Sociometry and psychodrama are primarily thought of as group psychotherapy approaches, however, they also offer a plethora of experiential teaching processes that can be utilized to teach any content. Psychodrama’s founder, Jacob Moreno, had also proposed a Spontaneity Theory of Learning in 1923 (later refined in 1949) which advocated for an educational approach based in spontaneity training rather than the memorization of information. For Moreno, spontaneity training meant using action methods to teach participants how to respond skillfully and competently to life situations. Spontaneity is a core psychodrama concept; it is defined as the ability to have an adequate response to a new situation or a novel response to an old, reoccurring situation. Spontaneity is centralized as a curative agent in psychodrama psychotherapy and intimately related to its twin concept of creativity.
In his autobiography (2019), Moreno writes that his choice to immigrate from Vienna to New York was partially influenced by psychologist John Dewey’s work in the field of experiential education and democracy. Like Dewey, Moreno emphasized the importance of learning through doing and experience. Experiential education approaches have organically emerged as fundamental to psychology, social work, counseling, and other educational programs – evidenced in the centrality of students’ internship requirements. When it comes to classroom teaching, it seems that group workers are more likely to utilize experiential teaching and simulations than instructors of other courses. The use of group simulations within the classroom have become accepted as a standard method for teaching students how to facilitate groups. This marriage of process and content in the teaching process is something that group therapy educators and psychodrama trainers hold in common. Group therapy processes are used to teach the content of a group therapy course. In a similar way, psychodramatists’ use sociometry and psychodrama processes to teach sociometry and psychodrama content.
In my own experience of teaching group psychotherapy, I was significantly influenced by both my psychodrama training and by Lawrence Shulman’s 1987 article – The Hidden Group in the Classroom. After multiple years of group therapy practice, I felt competent as a group worker, but the roles of trainer and adjunct professor were new to me. Shulman’s article helped validate that most of my group work skills were also applicable in teaching because the classroom is a group. Of course, the classroom group is different from a psychotherapy group, and session have a fundamentally different purpose and content, nevertheless, fundamental group dynamics and group phenomenon emerge in all groups. As a psychodramatist, I engaged in experiential learning regularly which helped me to see the versatility of various action-based group tools and how they can be utilized for nearly any content or group setting including the classroom.
Some of these experiential tools that are easily adaptable for teaching include locograms, floor checks, step-in sociometry, action sociograms, and spectrograms (see links below for video demonstrations). A comprehensive overview on the use of sociometry and psychodrama as teaching methods is beyond the scope of this short article but has been covered in other places (Giacomucci, 2019, in-press; Giacomucci & Skolnik, in-press; Haworth & Vasiljevic, 2012; Nolte, 2018; Propper, 2003). These processes are unique in that they actively involve students in a holistic learning process and cultivate mutual aid in the classroom – elevating students to the role of educators for each other. This is especially relevant in graduate programs where students already have practice experience, wisdom, and knowledge that would be useful for the learning of other students. A very simple depiction of this is in online teaching is through the use of the floor check process (developed by Tian Dayton), which involves the instructor offering a multiple-choice question and grouping students into smaller groups based on their choice. In a group psychotherapy course, perhaps the instructor might ask students to identify which of the following theoretical approaches they are most attracted to and break them into smaller groups for discussion with peers who had the same answer: psychodynamic, relational/experiential, cognitive-behavioral, or postmodern (these are pulled from chapter 4 of Corey, Corey, & Corey’s group textbook). This initial question could be followed with another prompt with a new set of subgroupings – “which of these theoretical approaches are you least attracted to and why?”. And a final prompt with a third set of groupings based on the question of “how do you think your personality and/or cultural values impact which theoretical approaches you are attracted to or not?” This use of breakout rooms and smaller groups facilitates a reflective process where students are given space to share about and explore their relationships to the course content. This allows the instructor to engage the group-as-a-whole in multiple simultaneous discussions that maximize student involvement.
Another experiential teaching method useful for group psychotherapy professors is role-play. Though many instructors do employ role-plays in the classroom, it seems that many students and instructors are also resistant to it. Psychodramatists’ define resistance as an inadequate warm-up or a warm-up to something else. Elsewhere I have proposed that most failed classroom role plays can be attributed to the lack of attention instructors give to the warming-up process (Giacomucci, 2019). In psychodrama, the warming-up process precedes and is essential to a role play enactment. Usually a warm-up involves the structured use of one of the aforementioned sociometry tools. Building on the floor check warm-up described above, I might move the class into a role play related to the four offered group therapy theoretical categories. This could be done in a number of different ways including:
- Enlisting a student to play the role of each of the theoretical approaches and having a dialogue between them
- Enlisting a student to play the role of a founding figure (Freud, Slavson, Moreno, Beck, etc.) from each of the theoretical approaches and having a dialogue between them
- Role playing a group therapy scene (spontaneously created or drawing from students’ internship experiences) while students take turn stepping into the facilitator role and offering interventions from each of the theoretical approaches
- The same short scene could be reenacted multiple times to depict the differences between approaches based on the same group therapy case
Any of these role play options would facilitate a deeper learning experience for students by giving them an embodied experience of interfacing with the various group therapy theoretical systems. These action-based teaching approaches increase the likelihood that the course content is integrated by students. While experiential teaching is already somewhat accepted and empirically supported in the field, sociometry and psychodrama can increase the effectiveness of using experiential education by offering additional processes and theoretical guidance.
Further video resources:
Corey, M. S., Corey, G., & Corey, C. (2018). Groups: Process and practice (10th Edition). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning
Giacomucci, S. (2019). Social group work in action: A sociometry, psychodrama, and experiential trauma therapy curriculum. Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Dissertations. 124. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1128&context=edissertations_sp2
Giacomucci, S., & Skolnik, S. (in-press). The Experiential Social Work Educator: Integrating Sociometry into the Classroom Environment. Journal of Teaching Social Work.
Haworth, P. & Vasiljevic, L. (2012). Psychodrama and Action Methods in Education. Andragoške studije, 1, 113-127.
Moreno, J.L. (1949). The Spontaneity Theory of Learning. In R.B. Hass (ed), Psychodrama and Sociodrama in American Education. Beacon, NY: Beacon House Press.
Moreno, J.L. (2019). The Autobiography of a Genius (E. Schreiber, S. Kelley, & S. Giacomucci, Eds.). United Kingdom: North West Psychodrama Association
Propper, H. (2003). Psychodrama as Experiential Education: Exploring Literature and Enhancing a Cooperative Learning Environment. In J. Gershoni (ed), Psychodrama in the 21st Century: Clinical and Educational Applications (pp. 229-248). New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Shulman, L. (1987). The Hidden Group in the Classroom. Journal of Teaching in Social Work. 1(2): 3-31