From Breakdowns to Breakthroughs in Learning

AnneMarie Dorland (2021-04-14)

We are all breaking down. As our mental health, our work, our research and our learning are changed in the crucible of this pandemic year, we’re all experiencing the breakdown of both our expectations and our realities. And the process of learning that our students are engaging in each day – well that is no exception.

We can choose to understand learning breakdowns in our classes in one of two ways. The first, familiar to all of us in our own COVID days, is the classic breakdown: weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth in the face of the new or not-yet-understood idea. This type of breakdown lies at the intersection of all that is awful about online teaching (lack of engagement, lack of connection, lack of interest) and all that is difficult about learning new things in the first place (lack of engagement, lack of connection, lack of interest). 

You can spot this type of breakdown easily, and probably already have either in yourself, in your students, or on a bad day – in both. It is a manifestation of adversity. It looks like apathy, and it feels like detachment from both threshold concepts and from learning itself. Unfortunately, learning breakdowns like these have real life consequences. They can cause students to abandon studies, to struggle with threshold concepts, to disengage from the classroom community, or to vanish entirely from the learning experience. Type one breakdowns are really just learning burnout in disguise.

The second type of learning breakdown is something much more interesting. This type of breakdown, though equally challenging to the learner, is actually a “critical episode with an inherent potential for creating a novel understanding.”  A breakdown of this kind is a sharp and critical reminder of the spaces between a learners’ expectations and reality – a shift of focus that changes how they think about what they are learning rather than a refusal to learn at all. 

Think of learning to ride a bike.  Learning happens in the breakdown itself as the student creates a new and novel understanding of the gap between their expectations of a threshold concept (how to lean properly so as not to fall down) and the experienced reality of the concept itself (leaning too much to one side will cause you to fall over). 

The weeping, the wailing, the gnashing of teeth: these may still occur – after all, this type of breakdown is still a manifestation of adversity. But breakdowns of this kind are not negative and should not be avoided in our classrooms. Instead, they are the moments where the learner understands a new concept, generates reflection, transforms their beliefs and perceptions, and feels a positive effect. These types of breakdowns are an integral component of collective or individual processes of making sense in the world. Type two breakdowns? Those are really breakthroughs, and they are worth every tear.

For those of us who facilitate learning in PSE classrooms, our challenge is to help students convert their negative learning breakdowns to positive learning breakthroughs. This requires supporting students through four key stages:

  1. Acknowledging the breakdown (naming it, accepting it, acknowledging it and accepting that it is, despite all our efforts to the contrary, going to be challenging)
  2. Engaging whole heartedly in the process of making things make sense (assisting students in integrating extant and emerging understandings of the learning concept)
  3. Coping with change (aiding students as they cope with the liminal and uncomfortable nature of their new learning)
  4. Developing new collective practices (embedding new “breakthrough” understandings within classroom, team or individual learning practice).

It takes a good breakdown to get any kind of learning done. At least that is what I tell myself as I weep, wail and gnash my way through this unknown world of learning in the new normal. But by acknowledging our breakdowns, engaging in sensemaking, coping, and embedding the new understandings we generate I know that we’ll all find a way to break through.