Getting around the Circle of Learning

One of these things is not like the others, 
One of these things just doesn’t belong, 
Can you tell which thing is not like the others 
By the time I finish my song?

Joe Raposo and Bruce Hart, Sesame Street (1969) 

Three of these things belong together 
Three of these things are kind of the same 
Can you guess which one of these doesn’t belong here? 
Now it’s time to play our game (time to play our game).

Joe Raposo and Jeff Moss, Sesame Street (1970)

In aligning sameness with belonging, and difference with not-belonging, does the foregoing Sesame Street song contribute to a “manner of thinking [that] has caused conflict among diverse groups” (“One of These Things,” 2015 ) or is that reading in the eyes of the beholder? How do we get past inborn human predispositions for discerning difference from sameness and picking out sameness across difference – these being the very capacities upon which are built all of language, communication, and thought? 

We emerge as complex, thinking, social beings as consequence of needed discernment and choice – between this way and that, a neural threshold exceeded and another not, a communication made and another foreclosed, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion, avowal and disavowal, and me and not-me. Much in the way that computer programs build up from on/off decisions to simulated realities and virtual worlds, perhaps we might find our way to better using our imaginative construing minds to resolve differences into an ever-expanding embrace of possibilities in being – emerging from a politics of identity, into living inter-sectionalities of rainbow colours, vibrantly insistent against a swirling pull to homogenised grey. 

Capacity, Trust, & Meaning

These three work in concert with structure, in community and belonging, to free up presence and keep anxiety at bay.  Where any of these three are compromised, then so too is learning.

Resolution and receptivity, openness and closure – I want them to function like dissonance and harmony, to be mutually enhancing rather than crudely opposite. Union and dispersal, the one and the many – the voice I would like to find would weave between them. It would come from the place of the third. . . . inside, below, in between, from which to experience contradictions (another way of thinking about Winnicott’s [1971] transitional experience) that gives us a different relationship to opposites. 

Benjamin, 2005, pp. 196–197

For learning to be non-trivial (i.e., more than memorising meaningless givens) in the way depicted in the Circle of Learning (see model), it asks that learners notice something not accounted for by what they currently know, and then to find a way to literally incorporate this newness into themselves without compromising who they need themselves to be to themselves, others, and the world. 

Each of us is the consequence of a life-path of choices that have literally scripted our very neural and physiological fabric.  But we also have a brain that changes itself.  We can learn ourselves into our own difference.

How does anyone even begin to get around this Circle of Learning in a way that is about self-change and do it without either losing themselves or failing altogether to resolve the sense that needs to be made?  

The critical issue is the fit between the situation of learning and the capacity, trust, and meaning that anyone can bring to it. Here, I am imagining an interrelationship between these three and the roles of structure and anxiety where trust frees capacity; meaning enlists it; structure focuses it; and anxiety inhibits it

Capacity refers to the resources that anyone can bring to the invitation of a perplexing provocation. Trust in things trustworthy – a situation, the persons present to that situation, the processes of sense-making, and oneself as capable sense-maker – makes it possible, indeed pleasurable, to dwell awhile and muck about, as needed, in the play of not-knowing, false starts and so forth, on one’s way past disillusionment to that illusive a-ha. And meaning names the salient appeal that draws a person to want to do so. From the perspective of a learner capacity affirms, “I can know,” trust says, “I am open to knowing,” and meaning says, “I want to know.” 

Importantly, because all encounters are relational ones, we can look at these three from the other side: How does the situation of learning, its circumstances – the classroom, the curriculum, the community, and all those interlacing systems containing the learner – make capacity, trust, and meaning possible for that learner? The critical role of the teacher, importantly, as witness, is at the heart of the answer to this question. An ironic consequence of realising that we are storied in relationality and steeped in affect is that our path to independence has always been dependent on another – the necessary presence of some witnessing other.  I mean another person who is not a thing, like an object in our mind, but is rather a subject never completely knowable to us. Learners grow best in the witnessing presence of teachers who are themselves subjects, able to stand in their difference whilst seeing their students in theirs. 

