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Lockdown and learning: too much to think

Following the launch of the anticipated ‘Learning from the unconscious’, Educational Psychologist and Visiting Lecturer Xavier Eloquin reflects on the no-mans-land that children find themselves during the third lockdown. He explores the inner life of children with the onslaught of digital learning. He suggests these methods are both devoid of containment and are failing to foster excitement in the digital classroom. 

I have just returned from a school, where I had an entire corridor to myself; an institutional Mary-Celeste – the abandoned ship. My youngest son, usually so enthusiastic about learning groans at the thought of another “assignment”. A friend informs me that a child they know has several hundreds of unopened emails from school…

My thinking went to Winnicott’s dictum that there is no baby without a mother, that for the baby to flourish there must exist a good enough maternal holding environment. Is this the same with learning? Can there be a student without a teacher? Certainly, there are many ways one can learn but teaching is relational: learning occurs through that relationship. I began to toy with the idea of an educational holding environment. The social-physical structure that arranges (or used to) the daily rhythms of life and learning. The teacher you like greeting you at the door, sitting next to friends, passing your “crush” in the corridor. All of these serve to coat the act of learning in meaning, purpose and joy. Even hating school serves a function.  

But at present children and teachers are separated and connect only in the ether. They do the best they can in this dismal lockdown. Thinking of my son and all the children I have worked with, parents and teachers I have consulted to in the last tumultuous year, I am left wondering about the availability of stressed and isolated minds to the act of thinking, of learning – a reworking of Bion’s “thoughts in search of a thinker”. For Educational Psychologists (EPs) and others working with children and young people in schools, psychoanalytic theory offers a compelling account of how a mind relates to information and how that information does, or does not, transform into knowledge or learning. It is not enough to have thoughts. One must have a mind able to accommodate them first.  

Teachers, just like parents, offer through their presence a form of psychological containment that metabolises stimuli into something meaningful. In their absence, much of the work our children are presented with does not lead to learning of any real quality. It may be the best we can do at present but it is clear that the answer to getting our children switched back onto learning is not the mechanistic thinking that comes up with such solutions as elongated school days or extended summer terms. What they will need is open and available minds to welcome them, relate to them, acknowledge the emotional strains of the last year.  And to do this, teachers themselves must have a similar experience. There is a need for collective sense making upon return, of renewing ways of relating and registering, collectively, the impact COVID-19 has had, not just on individual functioning but also on our shared view of a world far less cohesive and stable than we had imagined it to be. Psychoanalysis, especially the concept of containing anxiety, has much relevance for EPs working to support families and schools. As a dynamic model of the mind it offers an explanation for why children and adults ostensibly not doing anything during lockdown can be too full to think. As an epistemology it engages with the emotion of the moment, re-emphasising the importance of relationship.

I put a hypothesis to my son: that stripped of meaning these emailed tasks and online lessons, which cannot be varied in tone or tempo to meet the needs of a fragmented class, don’t ignite or excite. Each new document on Teams is another straw on the back of the camel.  Rather than invite learning, I wondered, do they seem a form of persecution? A trigger to feelings of guilt, shame, avoidance and even mendacity?  A withered simulacrum of learning that really acts as a flash point for family tensions? All this said tentatively and speculatively. My son smiled, sadly, “At last.  Someone gets it”.

We went outside and smashed ice with a hammer.

Edited by Chris Arnold, Dale Bartle and Xavier Eloquin, ‘Learning from the unconscious: Psychoanalytic approaches in educational psychology’ is now available from Karnac. Designed to give both students and practitioners access to the experience of engaging with a dynamic unconscious, this book investigates some of the key tenets and principles of psychoanalytic theory and demonstrates ways in which educational psychologists have used both theory and practice in their roles.