Monthly Archives: January 2016

‘The Container and the Contained’ – further probing of the reGCSE problem

Reading an intriguing paper by Hadfield and Atherton lead me to the work of psychoanalyst Wilfried Bion this week and a parallel to my own research on disengaged students use of online social networks to support communities of practice with FE re-sit students.

I’m writing for reflexive purposes, so might go all pop-pyschology here, but I’m seeking an overlap to the Continuum of Engagement that I’m devising.

Bion’s idea is explained as metaphor. For me, metaphors are wallpaper – unhelpful decorations that obscure the actual, leading us further from what we wish to show. Nevertheless, as tools of language they are vehicles of the abstract (to mix wallpapers).

Interpreting Bion’s concept of the Container and the Contained from Hadfield and Atherton, I now illustrate the relationship between teacher and student in the FE re-sit scenario, with three manifestations possible:

  1. Commensality: literally: eating and drinking at the same table. Things occur without tension “existing in parallel but not interacting” (8: 2011). Kind of like those students who, often at the outset of a course, sit there pretending you don’t exist as you impart objectives, then finally (sometimes after weeks) look at you as if you just walked through the wall at some point and seem to realise what’s going on around their ears (a curriculum, a classroom lesson). May say a lot about my teaching, but this does happen to me. Their expression is one I have never come across on this planet – something between the surprise of ‘there’s a small rodent in my waste basket‘ and the hostility of ‘are you talking to me?’ (Travis Bickle).
  2. Parasitism: rather than the biological meaning (of a virus) or the sociological implication (of the royal family), this actually means that “one element destroys the other” (Ibid). Now, my college might be in a fairly rough area, but this may be over-brewing the salad of the wallpaper metaphor, here. The authors do clarify that this scenario is interchangeable: the container (teacher) can destroy the contained (student) or vice-versa. Preferable as the first one is in such an event, no one wants to see either situation occur. We might less dramatically consider this as the teacher who leaves the profession due to stress or (significantly given the context of this FE problem of students having to re-sit English and Maths when they innocently signed up for Plumbing) disengagement altogether from the institution – and requisite consequences all round. The final possibility is:
  3. Symbiosis: Described as “aspirational” by the [seemingly disappointed] authors, who cite Bion: “In the symbiotic relationship, there is a confrontation and the result is growth-producing though that growth may not be discerned without some difficulty.” This is more like it: blood, sweat and tears, affective resilience, character-building, transformation, learning even.

The problem is that the contained become disaffected far too easily, as a sense of failure and its characteristic properties of anxiety and apathy are endemic in our re-sit system.

As ever, the recommendation is to assuage that anxiety, encourage mistakes even. This should be simple, given that every educational institution operates in systems so attuned to failure that it is encultured from management to the canteen lady’s watery tea, until it’s entire weight crushes the confidence from the inert student, no?

Failure has become institutionalised, and yet success is always shown up as best practice. No pressure, though!

And no wonder there is such divergence by students from the compulsory re-sit ‘choices’ – while we rub our crows feet about the NEETs on our streets.

There has to be a point to this post.Well, my point is  – again – that the re-sit dangerously risks complete disengagement from college, at large. Sure, the stats show we need literacy improvement, but it doesn’t have to look anything like a GCSE, Lennie.

The authors recommend the following sensible alternatives – many of which may be qualified as method and alleviate tensions of repeated failure that the current compulsory mechanism of the re-GCSE problem represents:

  • Enquiry learning
  • Action Learning (sets)
  • Problem-based learning
  • Negotiated contract based study

I would add Project-based learning and digital curation (portfolios, examples of work or self-tracking procedures that reflect more authentic based process and product). These may be realised through much non-examination based self-evaluation, to inculcate reflection on how we learn over what we learnt. There may also be more collaborative work and collaborative assessment, aligned to lifelong learning, procedural knowledge – or knowledge working –  and workplace models. (See, Institute for the Future at the University of Phoenix (IFTF, 2011) or the Assessment & Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATCS21S) at the University of Melbourne, which advocates ‘learning in digital networks’ for examples of how Mode 2 Knowledge is summarised in situ).

There is far more ownership and potential alignment with vocational courses within these approaches. The recent Blended Learning MOOC from Learning Futures showed examples of how technologies can enable and facilitate these work-based practices and result in tangible products. All of which require literacy (and most likely Maths in some form), which can be simultaneously run in drilled grammar workshops. At FE and in vocational levels, these are surely better fits than Steinbeck’s beautiful human condition in the Great Depression, again.


Hadfield P and Atherton J (2008) “Beyond compliance: accountability assessment and anxiety, and curricular structures to help students engage with troublesome knowledge” Paper presented at 16th Improving Student Learning; through the curriculum conference, University of Durham
UK, 1-3 September 2008



Leave a comment

Filed under English re-sit, FE, Uncategorized