Resistance to Learning

A fuller account of this topic is available here

Behaviourists seem to believe that people learn only when it's worth their while. Humanists seem to believe everyone wants to learn. But learning is a form of personal change, and that can be resisted as often as it is embraced.

Generally speaking, when people fail to learn something which they have been taught, the failure is attributed to one or more of three factors:

Experience, however, suggests a fourth factor which is often neglected:

  • the cost of learning.

See also this note

The economic cost of undertaking higher education is a real factor for many students in much of the UK at the moment, but "cost" is here used psychologically. It implies the loss involved for the (superficially) competent and experienced adult in "changing their ways". This change may be termed "supplantive learning", to be contrasted with simple "additive learning" in that instead of just adding new knowlege or skills to an existing repertoire, supplantive learning calls into question previous ways of acting or prior knowledge and replaces them (Atherton, 1999).

Supplantive learning is difficult enough when it is entirely under the learner's control, but when it is required, demanded or forced, or creeps up out of awareness, or there is significant emotional investment in previous beliefs or ways of acting, it becomes problematic. 


Simple, unproblematic supplantive learning entails a drop in morale which comes from temporarily diminished competence in the skill or understanding. Problematic supplantive learning overlays this with an experience analogous to crisis.

The natural course of such learning follows three stages: Recent work on "Threshold Concepts" suggests that engaging with them can entail a similar process, which is described as an experience of "liminality". Click here to go a suite of pages about this.

  • De-stabilisation: in which the previous way of thinking or acting is upset 
  • Disorientation: the "trough" in which loss of competence and morale combine to make the learning difficult, and there is a considerable temptation to return to the "old way".  
  • Re-orientation: the gradual climb out of the trough, which follows a similar pattern to the curve of "normal" additive learning. 


It can be precipitated in three ways:

  • By external crisis, which forces the change  
  • By "hitting bottom", in which there is no way but up, from the bottom of the trough (as in the recovery programme of Alcoholics Anonymous)  
  • By a "facilitating environment", which provides a safe opportunity to change, but does not force it.

Clearly, only the third is acceptable in educational terms.  

Note: There is another quite different usage of the phrase "supplantive learning" particularly in US literature on the curriculum. There it is used to refer to teacher-centred or "reception", rather than "discovery" or learner-centred stategies, which are known as "generative" learning. (Sorry, no very informative links available) [Back]

This page has been translated into Czech here. Thanks to Andrey Formin

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

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

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

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