Journal of Nursing Education


Teaching Feminist Group Process Within a Nursing Curriculum

Elizabeth Banister, RN, PhD; Rita Schreiber, RN, DNS



Nurse educators are challenged to develop emancipatory teaching approaches that will create opportunities for studente to develop their own praxis. In particular, the authors faced the challenge of teaching feminist group process within a curriculum based on phenomenology, feminism, and critical social theory. In this article, we discuss the challenges and rewards of teaching nursing and other students about feminist procees through the creation of experiential learning opportunities. In addition, we highlight recommendations based on our own praxis.



Nurse educators are challenged to develop emancipatory teaching approaches that will create opportunities for studente to develop their own praxis. In particular, the authors faced the challenge of teaching feminist group process within a curriculum based on phenomenology, feminism, and critical social theory. In this article, we discuss the challenges and rewards of teaching nursing and other students about feminist procees through the creation of experiential learning opportunities. In addition, we highlight recommendations based on our own praxis.

As nursing education moves toward curriculum revolution, nurse educators are challenged to develop an emancipatory praxis (Alien, 1990; Attridge, 1996; Beviti & Watson, 1989; Rentschler & Spegman, 1996-, WaIUm, 1996). Emancipatory pedagogy involves the instructors and learners in collaborative co-learning in which both create and enact the learning experience. Bringing this approach to ufe within nursing education can be a challenge for nurse educators

Faculty at the University of Victoria are part of a collaborative, home-grown curriculum developed in 1992 (Attridge, 1996; Hule & Lindsey, 1994). This curriculum is shared among the schools of nursing of 10 partner colleges, uxovereity colleges, and the University- The curriculum is baaed on the philosophical perspectives of phenomenology, feminism, and critical social theory, which provide the foundation for students' learning of people's experiences of health, health promotion, caring, empowerment, and healing. Within the Collaborative Curriculum, curriculum is denned as "interactions that take place between and among students, clients, practitioners, and teachers, with the intent that learning take place" (Lindsey & Sheilds, 1997, section 1, p. 11). The collaborative nursing curriculum of British Columbia has been described in detail elsewhere (Attridge, 1996; Hills & Luidsey, 1994).

The (Ad)Venture

It was within this particular context that we were faced with the challenge of teaching group process. As in most undergraduate nursing programe, the couree on group dynamics includes rolee, leadership styles, and conflict resolution. However, we felt a cognitive approach was insufficient for students to grasp the meaning of feminist process; they needed to experience it. This learning, which involved an enactment of the curriculum philosophy, would provide an opportunity for students to develop alternative ways of being within groups in their present and future work settings.

Although the group process course was required for nursing students, it was designed for an interdisciplinary student group that would mimic the interdisciplinary diversity within work environments. Two sections DÎ the course were offered concurrently, for 3 hours per week for 1 semester. Bach class of 20 to 30 students consisted of fourth-year nursing students as well as several undergraduates from social work, child and youth care, women's studies, and arts and Bciencea.

We felt it was imperative to act in a way that demonstrated and explicated the feminist values and assumptions embedded within the curriculum. To begin, we challenged our own beliefs and assumptions as feminists and instructors in developing a critical teaching praxis to discover if we were acting congruently with our beliefs or whether we were acting in a way that we expected our students to act. Although both oí the authora had taught within the Collaborative Curriculum, student situations provided ongoing challenges to ways we would enact our feminist beliefs on a daily basis.

In addition to engaging in our own processes of critical reflection, part of our task was to engage and challenge the assumptions of students who came to the course with preconceived ideas regarding feminist group process. Some held negative ideas based on their experiences with feminist process in previous coursework, viewing feminist process as en ideal that could never happen in the "real" world. Others felt, as committed feminists, there was nothing more they could learn about feminist group process. To demystify these différences in perspective, the authors explicitly challenged students to temporarily suspend their beliefs and be open to whatever may unfold in the course. It was within this context that the adventure began.

Getting Started

Ae instructors for this newly developed course, the authors sought assistance from a variety of sources. A search of the literature revealed ß paucity of information on feminist group process, except on using the feminist concepta to foster caring in the classroom (Grigsby & Megel, 1995; Biggins, 1996). While these authors' values paralleled our own, they provided little practical advice. Only one article offered spécifie, helpful examples for teaching and applying feminist process in the classroom (Schniedewind, 1993). We suspect that while other nurse educators are likely teaching feminist group procese, few have published their experiences.

