Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit… My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited… I think that I am superior… in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully… What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.”

– Charles Darwin, 1881

Benjamin Spock

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

– Albert Einstein, 1952

Dwight D. Eisenhower

I was kind of bored for the first few years… they really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me.”

– Steve Jobs, speaking of elementary school (Isaacson, 2011, p. 12)

Silvan TomkinsIn educational theory, there is a perennial polarity between a left-wing progressive theory, which stresses the wishes of the child, and a more conservative authority-oriented emphasis on moral or achievement norms to be achieved by education.”

 – Silvan S. Tomkins (Demos, 1995, p. 121)


This month, we explore aspects of education and learning through the lens of development.

Elicit or Impose: Toward Integration

Throughout this discussion, we are going to explore the notion that we too often see education as imposing information – rather than eliciting from the child or adult who they are and what they are interested in. This may be overstating the dichotomy… of course one must acquire certain skills and knowledge to function in reality and achieve socialization in the environment. However, the other side of the equation is often shortchanged—what are the children interested in, and what are their special assets and creative capacities?

Let’s start with some questions and efforts at definitions.

Definitions and Development

  • Do we listen to children, adolescents, and adults and try to enhance their passions and authentic interests and talents?

  • Or do we impose what we think is information they need to know?

  • Or both—support the child’s interests as well as socialize?

So what does education and educate mean? Merriam-Webster’s has a variety of definitions: to provide schooling for; to train; to provide with information; to inform.

Let’s examine this question through the process of development—i.e. the reciprocal interaction between the internal world and feelings of infants and children, and the environment of parents, caregivers, and teachers. The very title of one of Donald Winnicott’s best-known books says it all: The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment… that is, the processes within the child, and the enhancing environment outside the child. In the 1980s, a teacher/education conference produced a comprehensive study of this issue of development and education: Learning and Education: Psychoanalytic Perspectives (Field et al., 1989).

How about other definitions?

Learn: To gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience; to come to know.

Reciprocal/reciprocity/reciprocate: Shared, felt, or shown by both sides; to give and take mutually; a mutual exchange. In terms of development: learning from the child (intrinsic, authenticity) and helping the socializing of the child (extrinsic, societal norms).

Epistemology: A study or the theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits and validity.

All of these words, phrases, ideas are presented to convey the notion of an interaction between the child/adolescent/adult’s internal world and his/her environment. This relates explicitly to feelings, especially the affect of interest as we discussed previously in detail.

Some Examples

By now, you may know I am a psychiatrist and a child and adult psychoanalyst. So what do my colleagues and I see and hear clinically from the children and adolescents whom we treat? One of the most prominent problems they come in with is boredom and frustration in school. This may be in part due to the inhibiting of the interest affect, as we discussed previously. The environment may not be as supportive of their exploratory and creative and learning tendencies as one might wish.

The boredom is particularly apparent when one discusses their education and schooling with them. They describe the hours of watching the clock in school—tick, tick, tick. And they talk about their frustration of having 7-8 hours of school and then coming home and having to do “homework.”

I must at this point admit to a bias, or at least a question. Courses on higher algebra, the specifics of the battles in ancient history, and so on may have valuable concepts to contribute—but who remembers the details unless one is in those fields? Can concepts not be taught in a more condensed form? Why not an overview of human evolution and migration? Do the kids really need to read all the so-called “classics” to get a feel for conflict, character, psychology? (Why not just offer good psychology courses to these kids? That’s what they are really interested in.) Are many of these courses or the memorization necessary, or is how they are presented the best way to get across some useful concepts? Is a full year of geometry really necessary? Are we trying just to contain and mold latency and adolescent children—or enhance their intellectual curiosity and personal development and interests? Is what we are doing the best way to do it?

I am quite familiar with premed studies—the multitude of required chemistry, physics, and biology courses, and so on. In my opinion, most of these courses are not at all necessary in becoming a physician—with the exception of a few basic concepts in biology and chemistry, one will get in medical school and later training what one needs to be an excellent physician. Often these premed courses are simply used to screen out people. It is not learning the content which is important at that stage, because medical school will provide the necessary information. Psychologically, this often means people who are quite obsessive, often a bit schizoid, make it through this premed process, while those with more humanistic interests are less highly regarded.

Affect Theory and Education

Silvan Tomkins (Demos, 1995) suggested there exists an ideologic polarity in Western thought. On the one hand is a humanistic orientation—a person as an end in him/herself, creative, active, thinking, driven by the individual’s unique internal feelings and character structure. On the other hand is a normative orientation—a person’s stature and value comes from conformity to a norm, a measure, an essence.

