Learning from experience? A psychoanalytic perspective on teachers’ learning.

Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation or Master's Thesis

Title: Learning from experience? A psychoanalytic perspective on teachers' learning.
Year: 2007
Authors: Ramvi, E.

In this thesis the goal is to explore the conditions for 'learning from experience' among middle school teachers. I attempt to relate psychoanalyst W.R. Bion's understanding of 'learning from experience' to teachers' everyday life.

The process of learning from experience is, in Bion's understanding of the term, considered as a personal development. It is described as acknowledgement of emotions, and thought processes that lead to what Bion calls action. The opposite process is an anti- developmental one, where the person instead of 'learning from' experience, is 'learning about', that is acting as a means of avoiding thought. Failure to learn from experience is linked to fear of thinking, a lack of capability to contain feelings.

Which of the two processes a person is capable of in a frustrating situation is related to the person's tolerance of the uncertainty that exists until a thought arises. If a person does not manage this uncertainty, it is denied trough defence. This process of anti development is a process of repetition and stagnation. Working with acceptance and tolerance of feelings can be the result of an emotional experience. To learn from experience it is necessary to be able to separate feelings from action, to hold back as it were. In Bion's theory it is the space between feeling and action that is so important.

Using the same model, Bion, also describes development or anti-development in groups, Work Groups and Basic Assumptions Groups. On a Basic Assumptions level, the group culture is suffused with unspoken and unconscious assumptions shared by all the group members. In contrast the members of a Work group address the consciously defined and accepted task of the group. Bion's understanding of basic assumptions lies behind the concept of Social defence system, as Menzies Lyth describes it. The psychoanalytic way of understanding 'learning from experience' individual and in groups, is my theoretical foundation in this thesis.

My data is collected through a fieldwork inspired from 'psycho-social' method, infant observation method, and ethnographic fieldwork. Throughout my fieldwork I have studied two teachers at two different middle schools in their first year of work (2002-2003) after graduating from Teachers' Training College. I observed them in their daily life, in the classroom, in the teachers' room, and at different staff meetings. Through these two teachers, I also met their colleagues, the headmasters and the rest of the school administrations. I have collected data in two different ways: through more or less structured conversations with teachers, and by field observation. In many situations I used a Dictaphone so that I could transcribe the conversations later on. I also made field notes on a regular basis.

As I am concerned with capturing the teachers' lived experience, it was natural for me to try to present their reports in a narrative form, because that is the usual form when we tell somebody about our daily life. I have mainly been interested in the teachers' stories about

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relationships that were frustrating or challenging in some way, and I was interested in the psychological work the teacher is faced with in this particular situation. On the first level of analysis I have a phenomenological look at the material. On the second level I have a psychoanalytical interpretation framework to data emerged from the material (level 1)

My interpretation of the teachers' stories highlights the many obstacles that appears when they are exposed to strong emotions. The teachers have great difficulties in being able to act as a container for the strong feelings that arise both in them and in the students. There are signs that the teachers are more engaged in 'tackling', as in a power struggle, than in reconciling themselves to reality. It seems as if the school leaves it to the individual to process insult and vulnerability.

In my interpretation a social defence system develops on behalf of a threat to the teachers' identity. This threat is due to the difficulties in being both a professional and a person in one role, and of the frustration and vulnerability connected to the need/which to be 'one self' in the relation to the student. The defence system is a hindrance to the teachers' learning from experience. But it 'helps' the teachers to feel protected in a community where the one teachers isn't better than another, and where the teachers escape the acknowledgement of the mutual vulnerability in the relationship to the student. The teachers distance themselves from the relationship to the students in order to maintain an omnipotent relation and to avoid pain. The colleague group recognizes each other on a superficial plane, and it functions as a common denial of their emotional experience. The social defence system is a community of similarity, control and safety.

To break the social defence system the teachers have to turn to the core of the 'problem', namely the vulnerable teacher and student relationship, where the teacher feels the student can see right through them, and where there is little protection. One of the conditions for learning from experience is that the teacher recognises in him/her self and in the student the vulnerability in the relationship. The teacher has to contain the pain of his/her own fear of ignorance and helplessness in the relationship, and develop the capacity for empathy. This requires a capacity of self-reflection. It seems that the school doesn't take advantage of the potential for learning that exists in the vulnerability in the teacher-student relationship. Instead the vulnerability has laid the foundation for a social defence system that blocks learning. In my theoretical perspective it is only through development of ability for toleration of frustration that the teachers can stop distancing themselves from the relationship to the students and gather in mature collaborations with their collegues, where open criticism in the community strengthen each person's autonomy and independence.

Keywords: Learning, experience, psychoanalytic, teachers
Language: Norwegian

Date: 5/3/2007
Name of dissertation/Thesis Chair: Kirsten Weber (Chair of Examinatory Committee)
University: Roskilde University
Location: Roskilde, Denmark

Submitted by:
Elizabeth Novogratz

Corresponding author:

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