Not-Learning: Coping by dissociating

There will be times when movement around the circle of learning comes to a stop, either at the “huh?” or the “a-ha!” Either the learner can’t see anything to notice or can’t put it together with what he/she/they already know(s). Of course, this happens a lot. The important thing is what anyone does about it.

As we learn and grow into adults, the more we know. This makes for more to dismantle if and when that knowing comes into question. And, the more our very identity and worth depend upon present knowing, the more threatening can be any such dismantling. Under threat, we will have developed favoured strategies, as justifications for, and defences against not-knowing. We can keep potential incoherences at bay by bracketing some parts of our knowing from other, potentially conflicting, parts.

This idea of bracketing some parts of our knowledge from other parts shows up in such peculiarities and common occurrences as, for example, a student (mis)applying a math rule and not noticing the strangeness of concluding that 3000 kilometres = 3 metres (bracketing school work from practical life). More broadly, we tend to privilege and bracket our immediate world against distant realities. For instance, we may, on the one hand, know ourselves as both a fortunate and caring person and, on the other hand, turn a blind eye to those far less fortunate souls upon whom whom our good fortune depends. To hold both a self-identity as good and actions seemingly less good, we may bracket these two forms of knowledge or fathom some justification for such differences as somehow deserving. This phenomenon has made its way into common parlance in the notion of cognitive dissonance.

The most profound lessons on what to do begin in the first years of life. Studies in attachment show how, in our interactions with caregivers, we develop ways of coping when things are puzzling. The strategies that we, teachers and students alike, learned and perfected in early life will be the most robust. They may or may not work so well for us later in life.

Our capacity for learning and our understanding of “the game of” learning shape who we can allow ourselves to be and what we are willing to risk. When the sense we are supposed to make doesn’t happen quickly enough, or in a way befitting expectations, some people become more intrigued – others look for ways out. These differences play a big part in shaping student preferences for structure in learning and anyone’s idea of what characterises good teaching.

Notably: There is a big difference between being stuck in learning and sabotaging learning to avoid ever feeling stuck again.

If, over and over again, you can’t make sense like everyone expects, then you are going to either stop trusting others or stop trusting yourself. If, over and over again, the things you learn (for others) don’t end up mattering for you, then you will stop expecting learning to be meaningful. And if these experiences build up, then sooner or later you will “fall behind” and have little choice but to find ways around the expectation to learn.

Looking at the model, there are two places for avoiding engaging the risk of learning: Either avoid the “huh?” or avoid the “a-ha!” Psychoanalytic psychology tells us about two forms of dissociation – a kind of preemptive avoidance: narrative rigidity and not-spelling-out (Donnel Stern, 2003).

“Narrative rigidity” works against ever having to question what you know and say “huh?” In “narrative rigidity,” one sticks so strongly to one’s story that, like tunnel vision, the “official” story keeps conflicting ones out of sight. On the other hand, in “not-spelling-out,” a conflicting perspective may well come into view, but if the sense doesn’t come right away, then the onus is likely on the teacher to fix the situation with a clearer more definitive explanation. Such an individual is not open to grappling in a space if sense-making, to get lost in learning, and to trust that understanding might come of playing with the things that must be learned.

Both forms of dissociation are solutions of lost trust. In narrative rigidity the learner does not trust others to offer anything new worth noticing. In not-spelling-out the learner does not trust themself to create sense from within.

Please keep in mind that these are strategies and not categories of students. I am describing two mechanisms that humans (all of us) use to protect ourselves from the injury, even the shame, of inadequacy when faced with a demand to make a proper personal sense according to the terms of some judging other.

Narrative rigidity and not-spelling-out are “solutions” to the problem of taking the supposedly perceived knowledge given by a context as the purported facts of a real world, and turning that knowledge into personal knowing/understanding (created in mind) as that newly conceived sense about those facts.

Students need time to muck about in the transitional space of something out there and something in their heads. In early childhood that is what pretend play is about. In pretending the child freely take ideas about people and things in the world, noticing this and that about them, and playing at making personally meaningful sense. Rush or force the process to fit accountability-on-a-schedule and meaningful sense, the kind anyone can build on, just doesn’t happen.

Classroom life loses its vitality when those things to-be-learned remain someone else’s property. In eclipsing learning’s possibility, we press students to engage coping strategy. And when learning is reduced to the facsimile of making sense, then it becomes more difficult, more tedious, and ultimately (even ironically) less efficient. It loses heart. With the heart gone out of learning, the only sensible option may be the practiced exercising of narrative rigidity and not-spelling-out.

Narrative rigidity

The outward reaching (centrifugal) moment of noticing/perceiving – shall we say the prompt to learn at all – is sabotaged by narrative rigidity. When this coping strategy dominates, we have the feeling that the learner’s understanding of the particular curriculum in question remains stubbornly fixed. His/her/their well-being as a coherent self in a consistent world seems dependent on the unconscious inadmissibility of particular threats to current understandings. It is one thing to change one’s known; it is another thing entirely if changing one’s known must mean admitting to being wrong in the first place – especially where wrongness is a failure of self. In such a frame, anything beyond the pale of what one understands about a topic has the potential to jeopardize the stability of a trustworthy self in a predictable enough world – easier to cope by flatly denying or disavowing the very existence of alternative views.