This polarity highlights one of the major issues which affect theory brings to the question of education—that of reciprocity. Do we “impose information” or do we “listen and learn”? Do we try to enhance curiosity? We know the importance of the affect of interest—its crucial role in learning, exploring, creating. We also know how interest can be inhibited by eliciting the affects of fear, shame, and disgust. Winnicott, of course, raises these questions too in his concepts of True and False Self, and play, and, again, elegantly in the title of his book, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (1965).

The issue is reciprocity. In child development as well as “education,” do we impose or do we elicit? Do we talk or do we listen? Do we inform or do we learn from and about the child? Or do we try to create a reciprocal process of these polarities?

Understanding education can be enhanced by appreciating feelings as motivators of behavior. In a sense, the popular concepts “social and emotional learning” and “emotional intelligence” use the integration of feelings and learning as a springboard for discussion. But in the material that follows, let’s see if we can be more specific about just which feelings enhance education, which derail learning, and how this happens.

Play and Creativity: Education and Affect Theory

Play and education are closely related. The concept of play has been the subject of a large literature. One synonym for play is recreation, or, perhaps better, re-creation—which conveys play as a process.

We are indebted to Donald Winnicott for so many insights, and play is one of them (see Playing and Reality, 1971). Winnicott suggested play was a way of reaching the authentic, creative, less-defended part of a person’s personality—i.e. the “True” self, in terms of his True and False Self distinction (1960). Another of his ideas is that therapy represents the overlap of the two play areas, that of the patient and that of the therapist—and if one or the other cannot play, then one must work to understand that dynamic.

Play is one of the major venues of all child therapy—as Hermine Hug-Hellmuth, Melanie Klein, Anna Freud, and others showed. However, play is also important in work with adults. The notion of play in adult therapy presages the development of so-called relational and intersubjectivity schools of thought.

Play is significant for development. Fantasy is one way children have of regulating tensions and experimenting with the real world. For example, in the face of various vulnerabilities and anxieties, young children will often play games in which they are strong superheroes or cowboys or whatever.

Much has been studied and written about play, and we would like to consider play from a somewhat different perspective, namely, that of affect theory. What is play, in terms of primary affects?

Play appears to be a process, primarily, but not only, dealing with the positive affects of interest and enjoyment. It seems to involve oscillations between increases and decreases of interest and enjoyment. Surprise also is part of this process. Surprise quickly can become tinged with positive or negative affects. Even if a negative affect is briefly elicited (e.g. distress), a reduction of tension (enjoyment) can be experienced as pleasurable (i.e. play).

Tomkins (Demos, 1995) links play with excitement, and, as with other positive affects, discusses maximizing play:

“The child is encouraged and permitted to play with the parents, with peers, and by himself. Many interactions are converted into games and playful rituals which otherwise might be neutral, dull, or unpleasant. Play is regarded as an end in itself” (p. 170).

Play is also closely related to competence and establishing confidence and self-esteem. Harry Harlow, in his work with monkeys, famously noted: “The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward” (Pink, p. 3). Robert White used the term, “effectance motivation” or effectance pleasure. Competence was the “ability to interact effectively with the environment.” Mike Basch, in his book, Understanding Psychotherapy: The Science Behind the Art, brings these concepts together brilliantly to explain how our affective life relates to competence, confidence, and solid self-esteem in our character structure.

Child CreativityPlay has often been linked to creativity (e.g. Brown, 2009; Pink, 2009; Amabile, 2009). Creativity, of course, is a large and important topic itself and has spawned a huge literature. One of the most consistent themes in this connection between play and creativity has to do with intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation – i.e. a person’s own interest and enjoyment versus goals, expectations, values from the external world. This somewhat overstates the dichotomy, but you get the point.

As noted above, Silvan Tomkins discussed the intrinsic/extrinsic polarity in detail (Demos, 1995). Similarly, Bertrand Russell suggested the terms creative and possessive: “I call an impulse creative when its aim is to produce something which otherwise wouldn’t be there and is not taken away from anybody else. I call it possessive when it consists in acquiring for yourself something which is already there” (1960, p. 130).

Early Education

In this section we will continue our emphasis on how to enhance education by mobilizing the positive affects, especially interest (curiosity). The documentary film “Race to Nowhere” (2009) nicely raises many of these issues.

Much has been written about early educational efforts and programs such as Head Start. There is little doubt that, when administered properly, such programs enhance the development of the stimulus-seeking brains of children. René Spitz (1945, 1965) demonstrated long ago that institutionalized infants, who were otherwise well-fed and cared for, would deteriorate and in some cases die if they did not get reasonable emotional and cognitive stimulation. Researchers and clinicians such as Selma Fraiberg, John Bowlby, Marlene Goodfriend, and many others have shown the importance of early emotional and cognitive stimulation. The Handbook of Infant Mental Health (Zeanah, 2000) is filled with descriptions of programs based on understanding the need of infants and children for emotional and cognitive stimulation.  A remarkable number of early intervention treatment programs exist on individual as well as public health levels to help deal with infants and child whose development has gone off track.

