Learning as Loss: Notes

Parallel models of personal change

This model




New Testament



New birth

Lewin (1945)




Lifton (1961)




Mezirow (1978)



Contractual solidarity

Thomas and Harri-Augstein (1985)

Awareness of old
learning robot

Learning trough

New learning level

Hopson and Adams (1976)




ance /letting go


Search for meaning


Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge

(Note added October 2007)

From a very different starting point, Meyer and Land (2003 on) have investigated learning in university settings when students get "stuck" or fail really to "get" important elements of their course. They describe key elements of the curriculum (different in form in different disciplines) which serve as "threshold concepts", as portals to the next stage of learning. These are however often characterised by the "troublesome" nature of the knowledge they contain (Perkins, 1999), and so the process of crossing the threshold is problematic. They refer to stages in the crossing, and to the liminality of the learner in ways which are not dissimilar mutatis mutandi to the model in this paper. Their work has great potential and is attracting much interest

Links to some of their papers can be found at the bottom of the bibliography

And my own take on it is in a series of introductory papers from different angles here


Additive learning

The most common form of learning in which new knowledge, skills and possible attitudes are simply added to the learner's existing range without conflicting with anything already learned. See Supplantive learning.

Committed change

Term used by Becker (1970) to describe "real" personal change, the evidence for which is found in the existence of "side-bets". Side-bets are secondary consequences following on from the primary change. Contrasted with Situational adjustment.

Crisis theory

A model of personal change precipitated by external events which exhaust the normal coping mechanisms of an individual, developed initially by Lindemann (1944) and elaborated in particular by Caplan (1964).

See also http://www.mja.com.au/public/mentalhealth/articles/rosen/rosen.html

Expressive motivation

Motivation to learn which stems from an interest in the subject-matter itself, in which the pay-off is purely the knowledge or skills acquired. See Instrumental motivation,

Extrinsic motivation

See Instrumental motivation,


The probability of survival. In evolution theory, of course, it relates to the probability of species survival: in the present usage it refers to individual survival, perhaps in the limited sense of the viability of practice within a particular situation.

Instrumental motivation

Motivation to learn for the sake of achieving some other objective, such as the acquisition of a qualification. It may confuse the picture of supplantive learning. See Extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation

See Expressive motivation.


Used as a shorthand for anything which can be learned: it may embrace knowledge; physical, intellectual or social skills; or attitudes.

Potential learner

Phrase adopted to describe the person in a learning situation who may or may not learn (i.e. change) as a result of it. It may seem precious to make this distinction, but much supplantive learning is resisted and may not actually "take".

Problematic supplantive learning

A sub-category of supplantive learning in which the emotional component of the process is sufficient to interfere with the cognitive component of learning. This phrase in turn embraces "Traumatic learning". See Supplantive learning, Traumatic learning

Rite of passage

The anthropological term, originating from van Gennep (1909), to describe the culturally-sanctioned procedures, ceremonies and/or ordeals associated with the transition from one major social status to another. Rites of passage include initiation into adulthood, marriage, and sometimes funerals.

Situational adjustment

Phrase used by Becker (1970) to describe, roughly, "going along with things"—probably giving the appearance of change but without really doing so. See Committed change

Situational resistance

Resistance to learning attributable primarily to lack of "fit" between the learner and the learning situation, and/or the incompetence of the teaching and/or course administration. See Ulterior resistance

Supplantive learning

That form of learning which replaces or supplants previously acquired attitudes, knowledge or skills. In the discussion this term is used both for the most general category of such learning, and for the least challenging form of such learning, where the only emotional concomitant may be a degree of frustration and loss of morale associated with not being able to do things the "new way" as well as one could do them the "old way".

Earlier terminology for the same process was "traumatic learning" (Atherton, 1986b, 1991) and "threatening learning" (Atherton 1986a). See Problematic supplantive learning, Traumatic learning


I have chosen to use this old-fashioned word partly because it is less clumsy that "facilitator of learning", and partly because it identifies the role more clearly vis-à-vis the learner.

Traumatic learning

A phrase originally coined to describe supplantive learning, but now restricted to its more extreme manifestations, where the learning experience causes the individual to re-evaluate other aspects of her or his life. Occasionally this is learning stimulated by trauma, but that is not the primary sense of the term.

Ulterior resistance

Resistance to learning hypothetically attributable to aspects of the potential learner's life not directly associated with the immediate learning situation. See Situational resistance.

This paper is based on my doctoral research (1991): an account of the empirical work behind it (yes, for once I did do some!) is in Atherton (1999) This version is the handout supporting a presentation at a SEDA conference on "Improving Student Motivation" at the University of Plymouth in 1996.


