The Practice of Council in a University Human Development Course


    Since 2003, I have been using Council in my Lifespan Human Development Course at California State University, Los Angeles.  I chose to bring Council into this course for a variety of reasons: 1) the large class size (75-160 students), 2) the diversity of the student population, and 3) the nature of the subject being taught. First of all, this graduate level course is required for all students enrolled in our Master of Counseling Program, which includes options in Marriage and Family Therapy, School Counseling, Applied Behavior Analysis, and Rehabilitation Counseling.  In addition, this course is required for all students who are enrolled in our Urban Learning Program, a combined degree/credential program aimed at preparing undergraduates to become teachers specially prepared to meet the needs of Los Angeles’ urban population. It is important to note that California State University, Los Angeles has one of the most diverse student populations of any college or university in the nation, and all of our programs emphasize learning and achievement among culturally and linguistically diverse learners. 

     Given that Human Development is a core requirement in our Counseling Program, it is important that students master the course content. On the hand, it is just as important that students are provided an opportunity to develop the skills and attitudes that are fundamental to the counseling and teaching professions; such as cultural sensitivity, perspective taking, critical thinking, and empathic understanding.  Having Council in my course has proven to be an effective and meaningful way for students to develop these fundamental counseling skills. Council also fosters cultural sensitivity, and allows students in a large class to have small group encounters in which each person has the opportunity to express their thoughts freely. More than anything, council fosters a spirit of curiosity and openness, and reminds us that good learning begins with relationship and rapport between students and teachers alike. 

The Call to Council

     Because of its large class size, and following in the footsteps of my predecessors, I initially taught Lifespan Human Development in a strictly lecture style format; myself standing behind the podium, and students spread out amongst the lecture hall seats. But, it didn’t take long before I began to feel dissatisfied with this teaching method and an uncomfortable dissonance began to grow within me. Although students eagerly took notes it became evident that this was not because they were necessarily interested in the subject matter, but rather because they feared that they might miss something that would later show up on an exam. 

     My very method of teaching contradicted the core values of counseling that I was trying to teach. As I lectured about healthy human developmental patterns built on trust and love, my teaching method supported fear and dominance. In his seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian educator, Paolo Freire, refers to this top down style of instruction as the “banking model of education”. He writes,

     Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. (1990 p. 58)


Such pedagogical practices, according to Freire, inhibit critical consciousness and creativity, and foster an atmosphere of oppression. When students are given the message, however implicit, that they are inferior to the so-called “experts”, they begin to doubt their own experiences and develop dependency on authority figures to validate their knowledge. For example, I’ve had many students, who are also parents; approach me with deep concerns after having read the text book. These students were distressed by the fact that the text seemingly contradicted their own experiences of parenting, even after they have raised very healthy and happy children! These students viewed the authority of the text book with such high regard that they didn’t take into account that the text, as with any book, is a limited source of information that only covers the author’s perspectives. In this regard, I tell my students that, although the text book is a valid source of information, it is only one source of information.  Thus, I encourage students to question the text in light of their own stories. I remind students that they each carry a seed of expertise in regards to human development, and that it is important to share their stories, as well as to hear the stories of others.

     To teach Lifespan Human Development under the conditions described above requires alternative and creative pedagogy. For this reason, and more, I decided to bring Council into my course. As the physicist and philosopher David Bohm (1996) suggests, dialogue in the classroom promotes an open learning environment where all ideas can be equally shared. Discussion, on the other hand, entails analyzing and breaking up for the sake of arguing a certain point of view. He writes, 

     In a dialogue, however, nobody is trying to win. Everybody wins if anybody wins. There is a different sort of spirit to it. In a dialogue, there is no attempt to gain points, or to make our particular view prevail. Rather, whenever any mistake is discovered on the part of anybody, everybody gains. It’s a situation called win-win, whereas the other game [discussion] is win-lose – if I win, you lose. But a dialogue is something more of a common participation, in which we are not playing a game against each other, but with each other. In a dialogue, everybody wins. (p. 7)

     To espouse dialogue within my class provides students the opportunity to voice their own views of Human Development without judgment from others.  In doing so, students begin to trust their own experiences and insights without being made to feel inadequate. Furthermore, by hearing each other’s stories, the group begins to realize that human nature is complex and multifaceted, contextual, dependent on culture, and that no one theoretical perspective can describe the multitude of personal, cultural, and social aspects of human development. With this in mind, students learn to appreciate each person as unique and special, rather than an object to slap a psychological theory upon. 