However—in some ways this all misses the point. The real “Early Education” begins at home. It all begins with the infant and parents or other caregivers… Preventing problems rather than intervening later.

What do we mean by real early education? You probably know by now. Early education means understanding how feelings work. Early education means enhancing the interest affect… allowing curiosity its full range.

It is an infant’s and child’s—and adult’s—curiosity which drives learning.  Remember the first shuttle disaster? During the inquiry, a top physicist was playing with the rubber-like material involved in the O-ring.  He put it into his ice-water! What he realized, and talked about at the inquiry, was his view that extreme cold probably changed the capacities of the O-ring, contributing to the disaster.

Curiosity – or the interest affect – is key to learning. Much of our previous discussion has been devoted to describing how curiosity can be enhanced—and how it can be constricted. Support and validation of a child’s curiosity allow for even more exploring and learning.  The interest affect, along with enjoyment and surprise, comprise what we think of as play. Play is crucial in learning. Winnicott called play the key to creativity.

How is curiosity—or interest, play, creativity—squelched? By the use of the negative responses to a child’s interest—anger, fear, and shame, especially. These responses lead to a restriction, a shutting down of the exploratory and learning capacities.

I once saw two or three children playing together. The father of one began—quite unnecessarily, I thought, inasmuch as nothing was being damaged—to tell his son, “Don’t touch that, don’t go there, stop doing that, if you keep that up I’ll have to get out my belt.”  I don’t know what anxieties prompted the father to respond that way.  But the little boy’s reaction was dramatic. He gradually slowed down, stopped interacting, stopped playing, and became mute.  This is a somewhat extreme example of this process of constriction of interest and curiosity.  However, one can see subtle examples of constriction rather than enhancement of curiosity all the time.  For instance, what about when a child says “What’s that?”, pointing to her father’s genitals. “What’s it for?” she might ask. Or, how about when the child says “How much money do you make?” And so on — you get the picture.

We often overlook the fact that real early education involves the developing character structure of the child.  We need to recognize that understanding and responding appropriately to these early feelings — especially, interest or curiosity — is the most important foundation for learning we can give our children.

Later Schooling

Do infant and child development and the psychology of affect also have something to say about later schooling? I would strongly suggest they do, in at least two ways.

First, we tend to think of education as imparting information to our children. While there is little argument that certain basics are essential, we might consider turning this “imparting/imposing education” on its head – we need to think more in terms of learning from our children. We discussed the ideas of grasping what our children like and dislike with respect to themselves and their feelings.  Similarly, we want to hear about and see what they know, what their world is like, how they view things. This in turn generates a spirit of self-inquiry. This also allows for identification with the teacher’s desire to learn — a child will become a learner more readily if the parent or teacher shows a willingness to learn from the child.

This idea of learning from the child also tends to enhance rather than restrict her curiosity. Children feel more valued – what they are interested in, what they think about, how they view the world… all this has importance. Their interest and curiosity are validated.

Along these lines, it is useful to consider some of the strategies used in working with intellectually gifted children. The teachers in these programs give the gifted children various problems and situations — and they encourage them to experiment and to risk making mistakes. They want the children to think outside the box, to explore themselves and their environment for possible solutions and different ways to view things. The teachers decrease the use of shame — they encourage mistakes! They recognize what we talked about earlier – that shame impedes the interest affect.  So often in education, shame is used to highlight a mistake, an error. That is, a narcissistic (self-esteem) injury is delivered. This may serve to “correct,” or to motivate, but it may also serve to constrict one’s curiosity. It may take the joy out of learning and discovery.

The second point about later schooling is related to but different from the first.  It involves not just appreciating and validating the importance of the child’s interest and curiosity, but also creating a vehicle for the expression of this interest. In other words, I would suggest schools should aim their projects at the students’ individual interests whenever possible. This focus on the students’ individual interests tends to generate more enthusiasm, studying, and learning — and less oppositionality — than assigning a topic.  For example, say the class is studying medieval history and a project is in the offing. Rather than assign topics, why not let the students follow up on their own interests?  For example, the student who loves the military could study weaponry and defenses. The student who loves baseball could explore the types of games played in the Middle Ages, possibly with particular reference to games involving balls. The student who loves firefighting could study the vulnerability of the structures to fire and how fires were handled through historical periods.

I have no question that capable teachers can deal with individual topics. Teachers and schools often rationalize why all students need to write or do a project on the same topic — but it is just that, a rationalization. The problem, I think, is that often schools and teachers — like parents — do not understand the significance of the interest affect. They don’t appreciate the potential for energy and discovery and learning which is wrapped up in the positive feelings of interest and enjoyment and surprise. They are, in fact, often leery of that kind of enthusiasm and exuberance and passion, and that wariness stems from misunderstanding feelings and creativity.