ATHERTON J S (1986a) Professional Supervision in Group Care: a contract-based approach London; Tavistock

ATHERTON J S (1986b) The Natural History of Traumatic Learning University of Manchester Centre for Adult and Higher Education, Occasional Paper 16

ATHERTON J S (1989) Interpreting Residential Life: values to practise London: Routledge

ATHERTON J S (1991) The Management of Traumatic Learning Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Department of Adult and Higher Education, University of Manchester (Case-study appendix available here)

ATHERTON J S (1999) “Resistance to Learning: a discussion based on participants in in-service professional training programmes” Journal of Vocational Education and Training vol.51, no 1, pp 77-90

BANTON M (1965) Roles London: Tavistock  (See also here)

BARKER E (1984) The Making of a Moonie: choice or brainwashing? Oxford: Basil Blackwell

BECKER H (1970) Sociological Work New York Free Press

BION W R (1961) Experiences in Groups London: Tavistock

BION W R (1970) Attention and Interpretation London: Tavistock (See also here)

CAMPBELL J (1975) The Hero with a Thousand Faces London: Abacus (first pub. 1949)

CAPLAN G (1964) Principles of Preventive Psychiatry London: Tavistock

DAWKINS R (1976) The Selfish Gene Oxford: Oxford University Press

DENNETT D C (1993) Consciousness Explained Harmondsworth: Penguin

FESTINGER L (1957) A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance Evanston, Ill.: Row Peterson

FREIRE P (1972) The Pedagogy of the Oppressed Harmondsworth: Penguin

FREIRE P (1979) Education for Critical Consciousness London: Sheed and Ward

GELL-MANN M (1994) The Quark and the Jaguar: adventures in the simple and the complex London: Little, Brown and Co.

HOPSON B and ADAMS J (1976) "Towards an Understanding: defining some boundaries of transition dynamics" in J Adams, J Hayes and B Hopson (eds) Transition: understanding and managing personal change London: Martin Robertson. (See also here)

IMARA M (1975) "Dying as the Last Stage of Growth" in E Kübler-Ross (ed.) Death: the final stage of growth New Jersey Prentice-Hall

KAUFFMAN S (1995) At Home in the Universe London: Viking

LEWIN K (1947) "Frontiers in Group Dynamics" Human Relations vol. 1 No 1: reprinted in D Cartwright (ed.) Field Theory in Social Science London: Tavistock, 1952

LEWIN R (1993) Complexity: life on the edge of chaos London: Phoenix paperbacks

LIFTON R J (1961) Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism Harmondsworth: Penguin

LINDEMANN E (1944) "Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief" Amer. J. Psychiatry, 101 pp. 111-48

MEZIROW J (1978) "Perspective Transformation" Adult Education (USA) vol. XXVIII No 2 pp. 100-110
See also here

ROKEACH M (1967) The Open and Closed Mind New York: Free Press

ROKEACH M (1973) The Nature of Human Values New York: Free Press

SARTRE J-P (1956) "Existentialism is a Humanism" in W Kaufmann (ed.) Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre Cleveland: Meridian Books

SKYNNER R and CLEESE J (1994) Life and how to survive it London: Mandarin

THOMAS L and HARRI-AUGSTEIN S (1985) Self-Organised Learning: foundations of a conversational science for psychology London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

VAN GENNEP A (1909) The Rites of Passage (trans.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960

WALDROP M M (1994) Complexity: the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos London: Penguin

WITKIN H, MOORE C, GOODENOUGH D & COX P (1977) "Field-dependent and field-independent cognitive styles and their educational implications" Review of Educational Research 47(1) pp. 1-64

WINNICOTT D W (1965) The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment London: Hogarth Press 

On Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge:

Cousin, G (2006) "An introduction to threshold concepts" Planet No 17 December 2006, [on-line, UK] available http://www.gees.ac.uk/planet/p17/gc.pdf (accessed 3 October 2007)

Entwistle N (2004) Learning Outcomes and Ways of Thinking across Contrasting Disciplines and Settings in Higher Education Edinburgh; Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses Project, [on-line, UK] available http://www.tla.ed.ac.uk/etl/docs/EntwistleLOs.pdf (accessed 3 October 2007)

Meyer J and Land R (2003) Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines Edinburgh; Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses Project, Occasional Paper 4  [on-line, UK] available http://www.tla.ed.ac.uk/etl/docs/ETLreport4.pdf  (accessed 3 October 2007) [This paper is the most comprehensive introduction, although perhaps slightly dated by now.]

Perkins D (1999) "The constructivist classroom - the many faces of constructivism" Educational Leadership 57 6-11 [available on-line http://www3.sympatico.ca/jp17/david_perkins.htm accessed 3 October 07]

Perkins D (2006) "Constructivism and troublesome knowledge" in Meyer J H F and Land R (eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge London; Routledge.

Perkins D (2007) "Beyond Understanding" in Land R, Meyer J H F and Smith, J. (eds), Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines Rotterdam; Sense Publishers

http://www.tla.ed.ac.uk/etl/publications.html is an excellent source for these and other papers.

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

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