Somewhat discouraged, we contacted a number of feminist nurses who offered their personal support. Having limited external assistance forced us to rely on our own understandings of how to teach an emancipatory process using a approach that was itself intended to be emancipatory. However, the knowledge gained from our teaching and helping practices and our own diverse experiences turned out to be ample resources. For example, our experience allowed us to provide reassurance to students that the discomfort they were feeling about having their beliefs and assumptions of group process challenged was an important part of their transformational learning experience (Brookfield, 1987; Mezirow, 1991; Schon, 1987).

How We Did It

Coming to class the first day, the authors had little planned activities for the course. Without having experienced a course such as this in our own educational experiences, we could only imagine what students would need to fully appreciate feminist process. We agreed on a few teaching principles that would be touchstones for classroom activities. These are summarized in the Sidebar on this page.

The course structure was based on feminist group principles as outlined in Chinn'a (1995) Peace and Power: Building Communities far the Future. The acronym PEACE (which stands for Praxis, Empowerment, Awareness, Consensus, and Evolving) and its applicability for all group work was emphasized in each class. According to Chinn (1995), consensus is an active commitment to group solidarity and integrity in which each individual's viewpoint is welcomed and respected. Both check-in* and rotating chairt are designed to help equalize power among group participants, in that each person's voice is heard and valued (Chinn, 1995). Despite the time involved, consensus promotes a creative and highly satisfying form of group decision-making. Class discussion often challenged students to consider ways in which feminist principles could be used to improve some of their working relationships. In this way, students were encouraged to understand feminist process as applicable in the real world when promoted in small steps. As instructors, we promoted praxis in helping the students translate the PEACE acronym into their everyday lives.

Indeed, the authors had the opportunity to demonstrate the PEACE process at the beginning of the first class of the term when each class had to decide in what way to form small discussion groups. Because class experience as well as the data for assignments involved working in groups, group formation was needed. It was the authors' preference, based on our teaching experience as well as our understandings of feminist process, that groups be diverse regarding professional discipline and previous familiarity with other members. Because we believed that such diversity encouraged meaningful student learning, our preference for random assignment to groups was articulated early in the discussion. However, we made it clear each person had equal input into the decision, which we facilitated through the use of consensus (Chinn, 1995). This process took more than 1 hour and proved to be a valuable learning experience because multiple perspectives and strategies for forming groups were proposed. In the end, students decided to be randomly numbered into discussion groups of five to six people each, with whom they would work throughout the term. The immediate use of consensus formation within the classroom helped to create an atmosphere of trust and honesty.

After consensus was reached, we facili* tated a discussion of the process of reach* ing consensus. By doing so, we helped some students recognize and articulate their orientation toward a desired end outcome rather than in the foregoing process. In this discussion, we helped students become aware of their frustration related to their need to "just get on with it." Our immediate attention to the group process actualized the feminist process and helped to demystify their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the consensus activity.

This consensus-building exercise engaged the students and helped them understand the feminist proceas. It also was the basis for other activities designed to build on this learning. One important activity was the use of three consecutive discussion units throughout the course. Each discussion unit contained three parts and was based on the topical readings for the week. For example, a discussion unit topic may be listening or diversity. Students would come to their small groups prepared with a question that was intriguing to them regarding the readings. The question was designed to promote critical reflection and further discussion of the topic under considération. Each small group would then consider each participant's question and, through use of consensus, develop a question that would represent the group. This group question then was shared with the larger group, and in the ensuing discussion, a consensus waa reached in formulating an overarching question that represented the entire class. One large group developed an intriguing question after discussion on readings regarding listening skills: "Why do we (still) need to teach listening skills to members of the helping professions?"

After the large group discussion, each small group then would explore and consider their group process as the group developed its common question. Consideration of the discussion unit process, along with reflections in a journal, formed the data for a major course assignment in which students critically reflected on their individual group experiences and the extent to which this process mirrored (or did not mirror) feminist principles.

The discussion unit process highlighted the diversity of group members' perspectives of the readings. For example, one group, composed of four women and two men, was surprised at the variation in perspectives between the two men regarding a particular reading on listening. One of the men found an article offensive in making what he saw as generalizations regarding men not being good listeners. The other man acknowledged this concern but saw some truth in the generalization as well. The authors took this opportunity to help the group explore this conflict and use this as a rich learning experience.

