Key Stages of Learning
It’s important to remember that Adolescence is a key learning stage for children. It is the end of childhood, of being looked after, of feeling as though the grown ups might ‘know’ or somehow be ‘in charge’ of life’s narrative, and the beginning of uncertainty and the need to accept and tolerate ambivalence.
Psychodynamics explains that there are essentially four (five if you include ‘old age’) learning stages. The beginning stage is what we know as ‘infancy’. It is characterised by a sense that the infant is the only living being, the world revolves around the infant and the world is entirely seen through the lens of self survival. The infant becomes curious about the mother first, about the present/absent relationship he has with her and slowly recognises that she is a seperate being, not entirely goverened by the infants projections but responsive to his needs. Slowly the infant learns through his family relationships to respond to the outside world and the knowledge it holds by developing relationships with it. His binary thinking becomes more complex and he learns to tolerate anxieties through his relationships with the grown ups around him. This stage last approximately rom 1 – 5 (of course it differs in different children and it is important to understand that the infantile stage, like all learning stages, is with us, in part, for all of our lives). Infancy is followed by ‘Latency’.
The Latency period is dominated by binary thinking, with ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, my group and that group, boys versus girls. It is a period of emotional stability where the adults are in charge and the wrold can be understood to ‘make sense’.
- Chidlren of this age often collect objects and use them to express their internal world, they trust the adults around them. There is often a strong gender divide where boys discover and assert in games, their masculinity and girls do a similar thing with the testing of make up or trying on Mum’s shoes etc. This is a period of spectacular growth and the learning that happens in primary education is often envied by secondary education – and there are often attempts to emulate it. However, these attempts are often not productive as the stage of learning is different. IN broad terms this stage lasts from around 5 to 11. Once again it’s important to realise that this is by no means definitive and that although Latency is often confined to these years, some attributes of latent behavior remain with some children for longer and for many of us, all of our lives.
So then comes Adolescence.
- There are volumes and volumes written about adolescent behavior and its roots in child development and it feels presumptuous to try to sum it up in a paragraph. However, I am hoping that what I write here will serve as a first base for understanding that the behavior you are dealing with day to day has as much, if not more, to do with the learning stage of the individual child as it does with your management of that child, or your lesson, or you as a person. If this will help you to understand that you are dealing with something that has to occur naturally in young people and that you have a set and specific role to play in helping that child get through that stage and moreover be productive within it, then it will serve its purpose.
It might be useful to look at what those more expert than I have said about Adolescence. These are selected quotes from Biddy Youell’s book “The Learning Relationship” and seem to cover the main areas to be held in mind when dealing with children at this stage of their development:
“…an awakening of sexuality, the body becomes a possible instrument of pleasure and reproduction and as such there comes with it an interest in the opposite gender, a rejection of the concern for educational achievement and a flirtation with life outside the confines of rules and the law”
Perhaps we have forgotten or lost touch with those days when our own bodies were developing and how thrilling, exciting, dreadful and embarrassing that was. We were literally transforming, mutating almost into a physically different being. It is important to remember our experience, with all of its excitements and difficulties. If we are to trust psychodynamics as an interpretive tool, our experience will not be a thousand miles away from the adolescents in front of us.
Are adults as confused as I am?
Also, if an adolescent has an adult body then what about the adults around him? Are they to be thought of differently? Is part of the adolescents problem recognising that he is just like the adults that surround him in a physical sense and does that mean that they feel as unsure and undeveloped and confused as he does about the way the world works. The physical change forces adolescents to ask themselves very testing questions and in turn to test out their ideas on the grown ups around them. All o the latency certainties begin to disappear or are challenged. Uncertainty and ambivalence are everywhere and the adolescent looks for shelter in projecting those uncertainties onto the grown ups that surround him. It is not the teenager who is unsure, it is the adult that knows nothing. This is expanded upon in the next quote:
“…splitting predominates, with the accompanying reliance on idealization and denigration. The need to belong leads teenagers to come together in homogenous groups, sharing interests clothes and language. The need to exclude others leads to groups to behave as gangs, projecting all of the unwanted aspects of their personality onto other groups or the adults around them…”
So where does this place us as adults, as teachers, in this equation?
- We understand and sympathise with the teenagers we are surrounded but we do not crumble under the weight of their projections.
- They need certainties, even if the certainty becomes the knowledge that although you are not infallible, you are willing to draw a line and defend what you believe to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In other words, you are able to withstand the projections and still provide a framework for learning to happen.
It is not easy and it is not meant to be. Our final quotes hold the essence of this idea:
“…Rebelling against something is infinitely safer than rebelling against nothing. Appeasement can lead to contempt……adults need to be strong enough hold the projections and not buckle…for the sake of the adolescents who are looking for certainties…”
How many of us have made the mistake of being ‘friendly’ with adolescents in a way that suggests we are somehow like them. Our frame of reference with them becomes placatory and pliable. We have the mistaken belief that somehow we can be their equals or that they have the experience we do. But this only leads to contempt, as the quote suggests. If there is lack of clarity then we play into the projection, we become part of the uncertainty, part of the mess that teenagers suspect adult life is all about.
Dealing with Ambivalence
It is difficult because being grown up means you have to be able to tolerate ambivalence, to know that sometimes the same solution doesn’t always work or that often you are negotiating the complexities of ‘it depends’. However, within that there needs to be boundaries and some certainties so that you and the teenagers you teach can operate within a framework that is ‘containing’ and ‘productive’.
“Confrontation” says Winnicott, “belongs to containment that is non retaliatory, without vindictiveness, but having it’s own strength”. (Winnicott,1971)
Use your journal to explore these ideas…
- When and how in your own practice can you demonstrate clarity in the way you deal with the adolescents that you teach? What areas can you improve?
- How can you demonstrate that being grown up is about dealing with ‘it depends’ and perhaps showing that it is all right not to know or have to work out difficulties and take some risks?
- What sort of role model are you in terms of the way you manage the classroom?
- How willing are you to challenge inappropriate behavior because it’s what THEY need?