Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Facilitating Systemic Change Using the MRI Problem-Solving Approach: One School's Experience

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Facilitating Systemic Change Using the MRI Problem-Solving Approach: One School's Experience

Article excerpt

More than a quarter century ago, Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (1974), affiliated with the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California, challenged the complexity of therapeutic theories. In their book Change, they presented a relatively straightforward approach to problem solving, an approach whose "basic principles are few, simple, and general" (p. 158). The approach had just four steps: "(a) a clear definition of the problem in concrete terms; (b) an investigation of the solutions attempted so far; (c) a clear definition of the concrete change to be achieved; and (d) the formulation and implementation of a plan to produce this change" (p. 110).

In a follow-up book, The Tactics of Change, Fisch, Weakland, and Segal (1982) presented numerous therapy cases to illustrate the four steps in action. Despite its potential for broad use, applications of the MRI problem-solving approach have primarily been limited to individuals, couples, and families in therapy (Nardone & Watzlawick, 1993). When applied in schools, the problem-solving approach has been directed primarily toward helping individual students change (Amatea, 1989; Littrell, Malia, & Vanderwood, 1995; Molnar & Lindquist, 1989).

In the final chapters of both Change and The Tactics of Change, however, the authors hinted that the problem-solving approach need not be limited to therapy. Watzlawick et al. (1974) stated that "our approach to problem formation and resolution is by no means limited to clinical cases, but has much wider applicability in most areas of human interaction" and "there is no reason why [the basic principles of the MRI approach] cannot be applied regardless of the size of the social system involved" (p. 158). The potential for wider application has not been realized, we believe, because counselors and therapists continue to focus narrowly on the individual or a very small group as the unit of change (Fisch & Schlanger, 1999). While the MRI approach treats change in a systemic fashion, the impact of change has typically been limited to those changes in the immediate context of the person or group.

The untapped potential of the MRI approach became obvious to us several years ago when we studied the work of Claudia Vangstad, an elementary school counselor. Based on our detailed ethnographic examination of Vangstad's exemplary work, we subsequently described how she facilitated the transformation of a school culture (Peterson & Littrell, 2000), proposed a model of an exemplary school counselor (Littrell & Peterson, 2001b), focused on the establishment of a comprehensive group work program (Littrell & Peterson, 2001a), and detailed her capability of creating partnerships (Peterson & Littrell, in press). We marveled at how she had begun to fulfill the promise of the MRI model by expanding its range of application across an entire school.

In this article, we detail how Vangstad significantly increased her effectiveness by not limiting applications of the MRI problem-solving approach to individuals, but rather by expanding the range of the approach to include larger units: psychoeducational groups, classrooms, and playgrounds. Perhaps most importantly, Vangstad employed the MRI approach in thinking theoretically and systemically about the entire school. Consequently, her interventions maximized meaningful change.

To illustrate how Vangstad expanded the MRI problem-solving approach within the context of an elementary school, the next four sections will parallel the four steps of the MRI approach (i.e., defining the problem, investigating attempted solutions, clarifying the desired changes, and establishing and implementing a plan). Within each section, we will illustrate how she was able to apply the MRI approach to each of three problems. We conclude with a discussion of how counselors can apply this expanded MRI problem-solving approach in their schools.

Step 1: Defining the Problem

Claudia Vangstad worked in a small Oregon town. …

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