Fragile Learning: The Influence of Anxiety

Author(s) : David Mathew

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Fragile Learning: The Influence of Anxiety

Book Details

  • Publisher : Karnac Books
  • Published : August 2015
  • Cover : Paperback
  • Pages : 272
  • Category :
    Culture and Psychoanalysis
  • Catalogue No : 36737
  • ISBN 13 : 9781782202592
  • ISBN 10 : 1782202595
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What are the barriers and obstacles to adults learning? What makes the process of adult learning so fragile? And what exactly do we mean by Fragile Learning? This book addresses these questions in two ways. In Part One, it looks at challenges to learning, examining issues such as language invention in a maximum security prison, geography and bad technology, and pedagogic fragility in Higher Education. Through a psychoanalytic lens, Fragile Learning examines authorial illness and the process of slow recovery as a tool for reflective learning, and explores ethical issues in problem-based learning.

The second part of the book deals specifically with the problem of online anxiety. From cyberbullying to Internet boredom, the book asks what the implications for educational design in our contemporary world might be. It compares education programmes that insist on the Internet and those that completely ban it, while exploring conflict, virtual weapons and the role of the online personal tutor. The book also examines the issue of time as a barrier to learning and its links to unconscious thinking, as well as defining fragility in a summative essay.

Reviews and Endorsements

‘This fascinating collection of essays makes important links between the fields of higher education studies and psychoanalysis. At the heart of the book is a compassionate engagement with the fragile learner – someone who is “close to giving up at any point, close to breaking”. This book makes a very helpful contribution to the way we understand such learners, and indeed our own fragility, in the face of a fast and fragmented digital learning environment.’
— Elizabeth Chapman Hoult, Birkbeck, University of London, author of Adult Learning and la Recherche Féminine

Fragile Learning is a fascinating exploration from a psychoanalytic viewpoint of the nature of both learner and educator anxiety, in the context of a variety of higher education, education management, and community workplaces. The author considers problems of projective identification, retreat or claustrum situations, basic assumption and work groups, the impact of physical illness, and how to engage in productive conflict whilst acknowledging the anxieties of all parties. The book gains insights from original research into these matters, not only as applied to traditional educational environments, but also in relation to the particular forms they may take in distance and e-learning, where both students and teachers are often equally fragile learners, seeking to adapt humanistically to the new technological tools they are acquiring.’
— Meg Harris Williams, writer and artist

About the Author(s)

David Mathew works at the University of Bedfordshire, UK, and as an independent researcher and writer. His wide areas of interest include psychoanalysis, linguistics, distance learning, prisons and online anxiety. With approximately 600 published pieces to his name, including a novel based on his time working in the education department of a maximum security prison (O My Days), he has published widely in academic, journalistic and fiction outlets. In addition to his writing, he edits the Journal of Pedagogic Development, teaches academic writing, and he particularly enjoys lecturing in foreign countries.

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Mike Dines on 25/01/2016 09:58:54

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Review : Fragile Learning: The Influence of Anxiety by David Mathew. London: Karnac, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-7822025-92. £27.99.
Mike Dines, British Journal of Education

Fragile Learning: The Influence of Anxiety is an intriguing exploration of what David Mathew notes as the "wide variety of factors that might test a learner's resilience or make the process of learning precarious and problematic". These factors, he notes, include "such obstacles as technology, environment, culture, age, disease and incarceration" (p. xv). Fragile Learning, therefore, explores the complexity surrounding the perilous nature of the "new" (of the increasing intricacy of and reliance upon technology), the auto-ethnographical (such as pulling upon the author's own experience of teaching in a maximum-security prison), and the different ways in which anxiety in overcoming these barriers are important pedagogic tools for both learners and educators alike.