Using Council to Teach Human Development

     In my second year of teaching human development, I began to integrate Council into my courses as a means of creating a safe learning environment that would give students room to express themselves and listen to others.  The first step was to dismantle the lecture style setup and to move students into small circles (in a class size of 100 -120, I usually create about twelve circles of eight to ten). The circle has many advantages over the standard classroom setting of rows of chairs, all facing the front of the room. The circle moves the focus away from the instructor and toward individual group members. Furthermore, by sitting in circle, a container is naturally created that promotes a sense of safety in which people can express themselves fully without the fear of being judged, ridiculed, or examined.

     Council emphasizes the practice of open dialogue in conjunction with non-judgmental listening.  When students can really “hear” what is being said by the speaker, they have the opportunity to bracket their judgments and to fully witness another’s expression of their own struggles and successes through the developmental stages. Council is also useful in helping students develop listening skills necessary for the counseling profession.  Students begin to learn to read beneath the surface of things, to pay attention to verbal cues, body language, and to become more comfortable with expressed emotion. By witnessing the stories of others, students learn that no single theory of Human Development can account for ever person’s experience. Students can then begin to avoid making generalizations and develop an appreciation for cultural and personal differences.

    Initially, I was anxious about bringing Council into my course. To do so involved yielding my authority as the instructor and relinquishing control over the learning process. I had to trust the students’ capacity to listen and speak from the heart.  I had to believe that each person in my classroom had the capacity for self-reflection, personal growth, and empathic listening.  In the initial stages, students also express anxiety about Council, particularly about sharing their stories with “strangers”, but this anxiety usually dissolves after the first few weeks as students become enthused by the connections that are created between group members.  This is evidenced by students’ reflections regarding their experiences with Council:


As first, to be quite honest, I was a little apprehensive. It takes me time to open up to people, but everyone in my council group was very welcoming. I learned a lot from everyone’s personal experiences with life. As the quarter progressed, I felt at ease and at one point, I shared a story that made me very emotional. My group was very supportive.  


This was my first encounter with the council process. In no other class had I ever been exposed to sitting around in circle, passing a talking piece. Although at first it seemed intimidating, I gradually learned how to speak more openly about how I felt. The council process should be used not only in this class, but also in other classes and with other majors. Council provides one with the opportunity to learn from other individuals what cannot be learned in textbooks. This is learning from personal experiences.  

  The first step in bringing Council into a classroom setting is to properly introduce the importance of dialogue. In order for a Council group to work, participants must understand that Council is a formal dialogue process, as apposed to casual conversation or class discussion. As Bohm (1996) writes, “The way we start a dialogue group is usually by talking about dialogue – talking it over, discussing why we’re doing it, what it means, and so forth” (p. 6). With this in mind, I always devote at least one course period (four hours) to introduce Council, the four intentions of Council, the significance of the circle, the talking piece, issues of confidentiality, how to begin and end each Council group.  I have been fortunate to have Joe Provisor offer his time to come into my class at the beginning of each quarter to give this introduction and short Council training. In doing so, an atmosphere of importance is created, which helps in fostering student interest and involvement.   
      It is not uncommon for some of my students to confuse Council with Counseling (after all, Human Development is a Counseling course). Thus, it is important to clearly outline the distinction between the two. Whereas the focus of traditional counseling is on analyzing and treating the underlying causes of painful symptoms, the aim of Council is not on changing behavior, but rather, on welcoming what is present in the moment, how the individual story weaves itself into the fabric of the collective story, and the beautifully fresh insights that emerge from this practice. 

    After the introduction and brief training are over, the class is broken up into small Council groups. The groups are chosen randomly, and students remain in the same group throughout the academic quarter. Preferably, students will be in groups with people they do not already know. Once the groups have been created, a Council prompt is provided as a launching pad for the dialogue. As the instructor, I create the council prompts, but I remind the students that these prompts are only starting points for dialogue and not to be held onto dogmatically.

     In the context of a course on Human Development, the prompt is also used to help students critically reflect upon the course material. For instance, if the class is learning about Erikson’s stages of human development, the prompt might be as follows:  “When the talking piece comes to you, tell a story about your early childhood. What developmental stage does this story reflect? (trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, etc.). What aspects of your story indicate this particular developmental stage?”  Or if the class is studying Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, I might suggest the prompt, “When the talking piece comes to you, tell a story about a time when you had to make a difficult decision or when you had to let someone down. What did you learn from having made the decision the way you did?”
Prompts are open-ended and non-invasive. For instance, rather than ask, “How did you feel when…?” a prompt may begin with the phrase, “Tell a story when…”  Using prompts in this manner allows students to draw upon a vast range of memories without being coerced into speaking about their feelings. Each person is free to reveal only that which they chose to reveal. Some members may even opt to say nothing at all. When this is the case, I simply ask them to hold the talking piece for a minute or two, to pause, so as to give value to their silence.

