The issue of whether group classes, as opposed to individual lessons, is a better or an equally valid way of teaching the Alexander Technique, has been discussed since the 1970s. This entry only considers the debate on the pros and cons of teaching the Technique in groups. For teaching in groups in general, see Group teaching.
The term ‘group class’ is not properly defined in any of the literature, either 1) in terms of number 2) or in terms of the difference between teaching a whole group and giving a lecture/demonstration to a group or 3) teaching an individual in front of a group and asking people to practise what has been demonstrated. These approaches are debatable but rarely addressed in the literature and this is confusing the debate. So, for example, what may appear to one person to be group teaching may – to another person – appear to be a lecture/demonstration or individual work in a group setting. A teachers’ training course can be considered a group, although teachers work individually with students, with or without other students observing. Teachers training courses historically have a high teacher:student ratio (STAT requires 1:5), and often group classes for people who have not had lessons have a less high teacher:pupil ratio.
Alexander taught individually, although occasionally in a group setting. In his unfinished autobiographical sketch he relates teaching nineteen students in class in a theological college. By his description it would appear that he worked individually with each student as a demonstration of his method, and he ‘was able to help them’, but ‘not by any means as much as I wanted to’. Goddard Binkley, in his diaries of lessons with F. M. Alexander writes in his entry for 11 July 1951: ‘I learned . . . that Alexander had tried working with pupils as a group but had found this unsatisfactory.’
The only other group teaching (as far as we know) that Alexander did was at the Little School and his teachers training course, in both cases working with each person in turn.
In the UK teachers started group classes in the 1970s as an introductory to the Alexander Technique, frequently stating that it was not a substitute for private lessons. In the US, around 1970 Marjorie Barstow started teaching in large groups, at all levels, instead of private lessons.
Teaching in a group setting has continued as the favourite setting for teaching the Alexander Technique by all teachers trained by – or inspired by – Marjorie Barstow. Teachers by other traditions tend to use group teaching as an alternative or an adjunct to individual lessons.
Many arguments have been put forward as to the pros and cons of group work. However, it is generally agreed that the skills of the teacher to conduct a group class is different from those needed for an individual lesson.
Arguments for group work include:
- that participants learn the principles more readily by observing how they are being applied by other people;
- that it trains observational skills;
- that it encourages questioning and discussion;
- that it reduces the pupil’s experience of relying on the teacher’s touch to bring about change;
- that volunteers from the audience can help to recreate a situation from everyday life which a pupil wants to work with.
Arguments against group work include:
- that it make participants believe that merely by observing they are learning the Technique,
- that the activities chosen by participants for the application of the Technique are frequently performance-oriented (skill-enhancement), and thus evades the fact that the Technique needs to be practised in daily life, in all activities,
- that it may bring about a group pressure on an individual to answer ‘correctly’;
- that eliciting feedback may encourage an over-reliance on feeling, and – depending on how the questions are phrased – may amount to suggestion;
- that it only provides a single ‘aha’ experience as opposed to the continuous conscious projection of the directions for 30–40 minutes in most private lessons.
There are many more articles on the advantages of group classes than on the disadvantages. Examples of further arguments for and against:
Group teaching can replicate a performance situation because there is an audience. It can be used to deal with stagefright. A group situation may enhance people’s attention because there is the focus of the whole group.
Edward Bouchard, 1988.
A new experience in an individual lesson may happen so fast that the pupil has no time to digest what is happening.
Jeremy Chance, 1988.
What I do with Maureen affects everyone’s thinking process; what they see Maureen do as she makes changes reinforces their understanding how their thinking is affecting their movement. This dynamic interaction is the key to the success of group glasses.
Catherine Madden, 1988.
Frankly, until some careful research is done on the comparative effectiveness of different teachers and their approaches, we simply don’t know if an approach is “good” or “bad”.
Chris Stevens, 1988.
So, one of the things I mean when I say, “Let’s get rid of ‘group teaching’”, is to let’s get rid of the name ‘group teaching’. . . . My recommendation for a new name to describe the process of teaching used in this kind of experiential lesson work is the ‘Interactive Teaching Method’.
Don Weed, 1992.
These teachers are putting hands on a shoulder or neck for a few seconds and announcing, “Look, what a change!” and trying to convince teachers that changes did occur. Their words are addressed mostly to young teachers who do not understand that changes can take place only through a long and hard work process, not in a hocus-pocus of five or six seconds.
Misha Magidov, 1995.
If the Alexander Technique is presented as something everybody can learn in groups . . . then people will feel entitled to make a judgement about the Technique after a group session. There is rarely any opportunity for people to have a delayed experience if the group session is conducted in such a way as to imply that you should feel any change immediately (leaving aside the situations where people may feel a change but may not be able to report it instantly, for a variety of reasons: lack of vocabulary, embarrassment in front of an audience, etc.). The issues of 1. asking leading questions, making suggestions, and 2. relying on people’s sensory appreciation for accurate answers, are important issues which, to the best of my knowledge, have not been addressed in any discussion of group teaching . . .
Jean M. O. Fischer, 2018.
‘To group or not to group’ by Edward Bouchard.
‘The value of group teaching’ by Jeremy Chance.
‘What would happen if’ by Catherine Madden.
‘On Group Teaching’ by Chris Stevens.
‘Let’s get rid of “group teaching”!’ by Don Weed.
‘After-shocks in the wake of the 4th International Congress’ by Misha Magidov.
‘Alexander and group work’ by Robert Rickover quotes from various sources of examples of Alexander having taught in groups.
‘The case for and against teaching beginners in groups’ by Miriam A. Wohl lists eight pros and cons.
‘A tale of two paradigms’ by Jeremy Chance characterises and differentiates between two approaches: F. M. Alexander’s as the teacher giving us ‘the experience so that we can begin thinking for ourselves, and Marjorie Barstow’s as learning to think so ‘we can give ourselves the experience’.
‘Working with groups’ by Lee Warren.
‘Group teaching and learning from the words of beginners’ by Cathy Madden.
STATNews May 2017 was dedicated to articles on the benefits of group teaching: ‘Working successfully with groups’ by Lee Warren, ‘To group or not to group’ by Gideon Benari, ‘To teach a group AT class, you need to know group teaching works!’ by Cathy Madden, ‘Do’s and don’t’s’ by Grant Ragsdale, ‘Talking to groups does change things’ by Jill Payne, ‘Group work and training Alexander teachers’ by Brita Forsstrom, ‘Un-seriousness and going deeper’ by Pam Mason, ‘Thoughts on prviate vs group lessons’ by Refia Sacks, ‘Some whys and wherefores of working with groups’ by Sue Fleming et al.
Letters on the pros and cons of group teaching have appeared regularly in STATNews.
Letters by Brita Forsstrom, Marjory Barlow, Robert Rickover, Walton L. White, Sue Pepper, Marian Goldberg, Carolyn Simon, Grant Ragsdale, Shirley Crawford in STATNews vol. 5, no. 1 (1998).
Letters by Robert Rickover, Jean M. O. Fischer in STATNews vol. 5, no. 2 (1998), pp. 4–5.
Letters by Marian Goldberg, John Gray in STATNews vol. 5, no. 3 (1999), p. 7.
Letters by Marjory Barlow, Grant Ragsdale, Robert Rickover in STATNews vol. 5, no. 4 (1999).
‘Group issues not addressed’ letter by Jean M. O. Fischer.