Another key assignment waa students' personal projects. Students were encouraged to identify an area or issue that could enhance their effectiveness in groups. Students were invited to meet individually with the instructor to help identify a focus for the project. For example, some students wanted to work on identifying and addressing conflict more directly than in their past practices. One woman was aware of her fear of rejection if she voiced her concerns. She recognized this was based on patriarchal assumptions and family experiences in which her voice had not been valued. Despite her fears, this woman came to recognize this learning environment provided an opportunity for her to make some small change toward speaking out in a respectful way. Early in this student's small group experience, two other members addressed a conflict openly. Although she waa highly uncomfortable at the tune, this student later shared her fears as well as her appreciation for the group members' openness in addressing their conflict so respectfully. Indeed, the authors noticed a transformation in this student's confidence and willingness to engage openly in class discussions.

Although we did not expect such transformations, we were surprised at the changes noticed in many students. The personal project was intended to increase students' awareness of themselves in a group, rather than create a change in behavior. Students were encouraged to share their personal projects with others only when and if they felt comfortable. When students felt safe to share their projects, they showed their vulnerability, which was an important step in their learning. This sharing often was not easy, and the authors acknowledged our own difficulty as members of a helping profession in revealing our vulnerability. Students often were relieved that this risk taking resulted in group members offering both support and operational strategies to help one another with their projects.

Other experiential classroom activities, both verbal and nonverbal, were designed to engage studente in interactive processes that demonstrated feminist principles. Many of the most powerful learning exercises were nonverbal. When reviewing the course, students mentioned one exercise in particular as meaningful in their learning. For this exercise, which was conducted early in the term, each small group was given a piece of large, colored paper. They were encouraged to keep an open mind and let go of any expectations of an end result. They were to "trust the process." Students were instructed this was a nonverbal exercise and each group would be creating an animal from the piece of paper. To do this, each group member took turns making a tear in the paper, which would eventually result in the shape of an animal. This was challenging to those students who had an animal in mind from the beginning. Some were surprised at their need to take control of the group activity. For example, in one group, a member imagined an elephant and made efforts to direct the process. At the same time, another group member made minimal changes on the page until the end, when she made a bold and lengthy tear that resulted in a whale. In processing the activity afterward, some students were surprised at the roles they assumed, having been unaware of their own goal orientation and strategies. This proved to be a valuable and fun learning activity for most students. It also increased awareness of self and built group cohesion.

The authors designed verbal learning activities based on course topics and the concepts of PEACE (Chinn, 1995). In each class, students met with their small groups to engage in a task designed to promote group process. To raise student awareness of the group's process, critical questions often were posed regarding issues auch aa conflict or group roles for reflection and discussion euch as, "How have your professional experiences influenced your perceptions of conflict?" or "What influence may socialization processes for women have had on your beliefs about conflict?". This often led to more in depth consideration of group interactions and underlying issues. For example, discussion units proved to be central within the course. In time, students' needs to engage in and discuss their group's process began to take precedence, and they wanted less guidance and structure from the instructors. When this occurred, we respected this need and altered the class agenda to meet these needs.

To encapsulate each group's experience, the authors assigned a final presentation. For the presentation, each group created a metaphor that symbolically represented their group and its process. The groups presented their metaphors to the clase during the anal days of the term. The groups' process of creating their metaphor added further group experience and helped consolidate their development. The task of having to work together for this assignment accelerated the group process in response to the assignment requirements.

Groups showed considerable imagination in the metaphors selected and in the ways they presented them to the class. For example, one group created a amali quilt in which group members made squares representing their learning. Another group presented a five-legged chair, with each leg representing a group member's contribution to the group, and each part of the chair symbolizing parts of the group's learning in relation to the PEACE process. A third group used completely nonverbal role playing to demonstrate the process of creating sustenance by planting and harvesting a mock garden and serving the fruite of their labors. The authence was drawn into experiencing the group's process as they were nonverbally invited to participate, and members of the audience gained both a cognitive and emotional awareness of this group's procesa.


As mentioned earlier in this article, there were challenges in teaching this course from the very beginning. One student, who found herself in a group with someone with whom she had ongoing difficulties, originally believed she would be comfortable in this situation. Nonetheless, in discussing this with the authors in confidence, she later realized she was more uncomfortable than she had acknowledged, and we could see how unsafe the situation was for her. After considering the alternatives, including the student changing sections of the course, we agreed the group should be disbanded and members assigned to other groups. This created initial confusion, and some negative feelings directed at us, because students were somewhat mystified at not knowing the details of the situation. However, we felt that maintaining confidentiality for this particular student was in her best interests and the only ethical choice.

