If we learn something in circumstances in which we feel engaged and interested, we are much more likely to absorb it, and retain it. When we recall what we have learned, our recollection carries with it the overtones of the context in which we learned - in the vernacular, good or bad vibes. To explore this effect for yourself, consider for a moment how much of what you learned at school you still recall and use, and how that might be connected to the context in which you learned it.

Dealing with Blocks to Learning

Simply to teach with passion and feeling for the subject matter is not enough; I believe that much of the work of the teacher/facilitator lies in helping people to deal with the unhelpful emotional content of their previous learning experiences. We must actively help people to overcome the fears and inhibitions they have previously associated with learning. These may be specific: 'I hate mathematics/drawing/computers...'; or general: 'I'm stupid/I can't think'.

Some people are scared of the very idea of 'real' learning. We sometimes forget that learning, by definition, involves an encounter with the new, and can be very frightening, especially when it is somehow important personal learning for us, as it often is in therapy training. Good learning, as I have said, stirs up all sorts of feelings and ideas - we feel confused, scared, angry and so on. Yet in traditional adult teaching settings we are often encouraged to believe that teaching and learning are 'cool' and intellectual, and so we will expect to feel competent and comfortable; consistent and in control in the training room. We will then have problems 'letting go' in ways that will allow new ways of thinking and feeling to enter. We will be reluctant to experience our fear, ignorance and confusion.

This means in practice that the teacher must try to create learning environments which make student's rich and varied experiences of 'not-knowing' acceptable as the essential first stage in the learning process - in true Socratic fashion. Such environments create a balance between novelty and familiarity, risk-taking and safety, confrontation and support, depending on the students' needs. (Gestaltists will here recognise the joys of the 'safe emergency', as important in learning as in therapy.) This balance needs to be constantly reviewed, both in terms of each individual learner, and the learning group as a whole.

Getting frightened at the sight and sound of a new idea is only one way in which I might 'block' my learning. Gestaltists are familiar with the idea that we regulate the ways in which we interact with our environment all the time, and in myriad different ways. Thinking of how this affects our ability to learn is merely taking a special case. Some particular attitudes are habitual for us: like my loathing of 'being lectured to', which does not discriminate easily between good and bad lectures. Many of our (anti-)learning habits are unconscious, so that we do not know that we are doing them.

Once again I come back to a central theme for me: if I can help students become aware of how they stop or inhibit their desire and capacity to learn in particular situations, I have made a major contribution to their growth. What they need to know, they will, if sufficiently well-motivated, find their own ways of learning, which may or may not involve me further.

A Phenomenalist View of Learning and Truth

If we approach learning and teaching from a phenomenalist and field-theoretical standpoint, a number of important consequences follow. From this perspective there are no completely objective truths about the world, but only inter-subjective ones, based on the experience and definitions of various social and cultural groups. All facts about the world are facts-in-a-given-field, both in terms of their origin and their current existence. (I am here over-simplifying a very complex philosophical topic, the nature of truth.)

As a teacher, then, what I see myself as offering is not the truth, but mytruth. And from this perspective I emphasise that the views I teach may or may not be shared by others, and that I myself am constantly revising and updating them in the light of new experience. Some of my teaching may be more factual (generally accepted) than others, of course; I can and should distinguish between what is 'merely' my personal opinion ('Gestalt is wonderful') and what is rather more than that ('Fritz Perls is a controversial character').

Conveying this unusual attitude to students, who are used to (and often want) being told 'the truth' of a subject, may take time, yet it is vitally important for me to do so. The message is: 'I am sharing both values and more factual information with you, but, in the end, all truth is provisional'. My teaching style encourages students to argue and challenge, and so to develop methods of assessing and testing the truth of what I and others so boldly and confidently assert; and this skill is worth a million 'facts'. Or, to adapt a phrase of Gary Yontef's, even the most solid facts about the world are not reified, independent, unchanging things, but slowly changing processes in a wider field! Taking this view does not downplay the vital task of 'simply presenting information'; but puts this part of the teaching in a broader epistemological context.

This approach is also empowering for students, for I also recognise that in the way they accept or reject what I say, the students are being creative, and will be adding to or creating their version of the truth, which differs in major or minor details from person to person. Of course, the extent to which we are free to believe or do what we want is always subject to social sanctions, such as codes of ethics; but how this happens is (potentially, at least) a further subject for discussion with students.

A further important point here (thanks to Peter Philippson): what I teach (and what students learn) is never value-free, and we must be clear about the ways in which values permeate even the most objective-looking facts. Acknowledging this is important, because I rely on there being a sufficient overlap in values and interests between me and my students for my ideas to 'take root'.

