Using the Class Group


"Projection" is a term from psycho-analytic theory, associated particularly with a strange woman called Melanie Klein, but don't let that put you off. It happens. Whether the Kleinian theoretical account which is about the good breast and the bad breast in early infancy has anything going for it is a quite different question.

I started my "proper" teaching career teaching "Liberal Studies" in a College of Further Education (Technical College). Liberal Studies was an enlightened and ultimately misguided and impractical government initiative to ensure that students on vocational courses were not only trained but liberally "educated". See Tom Sharpe's novel "Wilt" for a farcical but not inaccurate account of its practice. Projection1.gif (3238 bytes)

Basically, Liberal Studies was about teaching students anything they did not want to know about. I taught comparative religion to medical lab. technicians, economic theory to electricians, and psychology to plumbers.

As I met each new class, there was a bit of each student that did not want to know (represented in red on the diagram on the right). For some, this bit was not very big, and they were willing to give it a try. For others, it was much bigger.

Projection2.gif (2488 bytes)

After about three sessions, the pattern would have changed. If I was any good at all, I would have got most of the students interested, all except one or two. They, however, would be implacably and often vocally opposed to the class. With luck, they would not bother to turn up at all, or just sit at the back reading the Sun. In worse cases, they would disrupt the proceedings, and their colleagues would try to control them in a half-hearted way: "Why can't you shut up? This is quite interesting!"

If they did actually leave, someone else would take their place.

The strange thing about all this was that there seemed to be a fixed quantity of "don't-want-to-know"-ness. All that had changed was its distribution. Instead of being fairly shared by everyone, it came to be embodied by a few members. Moreover, somehow despite their protestations the students who now did want to know seemed to need those who did not, to act out or carry those bits of themselves which they now disowned.

This is the root of projection: the process of disowning a part of yourself, and projecting it on to someone else to act out on your behalf. As you will have realised, the classic case is scapegoating, but it is far from confined to that. Any aspect of a person can be projected good and powerful parts as well as nasty and weak bits.

There is much more to say about projection: it is endemic in all groups, and very powerful indeed. It can possess entire communities. It can underpin racism and all forms of discrimination, and it can creat cults. It can kill people: but most of the time it is contained and tamed. Even so, even tamed, it can disrupt learning, and "fix" people in roles so that they cannot learn in a particular class. Teachers are not immune from colluding with the class, and it can lead to labelling and writing students off.

The original "scapegoat": Leviticus 16: 20-22

The important lessons are:

So: Finally, not all classroom deviance is the result of projection, although it is often a factor in amplifying it. In some cases it really is the individual responsibility of one student, for a variety of reasons. Nothing above precludes normal approaches to classroom management.

For a fascinating account from the FBI of all people, go here (you'll have to register to read it all): The "lethal triad" model is summarised on p.4 of this article (on open access)

And here is Wikipedia's take on it; it's been tidied up since I laast looked at it.

rev. 08.01.11

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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