A Capacity to Learn?

An analysis of learning...

There has been a great deal of writing and research amongst educationalists about the topic of learning and learning through experience.  I have spent many an inset and training course considering how to build upon student experiences to bring the learning alive.  It seems clear that getting students to use real-world examples is the panacea to many pedagogical problems.  

But what if the experience of learning itself is a painful and traumatic one?


I am left wondering whether it is enough to deliver the Dweckian messages of motivation and mindset.  I wonder whether being told to dig deep or be more resilient is enough.

I guess I have been preoccupied with how well my students will have performed in their exams and wondering how well they knew the material and understood the course.  Some had become memory machines and learned the textbook off by rote but I doubt they will have done as well as they should.

Others knew far fewer facts but had a much better insight into the issues and debates.  Whilst a third group were perfectly able but for a myriad of reasons, they did not heed the advice and play the long game and their revision was last minute and fairly haphazard.  The latter group will have been very dependent on the question and I fear they may not have responded well to the exam stimuli.  I was left wondering why students had such different approaches to study and whether these three archetypes tell us more about how they cope with the anxiety of learning. These coping mechanisms had not existed throughout the course, they had taken hold once we had reached the final furlong.  What made them respond in this way?  What role did I play and what can I do to have more in the second rather than first or last camp?

A psychodynamic approach provides a range of concepts and descriptive mechanisms for examining the capacity to learn from experience. A consideration of conscious and unconscious aspects of learning helps us to consider the topic in a new light. A psychodynamic approach suggests that a person’s ability to learn depends on the kind of learning experienced in our earliest relationships.

Learning in infancy

Melanie Klein (1928) suggests that infants are born with an ‘epistemophillic instinct’: the infant impulsively wants to know more about its surroundings, in particular its primary carer or mother. With support, this curiosity can develop into what Klein calls a thirst for knowledge, a desire to learn and know about things other than the mother, a desire to explore and experiment.

Klein (1946) suggests that a main feature of infancy is the concept of projective identification. This mechanism describes how the infant copes with the unbearable anxieties of this stage of development. When the anxieties are too much to bear they are pushed outwards into another.  

Wilfred Bion (1962) develops these ideas further with the concept of containment. The mother becomes a container for the child’s projected anxieties and this process enables the infant to bear his frustrations and feel that anxiety and pain are more manageable. The container/contained relationship is the true foundation for all learning, which is established, in the earliest phases of development in the mother-child dyad. In this process, the mother is able to bear the infant’s anxieties and hand them back in a more manageable and tolerable form. This experience allows the infant to introject feelings of being able to cope and it holds onto these feelings internally as it develops its own capacity to be containing.

The process of containment enables the infant to develop an internal world, which contains holding figures. The infant begins to develop the ability of self-containment. The infant internalises not only a container but also a mind, a space for thinking, the ability to hold thoughts, and a capacity to learn from experience.

Bion’s theory of thinking identifies the containing relationship between mother and child as a prototype for learning and future relationships. Bion suggests that there is a relationship between a state of mind and types of learning. The ultimate type of learning is learning from experience: this means being able to bear the anxieties associated with learning whilst reflecting on one’s experiences to make sense of the world around them. This type of learning can only happen when someone is in an introjective state of mind, which is located in an individual’s earliest experiences of learning. The infant who is able to bear frustration will be able to draw on his own resources; in Bion’s view, the infant is having his own thoughts and building a learning apparatus. Future learning opportunities will require a similar state of mind for learning through experience.

In contrast, an individual who is in a paranoid-schizoid state of mind will fuel a more adhesive style of learning where ‘having’ knowledge becomes a substitute for real learning. An example of adhesive learning would be rote learning or memorizing a collection of facts. This process of acquiring knowledge becomes a means of avoiding the anxieties, which may be stirred up when you learn from experience. The act of ‘having’ a piece of knowledge feeds into a phantasy of omniscience and omnipotence as a defense against not knowing or being starved of thought.

A psychoanalytic approach to learning and development rejects the linear models of development and instead favours a ‘states of mind’ approach. Bion (1963) develops our understanding of these positions by the notation PS«D, which represents continuous movement between the two positions (paranoid-schizoid and depressive states). Internal development is not necessarily a linear path and may involve some fluctuation between the two positions. Emotional growth involves ‘catastrophic change’ and ever-shifting mental states.

I am left wondering whether it is enough to deliver the Dweckian messages of motivation and mindset.  I wonder whether being told to dig deep or be more resilient is enough.  I wonder whether students also need someone to hold and experience some of the pain associated with learning.  I am not advocating that we become emotional sponges for our students, nor that we do it for them or take the pain away.  We to develop a language to talk about the anxieties surrounding learning and reflect on the important role of containment and what type of containers we need to be.


Bion, W. (1962) Learning from Experience. London: Heineman.

Bion, W. (1963) Elements of Psycho-Analysis. London: Heineman.

Canham, H and Youell, B. (2001) The developmental and educational context: The emotional experience of learning in Barwick, N. (ed) Clinical Counselling in Schools. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Klein, M. (1946) Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. In M. Klein (Ed.) Love, Guilt and Reparation and other works 1921 – 1945. London: Hogarth, 1975.

Salzberger-Wittenberg, I. (1999) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching. London: Karnac.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Stephen Hickman and published with kind permission.

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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