Taking this into consideration, we can add that it is not that the student has capacity, trust, and meaning, but rather that these three are relational functions that operate on and arise out of the inter-contextual space between the self, the dynamics of any learning situation, others present (virtually or otherwise) within and without that self, and the histories that collide, entangle, and co-emerge in the meeting. As such, capacity, trust, and meaning have everything to do with the situation of the encounter between self and world, the two poles of the model of learning, and the possibility of a generous witness holding a judging world at bay. 

Capacity

It will be noticed that capacity goes to equity and access to resources. Keep in mind that even the discourse of brain science, especially as popularised, tends to articulate capacity as intelligence but according to predetermined “values and lifestyles – the cultural capital – of white, middle-class suburban populations” (Nadesan, 2002, p. 407). The capacity of which I speak deals not only in ability, but also in privilege and, thus, necessarily invokes questions of inclusion. 

In the interests of framing responsive teaching vis-à-vis the model, it might be helpful to think about capacity, less in terms of clinically framed special needs and/ or other categories of inclusion or exclusion by which we code difference (e.g., socio-economic, cultural, linguistic, racial, gender, belief, sexual orientation, and so forth), and more in terms of their lived-out implication vis-à-vis two interrelated phenomena: (1) the prior knowing that any student brings to the learning context, including especially the degrees of fit between the, historically emerged, present self and what that learning situation “asks” and “expects” that self to do, know, be, or become and (2) the neural responsivity that any learner’s current physiology allows (the emanation of an historic interplay of self and world), including sensitivities to stimuli, stress, distractors, etcetera and the cognitive ability and agility to sustain the coupling and decoupling of categories of sameness and difference so as to conceive networks of functional perceptions and conceptions with and of the world. These are the resources to make dialectic movement possible in the first place. 

We cannot intend learning (about) something if we do not already have the capacity to be affected. This also leads to the fact that learning cannot be administratively planned. . . . The very fact that the thing to be learned is inaccessible to students prevents them from intentionally aiming at it. 

Roth, 2011, p. 248 

To say the learner can learn, is to name the capacity to intend learning and to thus make, refine, and retain discernments, based largely in analogous thought across qualities of sameness and difference. 

Trust

“Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives” (Bok, cited in Baier, 1994, p. 95). No matter one’s capacity, a deficiency of trust in self or in the situation and the other, can put a quick stop to learning. That said, there are surely times when this is appropriate. “Exploitation and conspiracy, as much as justice and fellowship, thrive better in an atmosphere of trust” (Baier, 1994, p. 95). 

A difficulty arises when, in learning, mistrust and distrust inappropriately jeopardise openness to trust again. Teachers will want to be mindful of the confidence they project about what students can or cannot do. On the one hand, too little confidence and too much compensatory structure can bespeak a lack of trust. Deemed untrustworthy, it is difficult to trust ourselves. Apprehension is contagious. On the other hand, too little structure can preclude student success and give reason not to trust either the teacher, the situation, or oneself. Students benefit when teachers can artfully fit learning invitations to learner capacity. 

Anxiety and trepidation are physiological reminders of prior lessons in mistrust that are presently going unheeded. In internalised apprehension, quicker-than-thinking nonconscious and unconscious physiologies command the scene, leaving creative attention to learning awash in turbulent affective seas. The anxious learner cannot freely engage the play of learning, cannot relax into a transitional space, in sufficient trust and control, to toggle there between imaginative construals and perceived realities – what Benjamin might describe, respectively, as the big energy of uncontained possibility tethered to a minding little energy of secure ground (2005). 

When failures-in-learning – in terms of the perceived expectations of caregivers, teachers, peers, oneself, and/or the norm – are internalised as failures-of-self or externalised as failures-of-others then mistrust and distrust beget future failures-in-learning. If I am surrounded by other students who regularly jump to right conclusions, for which I need hours to reach, it will be hard to feel included. I might trade security for recognition or vice versa, either hiding parts of myself to belong or, claiming my reality, calling out the purported reality of others. Likewise for the learning of a physical skill. For example, if, after a group ski lesson, everyone except me seems competent and confident to tackle the hill, then I will trust less in future lessons and/or my capacity to keep up. If imposed upon to believe in myself, to join the group, say on the auspices that an ideal (become ideology) of inclusion trumps my personal experience, then I am much more likely to succumb to anxiety’s constraining force and, resisting, assume a fixed-minded attitude. 