Tailoring Teaching

If we truly accept that each individual is different - they have had different experiences, have learned different things in different ways, have different interests and needs - this means that for each person, what they want to learn in a given situation, and how they will best learn it is different. So the ideal learning environment is one which offers scope for as much individuality in the processing of ideas as possible.

Achieving this requires clarity both in terms of values and methods. So as a teacher I am prepared to critically examine my role as the 'expert' who knows what people should know and how they should learn about this topic. My attitude is that I offer what I currently know, based on my own knowledge and experience, and others make what they will of it. I actively encourage them not to swallow what I say whole, but chew it over, spit some out bits and digest others.

In practice I have both to present a general line on a subject, and try to recognise and work flexibly with the individual learning styles and methods of students. All this, in my experience, dramatically increases student's learning, at the price of much hard work, and some occasional uncertainty and discomfort for me, as I improvise.

Finally, as in other areas of leadership, teaching styles should be 'situational', tailored to the student's learning context. Relevant factors include the student's current levels of knowledge, experience, confidence, time available and so on. I also offer a variety of teaching methods, ranging from the didactic to the experiential/experimental, to reflect student's different learning styles and preferences.

I want to pause to look briefly at the popular notion, (especially in the literature on 'management learning') of 'learning styles'. I have found the general idea of 'learning styles' helpful in relation to my own or other's learning. I like the idea that learning involves different stages - data collection, reflection, experimentation and so on: this describes a range of human problem-solving behaviour, which the Gestalt 'contact-withdrawal cycle' (and other similar models) recognise quite explicitly. But I resist the further step often taken towards defining 'types' of people who 'will' do things in certain ways - theorists, pragmatists etc. Of course, those who invent these categories always surround them with caveats about their 'only being guidelines'; but they nonetheless end up more than that. What people hear is 'I am this kind of person'. And this blurs each person's uniqueness in terms of how they approach the world. I prefer to acknowledge, and try to base my teaching around, this uniqueness and individuality.

The Contact Cycle as a Guide to Creating Learning Environments

In this final section I offer a different kind of an overview of some of the factors which promote or inhibit learning, using the Gestalt contact-withdrawal cycle. I have for some years used the contact-withdrawal cycle not only as a model of human functioning in general, but also as a guide to the planning of experiential learning in a social or group setting [Harris 1995]. I assume that the reader is familiar with the contact cycle; those that are not might wish to refer to Harris [1989] or other Gestalt texts.

At any point in the cycle, we can examine both personal (internal) and group (external) factors relevant to the learning process. And we can see these as either promotingor inhibiting the individual's learning in that situation. I now look in some detail at the factors involved at each stage.


On an individual level, the sensation stage is where I begin to learn by using my eyes and ears and my natural curiosity to gather information about my environment and how it impacts upon me.

For a whole variety of reasons, not everyone does this. Some of the reasons for inhibiting ourselves may be deep-seated - for example, people who are neglected and abused in childhood often learn to 'de-sensitize' themselves to their environment. Others may simply decide to 'switch off', because of disillusionment, boredom or stress in the family or school. Whatever the reason, the effect of a block at this stage of the cycle is that my interrupted contact with my environment means that I never even realise that I need to learn anything.

How might the way a learning group is set up help or hinder my personal learning process? The question here is of being stimulated or not; does the group culture facilitate this?

Beginning at a simple sensory level, how interesting are the physical surroundings in which the group is working? If they are dull or neglected, this will affect the tone of the proceedings.

Next, in terms of the trainer's personal style, are the qualities of lively curiosity and information-seeking valued or repressed in the group? Can questions be asked? Will concerns be heard, and any difficulties expressed be taken seriously?

Finally, we must look at how people (especially the trainer) deal with feelings in the group. Feeling excited by new stimuli is important if we are to start to learn; but many learning environments 'turn off' the students. In such situations, people get bored and lifeless and may withdraw from what is going on into their own thoughts and day dreams.


This is the stage at which, having used our senses to obtain data from the environment, we are beginning to get a sense of the fresh and exciting demands it is making upon us. This in turn leads naturally to thinking how we want to respond, and what we need or want to learn to be able to respond properly. In short: we start to form an idea of what learning goals and strategies we might use in this situation.

This process can be internally inhibited in a variety of ways. I may be very active and not allow myself the necessary period of quiet reflection and planning. Or I may turn my initial excitement into excessive anxiety, which paralyses me. Or I may even confuse my thinking using artificial aids, by going to the pub at lunchtime and drinking too much.

