Crossing borders

Ian Florance meets Christian van Nieuwerburgh, who is, amongst other roles, Professor of Coaching and Positive Psychology at the University of East London.

One of the issues that comes up regularly in these interviews is that more communication between different areas of psychology would have huge advantages. The barriers – within the Society and between different applied and research psychologies – need to be broken down, and there is a lot to be gained by interacting with other professions and disciplines…

Christian van Nieuwerburgh’s journey shows he is a born boundary-breaker. Even his present job and the university where he works (and the other things he does, which we came on to), illustrate this point.

‘I love the School of Psychology at UEL because it’s prepared to try things out – we have a very multi-disciplinary approach to teaching and course delivery. I taught on the MSc in Coaching Psychology from 2011 till 2015: it was the first UK Master’s in the subject and, I believe, the second in the world. UEL is populated by early adopters and innovators. We have a highly diverse student and staff population, which is no coincidence. I like to typify UEL’s approach as the opposite of the ivory tower, and one of its strengths is its commitment to civic engagement. The University cares deeply about the practical impact of the work that it does.’

Making things better for the learners
Christian’s immediate route into coaching was via education and he started at UEL after experimenting with the use of coaching in educational settings in the West Midlands. ‘Professor Jonathan Passmore, now at Henley Business School, had set up the MSc at UEL and asked me to design a module called “coaching in education”. I took a bit of a professional risk, but I knew that this is what I really wanted to do.’

By its nature, coaching is a boundary-breaking application of psychological models, theories, insights and techniques. It draws practitioners from a huge variety of occupations and is applied increasingly widely. ‘As we are starting to see how powerful coaching can be, the question I ask is, how can coaching support social justice, widening participation in learning and education and narrowing the gaps in our society? Coaching, along with other applied psychologies, can serve these purposes.’

Christian initially left UEL in 2015 and, while continuing applied work as a consultant and coach, spent a year and a half at Henley Business School before returning. ‘The university had been offering popular Master’s courses in both coaching and positive psychology. There was a real upward pressure from students to create links between the two: students from each of the courses were curious about what the other group were learning. I pushed for integration and, typically, UEL were open to the idea. We eventually merged the two programmes, creating the world’s first MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology. From 2017 till now I have been Professor on the joint course as well as being Executive Director of Growth Coaching International (GCI), a global coach training provider for the education sector headquartered in Sydney, Australia.’

Christian expanded on his, as he describes it, ‘non-territorial approach’. ‘I came to psychology and coaching through education, and I’m always asking what interventions can make things better for learners. What can be imported into educational settings from anywhere else to achieve that? Much of Professor Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology, for instance, was developed in Australian schools. The combined Master’s at UEL works better than the individual programmes; what is needed now is the ability to respond quickly and to think broadly. Silos, where they exist and get in the way of what is needed, must be challenged.’

Christian notes that, as we speak, the lockdown is ‘making us think what aspects of courses we need to deliver face-to-face and what can be delivered equally well, or more effectively as distance learning. Fortunately, we’d already been innovating in this area so we’re in a very good place to keep our students learning. We’re not thinking about returning to “normal” when this is over. We will have learned better ways to teach, learn and innovate together.’

‘You need a deep understanding of context’
How Christian came to where he is now is, in itself, a story of change, movement and non-territoriality.

‘I grew up in the Civil War in Lebanon. My father was half Belgian, half British and my mother Japanese. I had an exceptionally good education at the American Community School in Beirut and was involved in running the family business – a Japanese restaurant. I loved reading and studied and achieved a BA in English from the American University of Beirut. They then set up an MA in English – there had not been one before – so I could do it. The subject of my Master’s dissertation was the sympathetic portrayal of villains in Shakespeare. I taught English at the University and all those experiences were the start of my interest in education: how more choices and options could help learners; how people learned best when they were genuinely curious about a topic; the importance of a safe learning environment.’

Tony Tanner, the literary critic and scholar of American literature, was at Christian’s defense of his MA and suggested he go to the UK, which he finally did, to take a doctorate. Despite his involvement in the family business, ‘my Mum said I did not need to feel obliged to take over the restaurant. So, I came to the UK in 1997 and took ten years to complete my supposedly three-year PhD at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. I took a number of part-time jobs including working in the box office, then becoming a marketing officer, at the Royal Shakespeare Company. From 2002 till I went to UEL I worked for local government organisations in the West Midlands and Essex.’

It was while he was working as Deputy Head of Service of the Educational Development Service at Warwickshire County Council that Christian really got interested in coaching. ‘I had responsibility for quality assurance and the performance of professional development and training programmes in schools. What became clear was that a lot of one-day courses got great reviews from the participants, were fuelled by good intentions, but seemed to have little impact back at school. It became clear to me that one person doing a course cannot change a system. What did seem to work was to provide coaching to those who had been on courses to think about how to implement their learning. Providing coaching to educational leaders also seemed promising. We ran a research project, training school students to coach each other. The experience of being taught to be a coach made real positive differences: EI scores went up; attitudes to learning improved and the students self-reported really positive outcomes. That and my work for GCI has confirmed that you need a deep understanding of context if you’re going to work in partnership with others to bring about meaningful change.’

Opening doors
‘I met Jonathan Passmore at a conference and, as I’ve mentioned, he opened the door for me to move into a position at UEL. Tony Tanner put the thought of doing a PhD in England into my mind. Before that, Jean-Marie Cook, at the American University of Beirut, thought I would be good enough to do a Master’s. In fact, a lot of my career moves and life choices have involved people opening doors for me or raising my awareness of what might be possible. I think that role is very common in all branches of psychology.’

Christian did a conversion Master’s in psychology while working at UEL. ‘I was driven partly by curiosity. Working there made me want to build up my learning and provide foundations for my coaching practice. I got interested in evolutionary psychology while on the course.’ Do coaches need to know some psychology? ‘Yes. But though you do not need to be a psychologist, you should be psychologically-minded; a lot of people who train as coaches are attracted to the area because they are naturally psychologically-minded.’ And, given your experience, should teachers become coaches? ‘Definitely.’

Christian returns to the themes of crossing borders, growing up in Lebanon. ‘At home I spoke Japanese, with friends Arabic. I went to school in Japan for a while and worked in Germany. I have always felt like a foreigner, and I do not mean that in a negative sense. Perhaps it is that feeling that allows us to find out new things and challenge the way things are done and, in turn, be challenged. I love travelling and am passionate about the importance of being inclusive. It is important to be sensitive to these issues. Five to six years ago, while teaching coaching in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Qatar I realised that many of its Western-originated, one-to-one techniques and its focus on individual achievement and goals simply cause divergence in Arabic cultures. Participants on coach training programmes sometimes thought videos of model coaching techniques, such as a typical GROW-based session, were examples of how not to do it!. I have co-written a book on coaching in Islamic cultures which reflects on this and I would love to do more work on this intercultural sensitivity.’

Unsurprisingly, Christian’s interests include travelling, and one aim is to travel long distances on his motorcycle. But for now, in a swirl of activities and interests, he’s feeling grounded. ‘Ever since I’ve been teaching at UEL, I’ve felt it’s my professional home.’

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