Comparison of how Psychoanalysis and Communities of Practice conceptualise a learner


Comparison of how Psychoanalysis and Communities of Practice conceptualise a learner, in particular a learner with ADHD.

Learning is a complex process that can be interpreted and facilitated in numerous ways due to the fact ‘learning is conceptualised differently from different theoretical orientations’ (Capel and Whitehead, 2013). This is especially true when it comes to learners with disorders that potentially inhibit them from learning in the way the majority of children around them will. One disorder that can affect learning is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This involves, according to the DSM-5, ‘inattention and/or hyperactive impulsivity’ (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) and can lead to problems in a classroom environment as it states there can be ‘difficulties sustaining attention’, ‘difficulty awaiting turn’ and excessive talking. Different perspectives have varying ideas about the reasons for ADHD and why someone who has it may face barriers to learning with the rest of their class. The story of Jake (found in the appendix) shows a typical child who has ADHD but different theories do not read it the same. For the sake for this essay, I will focus on two theories – psychoanalysis and communities of practice – and explore how they conceptualise learning and how ADHD can cause differences to this, as well as the theories’ ontological views and whether they focus on the individual or a collective effort in learning processes.

How is Learning Conceptualised?

A community of practice is ‘a collection of people bound together by location, purpose, activity… or perhaps labels’ (Tobbell and Lawthom, 2005) such as a class of children in school, an out of school club, etc. This theory works on the ‘premise that learning is process of social participation’ (Tobbell and Lawthom, 2005) and that learning occurs through the person being shaped and helped by those already in the community until they can participate fully themselves. Participation is seen as key in the learning process as there is heavy emphasis on relying on other people to aid in learning therefore not being able to participate could lead to problems. This collective learning approach results in ‘practices that reflect both the pursuit of [the] enterprise and the attendants social relations’ (Wenger, 1998). Who the person learns with reflects what community of practice they identify with and together the practices they display are ones that are associated and encouraged by that community. Practices are not only things that are overtly represented by also things that are ‘assumed’ (Tobbell and Lawthom, 2013); this can make it difficult for some to understand, consequently inhibiting their participation and learning.

An example of this is the child in the case study who has ADHD. It says that he ‘stands up unexpectedly’ and ‘squirms around in his seat’ which are things that children are perhaps not directly told not to do but it is inferred. As the child is partaking in these distractions, it causes their ability to participate fully to go down and their inclusion in the community of practice to decrease also. In schools not all participation is valued the same as, while Jake is participating in lessons, he is shouting out answers which is against the practices that this classroom community encourages; only a particular kind of participation is valued.

The theory states that the reason for children with ADHD not learning in conjunction with the rest of the class is their lack of the right kind of participation. The ultimate goal is to acquire the ‘practices valued by the system’ (Tobbell and Lawthom, 2013) but this is not possible as behaviours are only changed through being able to actively learn what is expected of them and internalise it. A child with ADHD would have difficulty internalising that standing up in the middle of class will lead to them not learning as well, especially in a class with little room to accommodate different learning styles. This therefore leaves the child finding it impossible to learn in that environment, particularly as the how and where you participate can shape your identity. Not being able to learn effectively and having the label of that could lead to a self fulfilling prophecy effect (Tobbell and Lawthom, 2013) further marginalising the child and causing their membership of the community to become more peripheral and subsequently learning becomes increasingly hard.

Psychoanalysis differs greatly in how they conceptualise a learner. While the communities of practice theory accept that ADHD has a biological cause but their difficulties in learning come from social reasons, psychoanalysis has beliefs rooted in the unconscious to explain the cause of ADHD and how their learning differs from others. This theory states that learners go through stages of development which focus on different areas of the body and unconscious sexual desires – the psycho-sexual stages of development (Freud, 1923/61). The child relies on the parents to give them the right attention in each of the stages; however, if the child get fixated in a stage due to under or over indulgence, they can face problems later in their lives which is how psychoanalysis explains ADHD. Psychoanalysis focuses on the individual’s unconscious and how unconscious thoughts and feelings are expressed through behaviour. While the communities of practice theory states that learning is aided or inhibited by those presently around the person, psychoanalysis states that it is the people that were around them in early childhood that actually affect it. Also communities of practice say it is the interaction and participation with others is how learning is affected where as psychoanalysis says it is the interaction between the unconscious and conscious mind.

Psychoanalysis sees someone with ADHD as someone who is stuck in a phase so therefore does not developed fully. Freud said that you cannot progress if you are fixated in a stage (1923/61). The theory’s reasoning behind a child with ADHD struggling with learning is that the majority of children around them would have progressed fully, but the child that is still stuck won’t adapt as well to a class environment due to this as they still have unresolved issues that cause them to display symptoms that are not in line with how the schooling system works. Like the communities of practice theory, psychoanalysis recognises that a child must follow a certain set of rules and expectations in order for them to progress the best through the system and a child with ADHD often do not follow these and are left at a disadvantage.

