Anxiety and Fragile Learning

David Mathew


Learning in Higher Education is a fragile system of conscious and unconscious transactions that serve to weaken a process that is already precarious. This paper argues that learning is brittle by nature, and easily broken. Using a wide range of examples, the Fragile Learner is described as someone who is close to conceding defeat to circumstances that threaten his or her education. For the purposes of this submission, the Fragile Learner might be a student of a Higher Education Institution, but also might be an appointed educator – a lecturer or personal tutor. Fragile Learners might experience anxieties that are internal and complex – a shared attitude of wilful self-defeat, coupled with an arrangement of ready-made prejudices – which can appear to be attacks from other people. For example, anxiety creates an internal threat which presents itself as a threat from the outside. Alternatively, Fragile Learning might be a consequence of learners having suffered illness or indisposition. Alongside notions of barriers to learning and resilience, this paper explores roles and identities and the tensions that inevitably occur. Although some of the ideas that make up my picture of Fragile Learning have been researched by other contributors (notably Meyer and Land, 2006; Britzman, 2009; Hoult, 2012 & 2013), this paper views the complexities through different sets of psychoanalytic lenses. This paper is specific to adult learners (18+), and references to school children or students in institutions of Further Education are beyond its reach.


higher education, anxiety, fragile learning, third, intersubjectivity

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