Learning as Loss: 3 

The facilitating environment corresponds in some measure to the intervention window identified by the crisis theorists, except that it is artificially created, and ideally it extends from before the de-stabilisation point to after the establishment of the committed change. In practice, however, it emerges most often at or immediately after the point of de-stabilisation. Its connection with established educational procedures - particularly to do with assessment - will be discussed below, but the responsibility for its creation appears to lie fairly clearly with the teacher.

Three stages of supplantive learning

Once the framework is in place the teacher may make a deliberate effort to de-stabilise the previous learning. Whether or not this is acceptable is both a technical and an ethical question. In any case, transparent efforts to "upset" learners are likely to breed resentment and to militate against any further learning by destroying the facilitating environment; so for present purposes we may consider the more common situation where the de-stabilisation arises naturally.

The facilitating environment is not so different from the culture which most teachers seek to establish in order to promote learning: a comfortable, non-threatening situation which is both business-like and friendly, and where all the accoutrements of teaching and learning are to hand. The boundary between the teaching/learning situation and the rest of the world may have to be more clearly defined, however, including specification of the confidentiality provisions, and the level of trust between members of the group and the teacher may have to be a little higher.


Diagram hereDe-stabilisation has two components: the declaration of the "new" and the potential learner's application of it to her- or himself. Mere generalised personal dissatisfaction is not enough, although it may act as a motivator for the acceptance of the new material when declared (see Barker, 1984, on the pre-disposition of successful recruits into the Moonies). As a motivator such dissatisfaction can prompt one to change or to apply material to oneself, but only when a direction for the change has been declared can it be said that the learning process has begun.

What constitutes the declaration component is difficult to specify, because one of the few consistent features of the empirical research was the demonstration that practically anything could count as such a declaration. It might be a formal proposition by a teacher backed up by argument and evidence: but it might equally be a casual remark by another group member in a coffee-break or class discussion which triggers a train of thought.

Without the support of a facilitating environment, the inklings of uncertainty about previous learning and practice which are the initial manifestations of de-stabilisation are likely to go unrecognised or to be dismissed as an artefact of an unsatisfactory situation. In other words, situational resistance dominates and the possibility of committed change is not entertained. What sometimes appears to happen, however, is that those first inklings are entertained, and only then does the potential learner test the environment to see whether it is safe enough to entertain them more seriously. Whether the facilitating environment was in place beforehand or whether it "rises to the occasion" when called upon does not matter very much. Perhaps the major criterion of success for the teacher in the management of problematic supplantive learning is the recognition of de-stabilisation and the ability to rise to the occasion.

In the case of St. Paul, the occasion of de-stabilisation was a vision on the road to Damascus, with the disorientation period represented by his ensuing period of blindness. As in accounts of religious conversion, so in supplantive learning: it ain't necessarily so! Interviewees who identified that they had changed in certain respects were able to identify retrospectively that there had been a point of de-stabilisation, and in some cases were able to pin-point it, but at the time they did not necessarily recognise it for what it was. Clearly, the concept of de-stabilisation may be merely an inference: since change was achieved and it involved a period of disorientation, that period must have had a starting point, which can be labelled as the point of de-stabilisation. However, there does seem to be sufficient evidence to suggest that the point of de-stabilisation does exist, because even some potential learners who did not change suggested that, "I was thrown there for a moment," but they regained their equilibrium.

De-stabilisation corresponds to the dislodging of the individual from their niche in the fitness landscape. Disorientation corresponds to their journey across the landscape in a state of low fitness towards a deeper niche.


Diagram here The issues in the discussion of disorientation are rather different from those attending de-stabilisation. It is readily recognised and described, and often engages strong feelings such as depression, anger, exhaustion and frustration, even guilt. There may also be moments of elation and "liberation" although these are usually short-lived. There may be "attempts at apathy" in which the whole learning enterprise is dismissed: either these become permanent, in which case the learning process is aborted, or they too fail to last. The specific emotional pattern, of course, varies from individual to individual, although it bears a distinct and not unexpected resemblance to the pattern of grief.

