Tony Schwab on phenomenological approaches to youth disaffection

Dr. Fidelma Hanrahan’s thorough and compassionate 2013 University of Sussex doctoral dissertation examines current social-psychological theory and practice in the area of disaffected youth with a focus on school-excluded teenagers in England.  Dr. Hanrahan’s purpose is plainly to better understand this social group and to enlighten the educational community and government on how to help them.  She is working towards a unified theory that weaves socio-economic and familial aspects of the situation with the group’s difficulties with self-image and self-efficacy, and she has been testing her model using quantitative and qualitative methods.  The thesis covers four areas:  dominant theories that help us understand the “development of maladaptive motivational states in young people;” qualitative research on “the lived experiences of disaffected youth;” a new model of psycho-social pathways into and out of disaffection tested by quantitative analysis of the results of questionnaires and “semi-structured” interviews with students and staff at a Pupil Referral Unit; and the capstone, an account based on interviews with four at-risk youths about their life-changing experience creating and performing a theatre piece about their lives under the mentorship of two dedicated theater practitioners.

Dr. Hanrahan’s commitment to understanding and helping young people who are seen by the mainstream social system as failures and drop-outs has particular meaning.  I have always worked with marginalized youth, and for my Masters in the early 1990’s conducted descriptive phenomenological research of the experience of being in class for two teachers and two students in my alternative high school in the South Bronx, NY, the poorest congressional district in the US.  I have also led theatrical projects for at-risk youth, including plays written by ensembles of young actors, so I know the power of arts collaboration.  Because I find phenomenological research and the stories of school people so congenial, I was concerned that the thesis described the situation of disaffected youth chiefly through social science and psychological terminology.  This is a logical way to attain the goal of a “core theoretical framework” of disaffection (170) but it created distance between me and the young people whose troubled lives are described on each page.  In the thesis, since interviews termed qualitative are set up to test theory, the basic phenomenological attitude is not as focused as it could be.  For instance, it is one thing to set out to corroborate through interviews the predicted effects of an environment pre-determined to be “need-thwarting” and another to simply get to know an environment as experienced by a group of teenagers who have been termed disaffected.  The second way would begin by conscientiously setting aside preconceptions.  Hanrahan’s qualitative interviews do offer a look at the here and now experience of being disaffected, but the general plan of the paper is to utilize the young people’s feeling-reports to create an objective theory supported quantitatively.  The semi-structured interviews are not meant to immerse the researcher in the lived experience of disaffection but “to evaluate, and further develop, a theoretical model of school disaffection in young people which draws together perspectives concerning self-determination, self-discrepancy, and achievement motivation…”

To get even closer to achieving a holistic model of youth disaffection, Dr. Hanrahan and her colleagues could consider a wider view and add to the stated aims of their study another kind of knowledge gained through the descriptive phenomenological method—to seek to describe what youth disaffection is.  For a period of the research, hold the natural scientific standpoint in abeyance.  For example, Dr. Hanrahan is struck by the influence of poverty on human development, but the descriptive phenomenological method as propounded by Amedeo Georgi can help develop first  a general structure of youth disaffection itself; the findings will likely include life in poverty but the researcher would not assume this beforehand.  Possible prompts for a phenomenological description could be, “Tell me about your day” or, “what happened today?”  Phenomenological analysis of youth’s descriptions can enlighten researchers before they utilize objectivized categories like “human development” and “poverty.”  A side effect of phenomenological interviewing can be that it might make a researcher lose sight of hope for a while—the facts might be sad; but it will widen educators’ understanding and knowledge base and help them make choices about what is important in their work with young people.  A second phenomenological project is to understand a drop-out by knowing what he or she is dropping out from:  what is his or her experience of Society, its ways and routines.  An anecdote from my experience will help clarify:  several times in the 1990’s, when I rode the New York City subway with students from the South Bronx, I noticed and they told me about a change in many of them when the train stopped at and then left 96th Street in Manhattan.  The simple reason was that this street was known by all New Yorkers as the dividing line between middle class and poor, the haves and the have-nots whites and people of color.  My students became uncomfortable because we had crossed the line on our way to a play or a museum.  Back then, first-hand knowledge of this “line” influenced my teaching.  I offer the idea that now, whether interpreting data or teaching students, the felt energy of the first fifth of the 21st Century must be incorporated.

