Tuesday 17 October 2023

PhD Supervision in a Thinking Environment

Some years ago I introduced the Thinking Environment (qv) to a group of university professors on a leadership programme. We used it as a way of working on the course, and many said that it had proved very enriching. A couple of them surprised me by saying they had also taken the principles into their supervisory meetings with their PhD students, and were very pleased with the results. 

Since then, I have been looking for an opportunity to do that in a more structured and systematic way, and at last that is happening, thanks to a professor who came on a recent Thinking Partnership Programme.

So we have run a workshop with some supervisors and students, introducing the Thinking Environment and then running an experimental supervision meeting, with great results.

We have adapted the Thinking Environment Mentoring process for PhD Supervision, thus:

1: The Student's thinking session: the supervisor asks the student 'With regard to your PhD, what do you want to think about, and what are your thoughts?' and then listens, for up to 20' while the student thinks out loud about his or her PhD.

2: The Interview: the student asks the supervisor any questions he or she may have, and the supervisor answers them, briefly. (say 10')

3: The Supervisor's thinking session:
the student asks the supervisor 'What do you want to think about, and what are your thoughts?' and then listens, for up to 15' while the supervisor thinks out loud about whatever he or she chooses.

4: Closure: the supervisor adds in anything essential for the student to know, that has not already been covered, and both agree what needs to happen next, and when they will next meet. The session closes with each offering the other some appreciation for a quality they admire in the other. 

This worked remarkably well in practice.

The most radical aspects are, firstly the supervisor listening to the student thinking without any interruption whatsoever: no clarifying, guiding etc; and secondly, the student offering the supervisor a thinking session. 

The first (the supervisor listening without interrupting) is to ensure that the student is encouraged to think, and to follow his or her thinking wherever it goes. This is in service of the fundamental aim of a PhD which is to develop the student as an independent thinker. There is plenty of time later for the supervisor to interject his or her wisdom or corrections. 

The second (the supervisor's thinking session) was the subject of a lot of discussion. Clearly, it supports the notion of equality, which is one of the components of a Thinking Environment. Also, it is likely to be very educative of the student. The supervisor may think about the PhD subject (or the student's approach to it), or about the supervisor's own research, or about University issues that demand attention. Any of these would be of great interest to the student,

It does, of course, require a certain vulnerability in the supervisor; but we concluded that was good, both in terms of contributing to equality, in a context where the supervisor has a lot of power and seniority, and also as a way of modelling, and thus giving permission for the student to be vulnerable. Needless to say, there may be some topics that it would be inappropriate for the supervisor to think about in the presence of a student, so prudence is required.

In practice, both the supervisors and the students on our workshop agreed that this was a very valuable part of the process; and that the process overall was a very valuable approach to supervision. 

It's worth noting, of course, that each student has (at least) two supervisors, so this framework can be adapted to that reality; in fact for our practice session, both the supervisors were present. One took a lead role, and it was that one who had the thinking session: we envisage that alternating over time (and it is worth recording that the co-supervisor also learned a lot from listening to a colleague think in this way).

So the supervisors and students committed to experiment with this, going forward, and intend to write up their experiences and learning for publication in due course.  I, for one, look forward to their reflections!

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