The difficulty lies in attributing such feelings unequivocally to supplantive learning. We all recognise a fairly natural phenomenon of "mid-course blues", which is likely to occur on a programme of any length. Course attendance sometimes creates external pressures at work or at home which build up irrespective of supplantive learning. There are all kinds of things which may make the potential learner feel fed up. There are potential explanations to be found in the dynamics of course groups, too: Tuckman's supposed stage of "storming" can engender such feelings, as can disillusionment with a dependent leader (Bion, 1961).

Disorientation, then, can only be "diagnosed" as such in the context of other features of supplantive learning. If the learner is indeed grappling with change, if she can identify the point of de-stabilisation, then the diagnosis is relatively clear: but the reality is that often the overall supplantive learning process goes unrecognised, and the learner is simply left feeling unaccountably miserable or upset.

The theoretical disentanglement of disorientation phenomena from other feelings may be possible, although I have not yet achieved it, but equally it may not matter. In the absence of clear indicators to the contrary, nothing is lost for the teacher by assuming that the feelings are indeed due to disorientation, and concentrating on providing support - which is what most of us do intuitively in any case. Such support encompasses (as in crisis intervention and grief counselling theory):

- at the same time as keeping on with the job of teaching, because it is eventually the mastery of the new learning which is going to carry the learner through.


Diagram here

The third phase, of reorientation, has most in common with the normal processes of additive learning, which is not to say that the temptation to revert has disappeared completely. The learner is faced with integrating the new learning into her or his overall belief system or conduct, and has eventually to face the challenges posed by such learning in the real world. This can be difficult, and there is some evidence that difficulties encountered in practice resurrect the losses experienced in the disorientation phase, so that the trough as described to date repeats itself like a diminishing echo as the new learning becomes established.

There is therefore a continuing need for the support of the facilitating environment, and perhaps a gradual process of weaning until the learner is confident enough to manage alone. I have discussed elsewhere the oscillation between—roughly speaking—dependence and independence as it may apply to rehabilitation processes: it appears that the same freedom to oscillate is desirable in this context too (Atherton, 1989).


If the preceding analysis is broadly correct, there are considerable implications for the conduct of courses for mature students, and particularly for in-service programmes of professional study. Briefly, these include:

  1. Respect for what students are going through when they are asked to change their ways.  
  2. Scrutiny of the humanistic and andragogic value and theory base of many such programmes. Some components of andragogic theory may be supported, such as learning contracts and the need for students to feel self-directing: but their limitations also need to be addressed. Potential learners do not know what they are letting themselves in for. Too much attention to negotiated material may serve to avoid the problematic supplantive learning which is essential to change. Informal andragogic structures and naive humanistic assumptions may not constitute a strong enough container for the feeling engendered.  
  3. The relationship of assessment to learning. While assessment methods can enhance motivation, particularly instrumental motivation, they may hinder the application of learning. The much-debated competence-based approach to assessment may assist some learners, but courses based on it may not focus sufficiently on the issues of supplantive learning to enable them to stick.    
  4. The roles of the mentor and the tutor: these people are best-placed to take seriously the learner's personal experience and to provide individualised support and the appropriate facilitating environment.
  5. The pacing of material presented on courses: although usually dictated by its difficulty, pacing needs equally to consider the challenge—other than intellectual—presented by some of the material. The difficulty, of course, is that the challenge will not be the same for all course members, or occur at the same time.    
  6. Minimising situational resistance: this calls for conventional good practice, but the teacher who aspires to help learners through problematic supplantive learning needs first of all not to give them anything to complain about in the conduct of the course, because that offers an easy escape route.     
  7. Recognition of the "symptoms" of problematic supplantive learning in individual learners, and appropriate responses to it.

It remains to point out that for some people, the ideas in this paper may themselves be an occasion for problematic supplantive learning. But finding difficulty in accepting them does not necessarily mean that they are right! 

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Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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