The volume is split into two sections. The first, "Challenges to Learning" incorporates a number of case studies such as Mathew's experience of observing language within a prison, concerns felt by international students and distance learning, and ethical issues surrounding the studying of a postgraduate qualification in Public Health. Co-written with Susan Sapsed, there is a particularly insightful chapter on Sapsed's own journey through ill health (she tore a ligament in her right knee), and her commentary on the constant pain endured through the proceeding months. Here, Sapsed draws upon the notion of Claustrum, recalling a sense of "physical unreadiness [of returning] to the world that [she] had inhabited before" (p. 87). The chapter is not only perceptive, but is evident of an intelligent and contemplative use of theory.

Part Two - written solely by Mathew - is entitled "Online Anxiety" and is, as the title suggests, an examination of the impact of the Internet on various learners. "As I come right out and say in several of these submissions", notes the author, "the Internet [has] a frightening presence on many people's lives - both educators' lives and lives of our students" (p. 121). As such, this latter section deals with concerns such as cyber bullying in the workplace, experiences surrounding distance learning and the role of the online learning personal tutor. The final chapter in the book, "The Internet is Unwell - And Will Not Be At School Today" is useful in presenting a picture of "Fragile Learner, struggling and anxious in the online milieu" (p. 201).

It is here that Mathews clarifies the notion of "anxiety". Although he sees anxiety as a "natural and unavoidable reaction to a perception of danger or risk". the author notes how "it is a healthy response - complete with its quirks and its sensibilities, and the emergence of a way of learner engagement that remains new to some educators" (p. 138). It is this unique relationship between learner, educator and the increasing complexities and intricate-nature of the Internet that is core to this section. In the first instance, Mathew questions the location of this anxiety. The Internet is not particularly new, he notes, and nor is the concept of online learning and education. Furthermore, the rapidity of technological change is apparent with most learners. Yet, what does remain problematic is the way in which educational institutions have problems with keeping pace with it.

As an example Mathew provides a case study of a university in the South-East of England. Here, the author looks in more detail at the relationship between the learner and educator, exploring ways in which technology continues to be an important medium in the areas of student support, assessment and facilitation of learning. Mathew's tackling of this complex subject area is symptomatic of the volume's content. Firstly, one is aware of the democratization of the issue at hand. Mathew provides equal credence to educator and student. It is obvious that for a compromise to take place both need to communicate. Secondly, Mathew approaches this subject in a reflective approach whereby definitive answers are not "pinned down".

In its place, the reader is given the opportunity to think for him or herself. "Let us hope that we have learned from our past as educators", writes the author, "the new generation of web tools will give educators this kind of pioneering freedom, not to mention the chance to learn - really learn - from the learner" (p. 144). This provides the reader with a real sense of empowerment. Mathew's writing style fosters an approach where the reader accompanies the narrative; and where he or she is subtly encouraged to work these issues out for themselves. Mathew is not giving you the answers. In fact, he is not (as some writers do) telling you he knows the answers. Instead, emphasis on placed on the dynamism of theory and application. Reflection takes the place of the polemicist.

A key strength of Fragile Learning also lies in the ease of expressing the complex. Although Freud is (obviously) referenced throughout, Mathew pulls upon a number of difficult and complex writers to provide depth and academic weighting. Slavoj Zizek is quoted to conclude Mathew's chapter "Prison Language", whilst the reflective chapter "On Empty Spaces: An Afterword" is framed around Lacan's Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1992). Especially in terms of the latter, where Mathew notes how the "following pages are a meditation on ethics, on violence [and] learning", the author frames the work of Lacan in a prose-style that scrutinizes but does not over-complicate. Nor is Mathew's style patronizing; instead Fragile Learning is a fine equilibrium between the academic and, dare I say, the accessible.

Importantly, it is a balance that highlights the author's grasp of a complex and fast-moving area of study. His interrogation of the psychoanalytical in particular is clear, relevant and concise, whilst the inclusion of case studies illuminates and grounds the theoretical. The prominence of the reflective also provides a delineation of good practice and introspection. This volume is a worthy contribution to the debates surrounding the notion of "anxiety" and its relation with the psychoanalytical and pedagogical. In particular, chapters concerning technology are especially relevant and provide discerning accounts of the relationship between the educator, the learner and the application of that technology.

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