My individual process at this point may also be hindered by an group or training culture which is based on action rather than reflection. The bye-word, for example, might be "just get on and do things - exercises, games, whatever".

If I am internally or externally inhibited in any of these ways, I will enter the learning situation without having any clear idea of what it is I want to learn, or clear strategies and plans for achieving this and my learning will suffer accordingly.


This refers to the stage of energizing, where, having some idea of what we want to do, we prepare ourselves for doing it. On an individual level, I can stop this process happening in all sorts of ways. For instance, I may tell myself (perhaps having introjected what others have told me for years) that I'm stupid, and probably won't learn much, so there's no point in trying too hard. Such beliefs and fears are common, but may not be openly expressed. What often happens in this case, is that I remain inactive and blame other people because nothing interesting has happened, and I haven't learned anything new. It's all the fault of the trainer, or the other group members. By blaming others in this way, both individuals and groups may refuse to take responsibility for their actions and their failure to learn.


If I am to learn what I need to learn, I need to take some action to engage with my environment. I need to join in, to take risks, to start to involve myself with the exercises and the process.

In an 'inhibiting' setting, I may decide not to do this. Perhaps, on a personal level, I am lacking in self-confidence about my capacity to learn, and feel that asking for help when I need it will show me up. Or I may have developed complex 'bluffing' strategies together with a confident air which covers this up.

External inhibition might be provided by an group climate of fear and avoidance. Perhaps the trainer is insensitive, and this means that I am not encouraged to take risks. It is simpler to keep out of the firing line. Though I may still learn something, by refusing to take risks I have not exploited the learning possibilities inherent in the situation to the full.


In terms of learning, the contact stage is where we begin to chew over the material, to break it down, and begin to understand its meaning and implications. What we have learned starts to 'sink in'. I begin to understand things in several different ways, some of which may throw the basic assumptions of myself and others into doubt ("Is this really the way I ('we' in the case of groups or teams) want to be? What are the alternatives?") Doing this well means that I have truly learned what I needed to learn thoroughly. I have started to move towards more profound learning which affects deeper levels of my being.

Some ways of inhibiting this kind of deeper learning at an individual level, might be to 'do the minimum' - to copy what others have done, and do enough to get by. Another might be to bluff my way through and to pretend that I am learning because I fear I might be shown up and criticised.

These elements can also be echoed in group culture terms. Some training groups are obsessed by task, and pay little or no attention either to process, or to the more distant goals that the task is aimed at achieving. In the case of team-building, the goal is usually to develop better ways of working together and this requires much on-going reflection. Action without contact is very common in many modern organizations and work settings.


This is the review stage, where we see whether we have learned what we needed to, and if so, congratulate ourselves on our achievement. We need to review what we have done, and what we have not done, which possibly remains to be done at some future time. We may also be drawing out further learning, about how we went about things, and how this might be done better in future.

On a personal level, I might interrupt this stage in two main ways. One is by rushing through it - "We've no time for self-congratulation, there's more work to be done...!"; and the other is by never arriving at it. If I get carried away by the excitement and triumph of the successful training session or team day, I may do whatever I can to keep its memory alive. Some individuals , learning groups or teams fail to change just because they live in the past; there is no sense of wanting to 'move on' to new pastures and challenges. They know it all, have done it all, already.


The withdrawal stage allows us to rest before moving on to the next cycle, the next bit of learning. Failure to do this can lead to 'burn out'; people become 'workaholics', who are addicted to high stress levels and the adrenalin they produce. They cannot slow down; they have no sooner completed one learning task before they are starting on the next. "Let's have another training/team building session next month!". When some people behave like this in a group they may carry others along with them, with generally deleterious effects. Learning, like any other activity, needs its periods of rest, reflection and relaxation.


In this article I have looked at a number of factors relating to learning and its facilitation from a Gestalt perspective. There is plainly much more work to be done in developing a truly Gestalt approach to these matters, buthope this piece will stimulate others to contribute to an important area of thought and practice.

John Bernard Harris


Harris, J. 1989, Gestalt: An Idiosyncratic Introduction (Manchester Gestalt Centre)

Harris, J. 1994, 'Team Building, Gestalt-style', British Gestalt Journal Vol. 2 No. 3.

Heron, J. 1993, Group Facilitation (Kogan Page)

F. Perls, R. Hefferline, P. Goodman 1951, Gestalt Therapy, (Penguin Books)

Rogers, C. 1965, Client-centred Therapy (Houghton-Mifflin)


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