I suggest that literature can help: Chapter One of Native Son by Richard Wright helps us understand an excluded youth’s day and his experience of society, and later I will look at how Tolstoy in one novel successfully describes Society itself by treating it as a powerful character.  I am impressed that Dr. Hanrahan likens the “integration of theoretical frameworks” she aims for to building a bridge across multiple paradigms.  Help in building this bridge will be provided by understanding the situation prior to paradigms–as lived by the disaffected, their families, their helpers, even those who despise them.  For example, it would be illuminating to hear the theatre mentors’ particular experience of shepherding the young actors out of boredom and distress to a feeling of renewal, and to read their play too!

Dr. Hanrahan is certainly building a cogent “aetiology” of school disaffection, but I propose adding an immediate and existential way of understanding this human situation to that forged by linking psycho-social constructs.  I am encouraged in this line of thought by three sentences by Dr. Hanrahan that are inspiring.  Her personal road to psychological research began with an intense early interest in literature.  A “childhood spent thinking about people, and wondering why they are the way they are” led to a realization that “it was the people contained in the books – their lives, their stories – that really interested” her.  Her passion for learning the experience of others through novels, poems, and plays shaped her identity.  This shows her intuitive connection of literature and science, and I will build on this personal detail.

Dr. Hanrahan’s experience in youth shows the extremely close relationship of art to life for a thinking person–and up to now it is fiction that gives us the fuller picture of struggling lives in context or, as the literary critic Lionel Trilling called it, the conditioned world we live in with all its contingencies.  It is that world I want to study to help researchers understand young people and schooling, and what a huge project it is!  Literature will help, and the era does not matter because serious literature teaches us through a type of human osmosis.  As Trilling and Robert Coles the psychologist have shown in different ways, literature is its own kind of qualitative research.  It happened that while I was reading Anna Karenina I was re-reading Dr. Hanrahan’s thesis.  In Tolstoy’s novel I realized I was encountering Dr. Hanrahan’s “spectrum” of disaffected people but in pre-Revolutionary Russia and quite differently than I would through the lens of social psychology.

Thinking about the two works together and having them interact in my reflections encouraged me in the view that we theorists and educators benefit by stepping back from social science and reflecting on both our and our students’ environments.  We should discuss with one other our time and its stress, strain, yearnings, and anxieties.  For instance, in a new way the internet delivers the world to us, therefore to comprehend what it is like to be part of any psychological, social, or economic category from the disaffected to the elite, we should include our subject’s experience of the tenor of the planet.  Though most researchers are not members of the disaffected, we all at times experience the world as wonderful or as chaotic, without order and leader-less.  For us, disaffection is around the corner.  If we can account for this phenomenon we come closer to the “integrated and holistic approach” called for by Dr. Hanrahan.

Disaffection as a Key to All Education

Education has always been idealistic, a plan to make people better so that they can make life better. This ideal informs all research and practice no matter which social class they concern.  Hanrahan’s thesis focuses on the experience of one group, young and socially liminal, but the paper’s hopes for its young people are universal and they touch on this ideal.  When she emphasizes “the importance of need-fulfilling environmental experiences” and aims “to achieve positive behavioural and emotional outcomes…and identify and examine the…interplay of social environmental experiences, self-construals, and motivations that underpin self-development…”  any educator will understand.  Each of us in the field imagines the same need-fulfilling world and hopes it will lead to positive social outcomes.  We are in this together, and this leads to another way we can solidify the research on disaffected youth:  accept that it can help us teach anyone.  We should see the disaffected as, in a myriad of ways, like everyone else.  Thus, a new model of disaffection will augment our understanding of all education.  For instance, the more familiar we become with Ryan and Deci’s self-discrepancy theory, the closer we get to the mechanics of working towards that educational ideal, for it is the discrepancy in all of us between ought and is that frames all our journeys to competence, relatedness and autonomy.  Hanrahan’s list of effective approaches is applicable across class and psychological lines.  Arts projects for all youth open “spaces of transformation…where new realities can be forged…through self-expression.”  Likewise, a mentor’s belief in any pupil’s ability and relationships and students feeling “listened to, valued, and encouraged…” are crucial to the fostering of resilience.  An important question to ask about any student is whether he sees his abilities as fixed or “malleable;” for as the paper says, anyone’s perception of their cognitive abilities as fixed can lead to extrinsic motivation which can make school a site of permanent wounds to self-esteem, whereas if the student considers his intellectual traits to be “changing over time in accordance with experiences and efforts in particular domains,”  this is a sign of intrinsic motivation and that the very process of learning will lead to increased self-esteem.