Psychoanalysis tries to explain why some symptoms of ADHD occur through hypothesising that there are issues with the individual’s ‘Ego’ which is something that controls the demanding part of the personality called the ‘Id’ (Freud, 1923/61). Freud said that the ego is not developed fully so is unable to control that person’s impulsive, selfish desires. This can inhibit a child’s learning as an inability to maintain self control means the child with ADHD will not be able to concentrate on a task that they do not want to do even though it’s important to their learning. This is reflected in the case study of Jake where it says that that he rarely finishes his work. The Id also demands instant gratification (Freud, 1923/61) which is something that doesn’t readily occur in a school environment; in reaction to this, a child could appear hyperactive or disruptive. This is again reflected in the case study as his want to play sport, but not being picked, means he doesn’t receive that gratification and acts against this when he spoils the game. Jake’s under-developed Ego, according to psychoanalysis, stops him from learning the more socially acceptable way to deal with that kind of situation. Rainwater (2007), says that these symptoms are a defence to protect the person from overwhelming feelings as psychoanalysis sees learning (or in the case of a child with ADHD, not being able to learn) as an internal struggle. This is comparatively different to communities of practice who see it as a social struggle due to their varying ontological viewpoints.

Ontological and Sociological Views.

Psychoanalysis has an ontological stance that ‘most of what is real is not conscious and most of forms the content of our consciousness is mere fiction’ (Fromm, 1966). It believes that true knowledge lies hidden from us in our unconscious and can only be uncovered through therapy. Its methodological processes include interpreting dreams and the use of free association in an attempt to reveal what lies in the unconscious; however, it is very subjective and cannot be tested for validity so remains a contested theory. Psychoanalysis lies sociologically, following Morgan and Burrell’s paradigms (1979), in radical humanism as its fundamental belief is that ‘man is more creative than society allows him to be’ (Fromm, 1966). Radical humanists believe that in order to change and grow, one must change their consciousness and that personal growth is an internal process, which fits in line with psychoanalysis’ view that one must bring the unconscious thoughts forward into the conscious mind in order for problems to be overcome.

The community of practice theory is very different as the basis of its ontological view is that learning is not an internal process but ‘a process of becoming a member of a sustained community of practice’ (Lave, 1991). While psychoanalysis believes knowledge is built through individual development, communities of practice see building knowledge as something done together and conceptualises learning as moving from being a new peripheral member to a experienced core member (Lave, 1991) through a ‘commitment to shared understanding’ (Wenger, 2000). It also differs from psychoanalysis in its sociological perspective. Communities of practice is a functionalist theory and does not focus on conflict like psychoanalysis but consensus, and works on a basis that everyone has a part in society that ensures it functions the same. A child with ADHD doesn’t conform to this so they can be consequently marginalised as it poses a risk to the order of the system as communities of practice believe, unlike psychoanalysis, in a collective endeavour.

Individual Capacity Versus Collective Endeavour.

Both theories give different weight to individual capacity versus collective endeavour. Psychoanalysis focuses more on the individual and their own mind, particularly with ADHD which is seen by this theory as a ‘disorder of self regulation’ (Rainwater, 2007). However, it does acknowledge the influence of the other as it believes that we are impacted by our relationship with our parents in early childhood. The characteristics we display in later life are not only the fault of our own unconscious and under-developed Ego, according to psychoanalysis, but also they are ‘exacerbated by mistuned parents’ (Sugarman, 2010).

Communities of practice, on the other hand, focus more on collective endeavour. The theory believes in participating with others and becoming an active member of the community as vital to learning. It relates to Sampson’s embedded individual in that it does believe that the self is defined in relation to others (1988). Also, people in a community of practice do display a ‘fluid sense of self and other’ as they do things collectively towards a collective goal. The aim is the benefit the whole community not just the individual. However, the theory does acknowledge the contribution of the individual as it is down to the individual participation levels as to how included a person is and how well they learn in that particular community of practice.


In conclusion, both theories can provide an argument for their conceptualisation of a learner and a learner with ADHD and even though they are fundamentally different theories, they both agree that the school environment can be quite constricting (Tobbell and Lawthom, 2013; Galves, 2002) especially for children with ADHD and others who don’t learn in a completely traditional manner. This is because the lack of flexibility when it comes to how a child learns. What both these theories express is the need for children to taught in a way that suits their needs but both have varying ideas of how to achieve this. Communities of practice could believe in changing their collaboration with others to help include those who need the help more rather than the process of exclusion (Jehangir, 2012) by facilitating participating from all (Tobbell and Lawthom, 2013). On the other hand, psychoanalysis may suggest a more therapeutic, individual process. I feel that I situate myself more towards the communities of practice side as psychoanalysis relies too heavily on the intangible unconscious and sexual desires, where as communities of practice are measurable and more reliable. Despite this, neither provide a complete, infallible explanation of learning therefore I feel that one stand alone theory is not enough to understand the complex nature of how we learn or why others learn differently.

Word Count – 2109


Case Study: Jake.

Jake, 9 years old, is starting to avoid school. His teacher reports that he squirms around in his seat, stands up unexpectedly and seldom finishes his work. The kids sitting near him in class say he’s always interrupting and shouting out the answers (generally wrong). His desk is in disarray; papers are on the floor and his work is disorganized. He’s often not picked for soccer games and then tries to spoil the game for the others.

(The Child Study Centre. (No Date). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Real Life Stories. Retrieved January 7, 2015 from:

Reference List.

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Capel, S., & Whitehead, M. (2013). Debates in Physical Education. London, UK: Routledge.

Freud, S. (1961). The Ego and the Id. In J. Strachey (Ed. And Trans.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19). London: Hogarth Press. (Original Work Published 1923).

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Lave, J. (1991). Situated learning in communities of practice. In L. Resnick, J. Levine, and S. Teasley (eds.) Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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Sampson, E. (1988). The debate on individualism. American Psychologist. 15-22.

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Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of Practice. New York, Cambridge University Press.