     The following is a list of course topics and some suggested prompts to use in conjunction with each topic. In addition to participating in Council groups, I ask each student to keep a reflection journal. The purpose of the journal is to assist students in making further connections between the Council prompt and the current class topic. To assist with their journal writing, I include a reflection question after each Council prompt.  Remember, these are only suggested prompts. With each course I teach, the prompts often change to meet the needs of the group.

Session 1: Introduction to Council

Council Prompt: When the talking piece comes to you, tell a story about a time that you didn’t want to be anyone else, or live at any other time, or in any other place (the aim here is to show that Council also includes positive aspects of a person’s experience). 
Reflection Question: Simply write about your first experience in Council.

Session 2: Introduction to Erikson’s Eight Stages of Human Development. 

Council Prompt: When the talking piece comes to you, tell a story about your early childhood. 
Reflection Question: What developmental stage does this story reflect? (Trust vs. Mistrust; Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt; Initiative vs. Guilt; Industry vs. Inferiority). What aspects of your story indicate this particular developmental stage? 

Session 3: Infancy: Trust vs. Mistrust, Attachment Theory. 

Council Prompt: When the talking piece comes to you, tell a story about a memorable experience you had with either one of your parents or primary caregiver. 
Reflection Question: If you were an outside observer listening to your own story, what would you witness in your story?  

Session 4: Early Childhood: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, and Cognitive Developmental Theory. 

Council Prompt: Allow yourself to remember a particular place from childhood. When the talking piece comes, tell a story about this place. 
Reflection Question: What makes this place so memorable for you? How has this place influenced your perspectives of the world and yourself?

Session 5: Late Childhood: Industry vs. Inferiority, Theories of Moral Development. 

Council Prompt: When the talking piece comes to you, tell a story about a time when you had to make a difficult decision or when you had to let someone down. 
Reflection Question: What insights about yourself did you gain through this experience? What did you learn from having made the decision the way you did?

Session 6: Family Systems Theory and the Family Developmental Lifecycle. 
Council Prompt: When the talking piece comes to you, tell a story about a time when your family experienced a great change or transition.  
Reflection Question: What role did you play during this period of change?  Were you comfortable with this role?  How could it have been different?  

Session 7:  Adolescence: Identity vs. Role Confusion, The developing persona. 
Council Prompt: Tell a story of your teenage years. Imagine yourself at home, at school, with your friends. How do you look? How do you feel about your parents, teachers and friends? How do you feel about yourself?
Reflection Question: How do your teenage experiences contribute to making you into the person you are today?  

Session 8: Rites of passage and cross-cultural perspectives on the transition from adolescence into adulthood. 
Council Prompt: When the talking piece comes to you, relay a story about your own transition from adolescence to adulthood. 
Reflection Question: What rites of passage marked your transition from adolescence to adulthood? Was this satisfactory? How could it have been better/different?

Session 9: Young Adulthood: Intimacy vs. Isolation, and the art of loving. 
Council Prompt: When the talking piece comes to you, tell about a time in which you really felt happy with yourself. 
Reflection Question: How did this experience get translated into greater love for others? How did the practice of self-love make it easier to love another? What effect, if any, do your acts of self-love have on your relationships with family, partners, and friends?

Session 10: Young Adulthood: Theories of Career Development, work and identity. 
Council Prompt: When the talking piece comes to you, tell a story about a time when you really questioned your life direction and purpose. How did you resolve this dilemma? 
Reflection Question: What challenges or obstacles did you face in order to realize your dreams? Or, what challenges are you currently facing in trying to realize your dreams? 

Session 11: Middle Adulthood: Generativity vs. Stagnation, and the art of giving. 
Council Prompt: Tell a story about when you did something for another person(s) that you fully enjoyed and with no intent for reciprocation (you didn’t expect anything in return). 
Reflection Question: What does your story say about you – your interests and talents – that serve as a natural gift to others and/or society? What other interests and talents do you have that you bring as a gift to others and to society? 

Session 12: Late Adulthood: Ego-integrity vs. Despair, elderhood and the meaning of wisdom. 
Council Prompt: Tell about a memorable time you spent with someone you considered to be an elder.  
Reflection Question: Imagine that you are facing the final years of your life. With this awareness what would you do differently in your current life situation?

Session 13: Death: Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ stages of death and dying. 
Council Prompt: For this final council, focus on how you want to close your council group. As a group, create a closing ceremony. How you end something is very important.
Reflection Question: What are your feelings/attitudes toward death? Who do you want present at your death?  What type of funeral/memorial ceremony would you like to have?    


At the end of the class session, and after each Council group has closed, I often hold a “Witness Council”.  One representative from each group is selected to participate in this Council, while the rest of the class acts as silent witness. During this Witness Council, each representative simply speaks about what they feel was the shared essence of their individual groups. Afterward, the entire class is provided an opportunity to share what they heard during the Witness Council. This is a powerful tool to help students further understand the importance of collective and collaborative learning, particularly in regards to Human Development. The Witness Council also reveals the mystery and beauty of the collective practice as people began to make connections between their stories and the stories of others.