Narrative rigidity is about sticking to one’s story as the preemptive strategy of choice for warding off any threat to the self. From this perspective, if there is nothing to be seen, then there is nothing to be learned. Moreover, such a stance leads to a preference for schools, teachers, and curriculum to “stick to their stories,” teaching things correctly in the first place. For example, if the word cat first meant a house pet, then a lion cannot later also be a cat. To introduce a lion as a cat is to betray trust. It means “cat” was taught wrong in the first place.

Caught in a confounding shifty world makes for learner frustration. Once on a knowledge path this coping strategy leads to wanting that path to become well-worn. One can comfortably deduce facts from current knowns, but veering off from those original knowns is quite intolerable. It means someone has not gotten things right in the first place. One believes, expects, and desires that people be held to account for being, thinking, and doing decisively. It is the responsibility of those in authority (parents, teachers, schools, governments, science, and church, to name a few) to be certain about getting things right from the start.

Caught in narrative rigidity means wanting a no-nonsense approach of bare facts, solid definitions, incontrovertible evidence, and clear logic from the get-go. New information should only thicken and amplify what was first learned and is now familiar. From such a perspective, this is what a good teacher makes possible for learners. And, when the curriculum and/or the teacher fail to deliver accordingly – when instead the new thing noticed calls present and past understanding into question – then the mechanisms of schooling have let the learner down. One can see how the approach of narrative rigidity might even engender contempt and condescension toward any such offending others.

A strategy of narrative rigidity is one that calls for schools to keep matters simple by delivering unwavering right answers in right ways. Anything less is a disappointment. The educative goal, and lifelong learning, is not about self-revision in any sense of self-revision as a person, rather it is and ought to be about developing sets of clearcut practical knowledge and skills for thinking and doing things in the best possible way.

When narrative rigidity sets-in as the go-to coping strategy, then the below model of not-learning dominates.


Where a habit of not-learning interrupts the return to self (the centripetal moment of conceiving in the model), then not-spelling-out dominates.

Here, from the side of the experiencing student, circumstances have led to a desire to get things right, which means doing as expected. This leaves little room for the play of thought, for allowing nonconscious and unconscious processes enough free rein to come up with an emergent “a-ha.” Without such freedom, making sense is a bit like trying to force oneself to remember a word on the tip of your tongue or the place you left your keys. In forgetting ourselves and allowing moments of letting go, the knowing we want (its realisation and its articulation) can have an uncanny habit of bubbling into awareness, as if unbidden. But the anxiety of supposed-to-know makes letting go a treacherous thing. The anxious mind simply has not the capacity to relax enough for unstructured mental wanderings. Doing so seems especially foolish: After all, why would anyone trust to find, within themselves, that which is demanded from without?

In not-spelling-out, the learner notices the presenting anomalies and conundrums but is at a loss for bringing that new thing into any creatively revised personal understanding. Instead, it is up to the teacher to make sense obvious to the student – in effect to present the given curriculum in a way that effortlessly prompts the proper “a-ha.”

Where the “a-ha” repeatedly remains elusive, then the student seems to have little recourse but to conceive of learning as the accumulation of knowledge. Knowledge, as such, becomes reduced to a set of compartmentalised unrelated bits for memorising. Learning at this point is surely not fueled by a desire for personal-meaning; it is simply something done for the sake of jumping through hoops. Given that there is little in the way of joyful “a-ha” to be had, the learner caught in an approach of not-spelling-out wants and feels safest when asked to practice dictated processes, dutifully repeating back whatever is expected. He/she/they is/are happiest when clearly told what to do and how to do it.

The coping strategy of not-spelling-out makes novel problem-solving and open-ended inquiry into potentially threatening tasks. Panic is apt to ensue over trying to figure out what exactly is needed to get a good mark. It feels quite unfair to have to accomplish something without being told just what that something should look like in the end. Not-spelling-out makes for an anxious learner trying to read the mind of the curriculum/teacher. For someone leaning this way, the game of schooling is about going through the motions of what others expect. A good teacher, from this perspective, reduces that anxiety by providing very clear and detailed rubrics to guide the way.

When not-spelling-out sets in as the go-to coping strategy, then the below model of not-learning dominates.

Where to now?

The above depictions of not-learning complement those of learning. Understanding these processes in these way lends particularly valuable insight to the circumstances of schooling, the predicaments of students and teachers in learning, and how we can better support capacity, trust, and meaning for all. Inclusivity, in classrooms and societies, turns on the kind of learning opportunities where defensive mechanisms are no longer necessary. I believe that only then can we begin to acknowledge, accept, and celebrate difference for the deepening of self and the broadening of world that it avails. In such societies we might have a better chance for growing the wisdom so direly needed if we are to navigate ourselves well through the 21st century and those very challenges that our own human history and habits of being have created.

The point of the book and the professional development activities I offer is the practical point of helping all persons, that they might approach conundrums and their resolutions more freely and with the expectation of successful resolution. I do hope you, your school, and/or your district will contact me about exploring these possibilities in a way tailored to your needs and desires.


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

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