Actual, ought, ideal, and feared selves are characters that haunt us all.  They appear in all the arts and are worth reflecting on for any teacher who wants to guide young people morally and intellectually.  Good teaching demands two things, related only tangentially to the content we are teaching but essential nonetheless:  knowing something of each of our student’s experiences and reflecting on our own roads to becoming teachers.  This is why teaching is a vocation more than a job and why the highest nationwide test scores will never mean we are done with our work.

What Tolstoy Knew

Preparing to teach a disaffected youth should be like preparing to teach anyone.  Novice teachers should study children as George Dennison did in his book on New York City kids, The Lives of Children in the 1960’s or like Tolstoy did in the 1860’s in his schoolroom at Yasnaya Polyana, to know “children without preconceptions…as human beings who [have] worries, fears, needs, joys, intellectual curiosity, abundant imagination, and a longing to know.”  The same premise guided Tolstoy in his novels, and the literary critic Trilling uses a fascinating word to capture his method of work or how he covered human ways; he notes it is based on affection.  I hope it does not seem too odd to mention this emotion in a discussion of a thesis that seeks scientific precision, but Hanrahan’s own affection and sympathy weave through the thesis.  Apropos, Trilling points out that Tolstoy’s affection achieves its own type of objectivity which he puts alongside the scientific version, asserting that just as “everything in Nature exists in time, space, and atmosphere….everything in [Anna Karenina] exists in the light of the author’s love—constant, pervasive, equitable.”   Imagine the discipline it took for Tolstoy to achieve this kind of fairness.  Seeing respect and love as a way to get to a workable sense of a phenomenon urges us to look once again at the word “objective.”  Christine Root, a teacher, literary critic and deep ecologist who studies how to think holistically writes of an object speaking rather than the observer speaking for it which involves submitting one’s attention to all possible manifestations of a particular phenomenon, “transcending separation” (8). Here is a path to moving past or establishing a place before natural scientific objectivity in at least part of one’s research. In Hanrahan’s words, we would seek understanding by “thinking about people and wondering why they are the way they are… their lives, their stories.”

To help our students know themselves we can bracket our preconceptions about their experience.  Using Georgi’s descriptive method, a transcript (protocol) would be made of a student’s “naïve description” of a phenomenon, for example “boredom at school” or “having a temper at school” or “happiness in class” for a PRU student.  The researcher would then read through/dwell with this and other protocols based on the phenomenon, mark meaning units, describe the units, group them into main constituents of the phenomenon, reflect, and then write a General Psychological Structure of the phenomenon.  A novelist too arrives at general structures of human life through constant attention to details.  As I mentioned, a key constituent of Russian life Tolstoy highlights is Society; he calls it “the coarse power.”  Educators can be inspired by his description.  After all, they say fish don’t know they’re in water; do our students know they are in Society?  For Tolstoy, the power provides a pre-formed place for us.  We struggle, conform, question, hide, but (almost always) cannot escape.  The force makes its first impression on the reader when Anna’s husband discovers her infidelity.  From many sides, Society sends him its decision that there are but two ways to respond, both aggressive, divorce or a duel.  Only if he agrees to this will Society preserve his high position.  But Tolstoy’s attitude of affection reveals an alternative possibility.  When Anna is dying after the birth of her illegitimate child, Karenin is stunned to realize he wants to forgive and to serve her and her daughter (and thus the lover).  Karenin knows this is the best way to continue living and it has tremendous religious significance for him.  Now the character and the reader must choose:  we know in the human hierarchy forgiveness is higher than aggression or abandonment, yet we realize this cannot be.