Student Responses
    During the academic years through 2003-2005, I asked each student to complete an anonymous survey about the Council process used in class. Questions on the survey include: 1) Briefly describe your experience of the Council process; 2) Did the Council process contribute to your understanding of Human Development? If yes, how? If no, why not?; and 3) What suggestions can you make for improving the use of Council in this course. The reason behind the survey was to ensure that the practice of Council had positive learning outcomes. I have collected over 500 completed surveys.  Almost all of the surveys reflect positive outcomes and indicate that most of the students not only enjoyed Council, but found it helpful in their understanding of the course content. From these surveys, I discovered that Council is not only a means for facilitating heartfelt speaking and listening, but is also a powerful and transformative learning tool. I have included a sampling of comments in response to question #2, “Did the Council process contribute to your understanding of human development? 


Yes, because I’ve learned that we all learn from each other. Sometimes you may feel you are alone in a situation, but in reality you are not. Sharing stories makes you look at the meaningful life lessons no matter how traumatic the event. I’ve learned that all situations have positive outcomes. It is up to you whether to choose to see the positives and learn from the negatives. 


Yes, Human Development is universal but highly different across cultures, languages, age, and socio-economic status. Council celebrates genuineness, openness, and multiculturalism. It opens a window into someone else’s heart, experiences, and interpretation of life. 


Council gave me the gift of perspective: I got to learn and understand what different students feel and think about day-to-day topics that were for the most part way different than my own experiences. That was the beauty of Council! From the perspective of a black middle age women to that of a young Hispanic male, to a white young woman or Asian, or from the entire social-economic spectrum. We experienced the wonders of different perspectives. 


The council process did contribute to my understanding of human development. I was able to hear different experiences that ranged from being extremely happy to being very sad. It allowed me to incorporate new ideas into my understanding of human development. The various life experiences and opinions allowed me to hear about (from others) or think about subjects that were not directly from a book or lecture. Basically, a more “hands on” or real life learning approach. 


  The Council process was a fantastic and highly educational experience for me because it provided the space to merge the personal with the academic. Council allowed me to internalize ideas presented in class through critical thinking questions and verbally reflecting on them. I appreciated the insight and perspectives of my group members that were often different than my own. Through this I learned how we each learn and experience life with our own terms. 


Yes it did. I was fortunate enough to be part of a Council group whose members came from West Africa, China, Guatemala, and the U.S.A. Such cultural diversity explored areas of human development that were very similar in context regardless of the individual’s background. 


The council process did contribute to my understanding of human development. It did this by being able to listen and understand the perspectives and views that others may have. The council process was an open-minded process in which one was able to learn from the experiences and views that other individuals had lived through. Also, the council process contributed to my understanding of human development by listening and not being judgmental to what others have to say. Each and every individual goes through development, but there are certain factors that may vary among one another. And, in council one is able to see the similarities or differences that exist among each individual. 


Bringing Council into a university level course has been an exciting endeavor. It thrills me to watch students sit in circle, share their stories, and learn from each other. It is important to note that for the instructor this is not a passive activity.  Each week I sit in a different Council group and share my own stories. Also, there are moments when conflicts arise, or the when the dialogue is hindered by resistance, at which time group members call upon my help. In these cases, I sit in the group while students work out their conflicts. I rarely intervene, but rather I model an attitude of Council and speak from my heart. Just my presence in the group, as a holder of the container, often brings about resolution as the dialogue begins to flow. This requires of me to be a practitioner and carrier of Council. It is, thus, essential that the instructor practice Council in their own life.

Council provides students with the opportunity to listen and speak from the heart within a safe container. In doing so, they quickly learn that they each have a wealth of experience and knowledge to bring to the topic of Human Development. This breaks down the hierarchy of top-down learning in which students passively absorb knowledge, and helps students to develop critical thinking and perspective-taking skills in relationship to the class material.  Mostly, Council fosters a learning environment built on trust and openness. In doing so, students gain appreciation and acceptance of their own experiences, thoughts, and feelings, as well as of those of others.  This is precisely what Belenky, Bond, and Weinstock (1991) call bringing “the silenced into voice” (p. 269). As one student so passionately remarks,

My experience in Council was very positive. During Council, I was able to become myself. I was able to express my personal feelings and thoughts without having anyone to judge me by. I probably did not make sense to my group at times, but I felt good expressing my conflicts and concerns. For the first time in years, I felt that my voice was being heard.      ReferencesBelenky, M., Bond, L., & Weinstock, J. (1991). A tradition that has no name. New York:BasicBooks. Bohm, D. (1996). On dialogue. London and New York: Routledge.Freire, P. (1990). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

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