What are the barriers and obstacles to adults learning? David Mathew explains the concept of ‘Fragile Learning’

Adult Education: The Anxiety of Influence and the Influence of Anxiety


Fragile Learning: The Influence of Anxiety asks the reader to consider a wide variety of factors that might challenge an adult learner’s resilience or make the process of learning precarious and problematic. It is a book about anxiety (anxiety at the root of all learning); about barriers to adult learning, and about the situation that arises when the educator also becomes a Fragile Learner. Over fifteen chapters, the book discusses the various ways in which the processes and procedures of learning can be broken; and argues that it is much easier to break something than to fix it.

How might we hold on to our adult learners? the book asks; and what does the process of fragile learning do to the educator, in addition to the learner?

From Fragile Learners’ points of view, some of these barriers to learning are external, considered to be not of their own making. They are impediments that have been put in the way of their education, either with malice aforethought or in ignorance or error. Some of these obstacles, however, are strictly localised and internal. They are created in the Fragile Learner’s mind; they are of his or her own creation, though often they are not recognised as such, and the learner will blame others for the failure to learn. Such obstacles as technology, environment, culture, age, self-defeat, bullying, disease and incarceration are considered as barriers, among others.

Moms-keyboard (2)

“Such obstacles as technology, environment, culture, age, self-defeat, bullying, disease and incarceration are considered as barriers, among others.”

Several years before I had coined the term ‘Fragile Learner’, the book had two very different starting points. As is the way with such matters (with me!), it took a few years more for me to see the links between these seemingly unrelated ignitions.

The first was a maximum security prison for Young Offenders. I worked as an Education Manager at Aylesbury Young Offender Institution (YOI) for eighteen months from 2006 to 2007, and to put it bluntly, it was a difficult job. In addition to the adjacent periods of boredom and physical and mental danger that I encountered, I stepped into a parallel world that was created (and re-created regularly) via the vigorous rules of a language that was not available outside the prison’s walls. Structurally, the language was fascinating, but it drew me in for other reasons, not least of which was its function as a container for learner anxiety and a defence mechanism. The chapter entitled ‘Prison Language’ and my novel O My Days were directly influenced by my time at the prison and my immersion in the offenders’ language, which I learned in secret.

tech-cartoonThe second influence was an academic paper that I wrote in 2011. ‘The Absence of E’ compared two education programmes on which I had been active, one of which had had no Internet access for the learners (a course delivered at the prison) and one of which had had only Internet access (a Masters-level distance learning course in Public Health, with students in different parts of the world). Needless to say, the groups could not have been much more different, and the paper was not submitted with any claims to scientific enquiry, more an educator’s view – my view – of how anxiety was contained in context.

Because of work I was doing in an online environment in a Higher Education setting, some of the papers that I published over the next three years concentrated on the experiences of learners and educators working with the Internet. I realised that what connected my work on online learning with my publications on barriers to learning was anxiety. Consequently, at the heart of Fragile Learning is an acceptance of anxiety – both learner anxiety and educator anxiety – as both an inevitable and important pedagogic tool. Indeed, so important has the subject been to my writing life for the previous three years, that for a long time, while the manuscript grew around me, this book was going to be called ‘Learner Anxiety’ or simply ‘Anxiety’. For a long time it seemed as though anxiety would be the sole chain that bound my papers together.

However, I realised that there was more to the matter than anxiety, however complex and unpleasant that anxiety might be. What I really wanted to address was fragility. Over the course of Fragile Learning‘s chapters I suggest that learning is brittle by nature, and easily broken. There is nothing about the process, in fact, that should be taken for granted.

Part One of Fragile Learning is concerned with barriers to learning. Part Two is concerned is called ‘Online Anxiety’. Dealing as it does with the demands of digital literacy, the movement into learning in an online environment, adult learners returning to learning, cyberbullying, and more, it is hoped that the book will be of great interest to readers of psychoanalysis, psychoanalysts, counsellors, psychologists, students in Higher Education, and of course, educators.

36737David Mathew works at the University of Bedfordshire, UK, and as an independent researcher and writer. His wide areas of interest include psychoanalysis, linguistics, distance learning, prisons and online anxiety. With approximately 600 published pieces to his name, including a novel based on his time working in the education department of a maximum security prison (O My Days), he has published widely in academic, journalistic and fiction outlets. In addition to his writing, he edits the Journal of Pedagogic Development, teaches academic writing, and he particularly enjoys lecturing in foreign countries. His latest book Fragile Learning: The Influence of Anxiety is published this week by Karnac Books.



Fragile Learning is a fascinating exploration from a psychoanalytic viewpoint of the nature of both learner and educator anxiety, in the context of a variety of higher education, education management, and community workplaces. The author considers problems of projective identification, retreat or claustrum situations, basic assumption and work groups, the impact of physical illness, and how to engage in productive conflict whilst acknowledging the anxieties of all parties. The book gains insights from original research into these matters, not only as applied to traditional educational environments, but also in relation to the particular forms they may take in distance and e-learning, where both students and teachers are often equally fragile learners, seeking to adapt humanistically to the new technological tools they are acquiring.’
Meg Harris Williams, writer and artist

‘This fascinating collection of essays makes important links between the fields of higher education studies and psychoanalysis. At the heart of the book is a compassionate engagement with the fragile learner – someone who is “close to giving up at any point, close to breaking”. This book makes a very helpful contribution to the way we understand such learners, and indeed our own fragility, in the face of a fast and fragmented digital learning environment.’
Elizabeth Chapman Hoult, Birkbeck, University of London, author of Adult Learning and la Recherche Féminine


One thought on “What are the barriers and obstacles to adults learning? David Mathew explains the concept of ‘Fragile Learning’

  1. Pingback: How the experience of grief and loss shapes our world, by Vamık D. Volkan |

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