What Keeps Us From Learning More? What Is Learning?

What does keep us from learning more at times, and what is learning, anyhow? Does the psychology of affect help us here?

Some suggest learning involves the increased capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Much of our current clinical psychological work with patients involves helping them understand their motives and behaviors and not repeat patterns which have gotten them into difficulty. In some sense it involves helping them adapt beneficially to their environment or to a changing environment or to trauma of some kind. In other words, this process involves learning.

So why is learning so difficult at times?

One very powerful reason has been noted: the constriction of the interest affect in the early parent-child interactions. For example, the negative affects of fear and shame can predominate in situations of potential learning. Remember the little boy who was playing and exploring exuberantly, and whose father couldn’t tolerate it and became increasingly punitive and restrictive? That’s how learning and exploring and creativity can be shut down. The necessary focus on the positive affects does not exist, and there is an overemphasis on the negative affects.

There are additional ways to conceptualize why learning can be so different. One involves the built-in tendency of the infant to “pattern-matching.”  In other words, the infant tends toward familiar scenarios — people, food, locations, and so on. This tendency toward repetition and pattern–matching is what lies behind the concept of “transference” which is used therapeutically psychodynamic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. The past casts a shadow over the present … we tend to repeat behavioral patterns and relationships (see Gedo, 2005, for a cogent discussion of this). This tendency in the infant toward pattern-matching is balanced, however, by an attraction to novelty — that is, our old friend the feeling of interest. Interest and pattern-matching exist side by side. Thus, when interest is restricted, via fear or shame or whatever, pattern-matching and repetition take over, and learning and creativity diminishes.

Robert Galatzer LevyAn additional way to conceptualize learning involves what psychoanalyst Robert Galatzer-Levy calls the disorganizing tendency of learning (2004, 2017). The idea is this. The function of the brain is to create order out of disorder, i.e., the brain has to process a variety of incoming messages (Basch, 1988). When new stimuli or data or information comes in, it has a potentially disorganizing effect—the brain has to disrupt the current organization in order to include the new information. This disorganizing effect is often felt subjectively as quite uncomfortable, and hence we often shy away from new information because it can unsettle us. It forces us to think differently about a situation or person.

Of course, often new information leads to a reorganization which feels quite uplifting. Say you have been troubled and puzzled about a particular problem, and you hear additional information and then things click into place – what a relief! The new information diminishes the tension. Remember, this was the definition of enjoyment described previously.

However, new data (i.e. learning) seem so frequently to be more discombobulating than not. In addition to the internal disorganizing effect, learning also may inflict what we call a “narcissistic injury” — a blow to one’s self-esteem. To take seriously something new is, for many people, like saying to oneself “I didn’t know that before! How stupid I am!” In other words, to accept new information and learn often means acknowledging to oneself that “I didn’t know it before, I was flawed, defective.” And, of course, we tend to shy away from that feeling. This is why the best teachers and psychotherapists will cushion their teaching, not humiliate, but convey the new information tactfully in a way that can be more readily heard and integrated by the student or patient.

Next Month

Understanding Bias and Prejudice–And Violence

References for Interested Readers

Amabile TM (1996). Creativity in Context. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Basch MF (1988). Understanding Psychotherapy: The Science Behind the Art. New York: Basic Books.

Brown S (2009). Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Avery (Penguin).

Demos EV (1995). Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Field K, Cohler BJ, Wool G (eds.) (1989). Learning and Education: Psychoanalytic Perspectives. Madison CT: International Universities Press.

Galatzer-Levy R (2004). Chaotic possibilities: Toward a new model of development. Int J Psycho-Analysis 85: 419-441.

Galatzer-Levy RM (2017). Nonlinear Psychoanalysis: Notes from Forty Years of Chaos and Complexity Theory. New York: Routledge.

Gedo JE (2005). Psychoanalysis as Biological Science: A Comprehensive Theory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pink DH (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books (Penguin).

Russell B, Wyatt W (1960). Bertrand Russell Speaks His Mind (First edition). Cleveland: World Publishing Co.

Spitz RA (1945). Hospitalism—An inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 1: 53-74.

Spitz RA (1965). The First Year of Life: A Psychoanalytic Study of Normal and Deviant Development of Object Relations. New York: International Universities Press.

Winnicott DW (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development, 1965 (pp. 140-152). New York: International Universities Press.

Winnicott DW (1965). The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press.

Winnicott DW (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Routledge.

Zeanah CH ed (2000). Handbook of Infant Mental Health: Second Edition. New York: The Guilford Press.


Abeles V (Producer, Director), Congdon J (Director), Attia M (Writer) (2009). Race to Nowhere. USA: Reel Link Films.