Sad Learning Environments: Habitus and Power

The Sad Learner (SL)

At this juncture, I am going to discuss the specific subjective identity of the “learner”, rather than discussing “learning processes”. In my experience, Sad Learners (SL) are readily identifiable in the school system: these are the “demoralised” students, who have more or less lost most of their powers of action in the formal education system. School for them mostly “decreases their powers of action”; it stops them from wanting to learn, it makes them feel bad about themselves. This said, it is important to note that anybody can become a SL: all of us, in certain contexts, are SLs because we lack the confidence to ask questions about what we are learning, we feel confused and yet unable to find any sense in what we are supposed to be learning.

Sad Learning Environments: Habitus and Power

A great deal of research has gone into the reasons why students “fail” in the school system, or are “failed” by it. There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that students’ achievement at school is greatly affected by their socio-economic status: the wealth of their carers and their communities. For me, the work of Bourdieu rings very true. The “habitus” of students – the habits of doing things, their demeanour, their dispositions – is largely determined by the social, cultural milieu they grow up in and this “habitus” profoundly affects how well they do in school. If they’ve grown up in a household which is under severe stress from poverty, with parents who have priorities other than “formal” education, then they may well find school alienating. Their accent, their dialect, their thought-structures, their “affects”, their bodily postures, their likes, their dislikes are mostly likely to be “at odds” with what those they encounter within school. School is generally a purveyor of “middle-class” values. The language of the text books, the accents and demeanours of the teachers, the values of the institution are those which are “in tune” with the middle-classes. As Bourdieu points out, this means that education becomes a system for reproducing and magnifying existing social class differences. Bourdieu sociological perspective chimes with Spinoza’s philosophy in that it attempts to gain an “adequate idea” of what is happening in schools by looking at the overall context of the learner, seeing the multitude of factors that produce the school student. I have found the idea of “habitus” a very helpful term because it has assisted with me seeing how embodied learning is and how complex it is. It’s my contention that when students whose habitus does not conform with the “expected” habitus of the school system, then this decreases these students’ power, turning them often into “Sad Learners”. These students know that the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they think is regarded as somehow as “deficient”. The confidence of the habitus of the various players in the school system plays a big factor in decreasing the power of the Sad Learner. They are confronted with teachers, with books, with students who are confident in their habitus because the system nurtures this confidence. For example, teachers, politicians and three centuries of educational documents proclaim that the dialect of the wealthy classes – Standard English – is basically the “right” way to talk and write, and that regional dialects are “wrong”. In other words, the way these students’ parents speak (and by extension think) is “wrong” because it is not Standard English. This is a fact that these students have to live with every day at school. These students must learn to change their dialect in school system to conform with the hegemony. In this sense, George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion  with its story of the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, being “educated” to speak the Queen’s English using Received Pronunciation, is a symbolic parable of what every student from an “alternative” background has to undergo at school if they are going to succeed. They must force themselves to speak differently and, if they don’t do that, they are punished all sorts of explicit and hidden ways from failing exams to being patronised and looked down upon. As a result, I would like to argue that most schools are inevitably Sad Learning Environments which necessarily decrease the power of many of our students.

This diagram is attempting to show how the habitus that is valued by the school system is a “middle-class or upper class” habitus, which means students who have be acculturated to this habitus will feel joy within the system because their accent, their dialect, their bodily actions, their forms of thought will all be, in large and minute ways, pretty much in tune with their teachers and the educational material they have to absorb. Other classes who have different habituses will feel sad because they won’t “fit in” in so many large and minute ways.