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Create a Learning Environment

July 1, 2006
by Thomas G. Durham, PhD, LADC
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It is not uncommon for an experienced counselor to begin feeling somewhat stagnant in the quest for professional growth. Self-doubt about one's effectiveness with clients, and perhaps even disillusionment regarding one's continuation in the field, happens all too often in this profession. Clinical supervision can play a key role in preventing counselor stagnation and burnout. However, when a supervisor fails to be tuned to a supervisee's feelings, frustrations, and self-doubt, a downward spiral of weakening passion can result. Individualized learning facilitated by the supervisor constitutes an important element in preventing this problem.

Thomas g. durham, phd, ladc
Thomas G. Durham, PhD, LADC

Granted, the ball is invariably in the counselor's court when it comes to a desire to attain professional growth. However, an individualized approach by a supervisor can trigger a desire in the counselor to hit the ball squarely and move forward. Individualized learning has been the hallmark of adult learning theory, with numerous theoretical and practical explanations of this concept. Two of the explanations, transtheoretical change theory and transformative learning, seem to fit well with effective clinical supervision.

Transtheoretical change, familiar to many in the addiction treatment field, recognizes the significant fact that we are all at different levels of “change readiness.” Transformative learning, a concept more attuned to teaching, focuses on how individuals interpret and critically evaluate their life experiences through self-examination and reflection.

Examining one's assumptions

The originator of transformational learning, author and adult learning theorist Jack Mezirow, recognizes the significance of experiencing critical reflection on one's assumptions as an initial step toward change. Transformational learning is a process of change that one experiences by identifying issues, problems, beliefs, or feelings and critically examining their underlying assumptions.1 It is a concept based on one's critical reflection on past experiences and the significant impact this might have on how the learner will change in his/her reaction to similar subsequent experiences.

A supervisor who adopts the transformative process is one who will encourage counselors to make a reflective assessment of their assumptions as an important step toward change. Often, changing one's assumptions serves as the precursor to breaking down barriers, a necessary step in the quest for learning. One of the most common barriers preventing effective learning and the resulting change is a negative attitude toward one's abilities as a counselor. A low level of self-efficacy will hold someone back from taking positive strides toward professional growth. A supervisor who applies the theory of transformational learning encourages the supervisee to attach meaning to his/her beliefs and reflect on that meaning. Critical reflection through dialogue often will lead to a reframing of assumptions or beliefs. This in turn will alter one's thinking and lead to the change necessary to lift self-efficacy and attain professional growth.

Many firmly believe that people are capable of making their own personal choices, no matter how significant the choices are. This concept, a precept of the philosophy of humanism, is in line with the theory that individuals must take responsibility for making choices as a prerequisite for learning. An important task of the clinical supervisor involves helping each counselor lay the groundwork for decision making and ethical practice while encouraging critical reflection.

Supervisors as learners

To foster transformative learning effectively, supervisors must become transformative learners themselves. As adult learners, supervisors must have a deep awareness of their own practice as both a clinician and a supervisor. They must expand their professional perspective through networking and dialogue with other professionals, and must be willing to learn and experience change in order to encourage others to do so.

They must encourage risk taking, promote critical self-reflection and, perhaps most importantly, build a strong supervisory alliance based on trust and a safe relational environment. They must simultaneously practice altruistic guidance and compassionate criticism.

By providing a safe, open, and collaborative atmosphere that encourages exploration among all staff members, supervisors create a rich learning experience. For this to occur, however, supervisors must provide a nurturing environment that promotes responsibility and includes recognition of each counselor's unique learning needs. Such an environment promotes open, collaborative dialogue, often a prerequisite to critical reflection and the resulting change and growth for those who participate. Allowing this to happen may reawaken passion and a desire to make personal choices that promote further motivation and change.

Thomas G. Durham, PhD, LADC, is Executive Director of The Danya Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he coordinates training programs including those delivered by the Central East Addiction Technology Transfer Center.


  1. Mezirow J. Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. Hoboken N.J.:John Wiley and Sons; 2000.