In terms of Hanrahan’s thesis, the power of Society is also tied in with self-construal.  Social science asserts that Society’s “affordances” combine to “form complex ‘niches’…normatively framed ways of acting… cultural and ecological constraints that scaffold action” (Voyer and Franks).  This forces constraints on disaffected youth, and the thesis explains thoroughly the psychological minefields they experience in their niche.  Literature records this phenomenon too.  In Anna Karenina, when we first meet the future lovers, Anna and Vronsky, Society is good to them.  In terms of the thesis each has realistic aspirations, high self-esteem and self-efficacy and is comforted by the congruence of their actual and ideal selves.  But as soon as they fall in love, their self-construal and self-definition are undermined.  Eventually they leave Russia, essentially as drop-outs, and as Hanrahan’s model predicts, feel dejection, disappointment, and restlessness.  Disapproving Society is now an external locus of control and this leads to Hanrahan’s “negative affect, lowered self-esteem and decreased motivation and inhibits the development of optimal self-motivation, social functioning, and personal well-being.”  Banished, and with their relatedness needs thwarted, Anna and Vronsky must be counted among the disaffected.


In fact, Tolstoy describes with precision many of the maladaptive motivational states examined by Dr. Hanrahan, and his novel helps us imagine schools and programs that might be built on the foundation of such understanding.  What would a program look like that was designed to bring Vronsky and Anna back into the fold?  As with all education the stakes would be high, nothing less than making them better, healthier people in order to add to the richness of Society.  Before Anna’s death by suicide, two possible intervention programs come to mind.  One would be for disaffected teen parents, and its main question would be how to reintegrate them into society after they have flouted rules, taken up lives as outsiders and had a child.  Another program would come into play if they separated, and this would aim for the reintegration of each by taking into account their personalities, needs and environments.  After Anna is gone, a program for Vronsky would have to find ways to “rehabilitate” this excluded man who is now in mourning and having thoughts of self-harm, a tall order.

Each of these programs would be built on research in three areas essential for any educational enterprise:  psychological counseling, engaging academics and arts education plus analysis of overarching social forces.  Each of these areas is mentioned on the CRESS website.  The psychological component and the arts are implicit in Dr. Hanrahan’s thesis, and we see the lab’s social analysis in its work on the effect of materialism and the consumer culture on children’s well-being and learning.  In my twenty-ninth year in education, I see how much is involved in the ideal of educating every child well, and I am reminded of Garrett Hardin’s idea in his 1968 article in Science on “The Tragedy of the Commons,” that in our time the problem of humans’ use of the planet’s resources “may not have a technical solution” but needs new moral thinking.  The same goes for education.  To take a larger view of the educational situation may mean seeing things as Hardin does, from a more tragic perspective. (Hardin uses the definition of tragedy from Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, “…the remorseless working of things.”)  In a society based on self-interest, we face a great challenge to imagine, much less plan how each disaffected, troubled or poor teen will get a decent education; indeed, how all middle class children will get a good one.  I imagine a team on which educators, social scientists and psychologists think collaboratively about what social environment and educational components work best together to approach the ideal, a kind of ‘starting from scratch’ thinking to examine education in our fast-changing world that in many essential ways always stays the same:  unbalanced, unfair, and seemingly unable to think collaboratively on a large scale.   For me the word tragedy helps, but there is hope in the word for it captures a sense of the solemnity that is involved in working with one child at a time. 

Tony Schwab, MEd

Principal of New Alliance Academy, New Jersey



Root, Christine. Participating in the Being of Another: The Importance of Goethe’s         Friendship with Schiller to the Development of his Science.” 2012. Draft sent by author.

Voyer, Benjamin G. and Franks, Bradley. “Toward a Better Understanding of Self-construal  Theory: an Agency View of the Processes of Self-construal.”  LSE Research Online. Web. 1 February, 2016.


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