We trust when we feel embedded in systems that we can rely on to be in sufficient control, whilst having our mind in mind. If a judging and consequential world can be held at bay while everyone, including the teacher, grapples together and differently in some challenge, then I might persevere and gain trust in the doing. Given opportunity, students do rally effort and curiosity to face challenges and arrive at creative accomplishment. Indeed, we are predisposed, from birth, to do just that.

Meaning

From capacity through trust we come to meaning. That one can learn and that one feels safe doing so is hardly assurance of caring about it. There can be no “meaningful” learning without meaning – and meaning returns us to the “interpersonal event” and a world of coexistence: 

Meaning . . . is an interpersonal event. . . . Any relationship is made of multiple fields, with their corresponding multiple selves, so that at any one moment, it is possible to use language creatively about some things and not about others; and the distribution of those areas of light and darkness changes a moment later. 

(Donnel Stern, 1997/2003, pp. 110–111) 

A world is not something external to existence; it is not an extrinsic addition to other existences; the world is the coexistence that puts these existences together. 

Nancy, 1996/2000, p. 29 

Meaning, with its roots in the primal and the intersubjective, is that which spawns desire to engage learning in the first place and to sustain efforts over the long haul. When there is meaning and movement in learning, one can lose oneself in its flow. It’s as if the body with its biologically reinforcing reward systems (e.g. dopamine, serotonin) takes over and we happily lose ourselves in immersive doing. This is engagement at its simplest and most exhilarating. But when there is meaning, but movement is frustrated, one will need to rally fortitude, perseverance, and resilience to press through. This is as relevant to the seemingly tedious or mundane task as to the glorified challenge. 

A task will be meaningful for any number of manifold reasons; and those reasons, as have been belaboured throughout this book, will always be rooted in the unconscious, always related to the other, and (contrary to current best-practices rhetoric) hardly limited to whether the task is set in a real-life context. Why anything is meaningful or not, engaging or not, is practically inaccessible to consciousness. Meaning is the domain of the unconscious. If pressed to say why one does anything, the tale one can tell, while related to implicit motivation, is not amenable to linear reduction. In particular, the reasons typically given for not-learning are more related to the very defences serving to justify and maintain dissociation in the first place. 

Meaning turns on personal value, and personal value turns on how one has come to know oneself as “of value.” Storied in relationality, steeped in affect (Chapter 6) meanings take their shape in the unfolding narrative of interpersonal relationships, seeded in and emerging out of early-life possibilities, and what one learned to do, be, and know to sustain ongoing value, self-coherence, self-continuity, and agency. 

Where the task of learning is meaningful to the student, then that student will, in the language of psychology, be intrinsically motivated to persevere – assuming, of course, that he trusts the effort is not futile and trusts that, if by chance success eludes him, he is not the failure – that failures in knowing and/or doing are not failures in being.

___________

References

Benjamin, J. (2005). From many into one: Attention, energy, and the containing of multitudes. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 15(2), 185–201. 

Nancy, J.-L. (2000). Being singular plural (R. D. Richardson & A. E. O’Bryne, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (Original work published 1996) 

One of these things. (2015, October 4). https://sites.psu.edu/aspsy/2015/10/04/www-youtube-comwatchvkzci3eoafk0/

Raposo, J., & Hart, B. [Sesame Street]. (1969). One of these things [lyrics]. New York, NY: EMI Music Publishing. Lyrics retrieved from https://mojim.com/usy129026x6x51.htm 

Raposo, J., & Moss, J. [Sesame Street]. (1970). Three of these things belong together [lyrics]. New York, NY: EMI Music Publishing. Lyrics retrieved from https://mojim.com/ usy129026x6x51.htm 

Roth, W.-M. (2011). Passibility: At the limits of the constructivist metaphor. New York, NY: Springer. 

Stern, D. B. (2003). Unformulated experience: From dissociation to imagination in psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Routledge. (Reprint of original 1997 publication) 

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