Another challenge was the wayls) in which conflict emerged within the groups throughout the course. The main challenge for us as instructors was the assumption, on the part of many students, that conflict was something negative and to be avoided. This assumption usually was based on their experiences in patriarchal Bettings, some of which included violence and lack of safety. The authors acknowledged that, as instructors and feminists, we value conflict because it surfaces the diversity within a group and promotes acceptance of differences and group cohesion. By assisting students work through conflicts honestly and respectfully, we were able to help them develop new meanings for conflict and its potential for increasing interpersonal intimacy. For example, for one group which consulted one of the authors, working through a conflict was an epiphany experience for each group member to realize that conflict could be experienced positively.

To any class, each person brings past experiences and interpersonal styles of relating. Sometimes these interpersonal styles clash within classroom contexts, usually surfacing first as criticism of the instructor. This can be a safe form of expression of conflict that diverts attention from the issues within the small group. Tn these circumstances, we have found it useful to identify the roots of the conflict rather than take personal offense. Whenever this has occurred, the authors have attempted to direct the conflict back to the group in a way that encourages students to identify the issue as one of their own group dynamics. One way to do this is to help students revisit the Principles of Unity they formulated earlier in the term so group members can compare their own behaviors to those which they profess and take personal responsibility, and engage in critical reflection on their role in the group's conflict. Principies of Unity are statements of group values, beliefs, and guiding principles by which the group members agree to conduct themselves. Principles of Unity evolve and are refrained as a group develops.

What Have We Learned?

Everyone involved has found this course to be an invaluable learning experience that challenges basic beliefs and assumptions relating to one's understandings of self and others. To conduct such a couree effectively, instructors must be prepared to engage in critical reflection regarding the congruence of their behaviors with the principles of PEACE (Chinn, 1995). Self-awareness, which is not easy, is pivotal in this course. Instructors can demonstrate self-awareness by providing examples and otherwise articulating thoughts and feelings. For example, one instructor spoke of her increasing awareness of her own discomfort with behaving incongruently with her own feminist values and how this discomfort helped her to make changes in her behavior.

The authors found that having two of us teaching different sections of the course during the term provided each of us with support and consultation. We each attended at least half of each other's classes. This allowed UB to understand how each class was unfolding and to pool our resources in developing learning exercises and class materials. In addition, this provided a participant-observer's perspective on our own teaching styles and on the groups' development. An additional bonus was that, in case of teacher illness, studente in both classes had established relationships with both teachers so substitution presented no problems.

This collaborative approach helped each of us to appreciate the complex and sometimes problematic ways in which conflict emerged in each of our classes. For example, it happened that a group became locked in an unaddreseed conflict that was demonstrated by poor attendance and disengagement from the group. As instructors we identified that there was a problem, but members of this group insistently reassured us that there was no problem. This required us to step back and trust the group's process but be available wheo aeeded. It wee only et the end of the term, when they were preparing their metaphor presentation, that members of this group recognized what they had missed in their learning by not having acknowledged and addressed their conflict. This awareness came to the instructor's attention when some group members sought her assistance. In hindeight, both the authors and the student groupe realized that, despite the group's insistence that they did not need our help, we could have gently addressed our perceptions that indeed there was conflict within the group.

Partly as a result of this situation, the authors have decided to introduce the concept of conflict early in the course. This reminds students that conflict is a natural part of any interpersonal relationship, that the instructors expect it to occur, and that it needs to be understood as an opportunity for personal and group growth. In addition, before conflict emerges, we want to prepare students by providing them with some cognitive tools for transforming it. Our hope is that after conflict emerges, students can recognize its characteristics and have some skills to use which may be harder to learn when they are feeling vulnerable. Much of this preparation will be in highlighting the use of Chinn's (1995) strategies for equalizing power and respecting diversity (e.g., rotating chair, check-in, closing, consensus, Principles of Unityl so the connection between equalization of power and conflict transformation can be made.


Teaching feminist group process has been a positive experience for the authors as c o- learners and co-instructors. However, we recognize that the particular challenges, presented in conducting such a course in the way we have described may not prove attractive to everyone. In considering whether or not to teach this kind of course, one may want to consider one's own personal resources and supports. We believe teaching a course such as this requires the instructor's willingness to engage in intense critical reflection throughout the term. To conclude, it is our belief that teaching an experiential course on feminist group process can provide valuable learning opportunities for both students and instructors.


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