balance isn’t everything

Movement is the destruction of balance.

I don’t know who I originally heard this from, but it was in the context of running theory.

The idea is that in order for a physical body to move in any direction, it cannot be in a position of balance. That is to say, it cannot be maintaining a given position against the pressure of gravity.

For movement to occur, this balance needs to be destroyed, if only momentarily and if only slightly.  In order to run, all we need is a very slight forward lean from the ankles, and gravity takes care of the rest.  We realign ourselves with gravity by bringing our feet up fast enough to catch ourselves from toppling, and repeat the process.

This got me thinking about learning.  It made me realise the following: learning is the destruction of knowing.


For a human being to learn, he or she cannot remain in a position of knowing.  That is to say, he or she cannot be maintaining a given position against the pressure of experience.

When I say a position of knowing, I mean a mental model or view which is tacitly and deeply accepted as true by someone – and this need not be something of which the person is particularly conscious themselves. When I say the pressure of experience, I mean the weight of evidence in relation to a given circumstance.

To take a simple example, I may know that standing up while teaching is good; in other words, I have become deeply convinced that this is so as a result of having seen it done so often by people whom I viewed as approved models in teaching – my previous teachers.

This knowing may be on such a deeply unconscious level that if you asked me whether I thought a good teacher stood up thoughout class, I may claim this were nonsense.

However, as soon as I take on the position of teacher myself, I inevitably stand at the front of the room throughout my lesson, and afterwards I may even dispute that I did so if it were brought to my attention.

The fact that my standing throughout the lesson correlated with reduced student participation, higher teacher talk, less natural interaction, less observable learner involvement and so on, is what I mean by the pressure of experience as the weight of evidence in relation to a given circumstance.

As long as this position of knowing remains stable, in other words, as long as I can maintain my given position against the pressure of experience, I have no chance to learn how to take a different position.

For learning to occur, therefore, this position of knowing needs to be destroyed, if only momentarily and if only slightly.

In order to learn, all we need is a very small shift from our previous position of knowing, and experience takes care of the rest.  We realign our mental models with experience by considering the gap that has opened between where we were and where we now find ourselves to be, closing that gap, and repeating the process.


There are many consequences, questions and objections entailed in what I have said which I am not going to pursue here.

Instead, I am going to jump to a conclusion.

If what I have suggested up to now is true, then it follows that the job of the teacher-trainer is a crucially disconcerting one.  Our role is – quite literally – to put our trainees off-balance.

Our job is to look out for habits of mind, behaviour or speech in our trainees which may reveal an underlying position of knowing.  Once we have noticed one of these, our next task is to draw it to our trainee’s attention, so that they can focus their attention on it and begin the process of shifting from it to a new position.

This is not to say that our trainee’s initial position is necessarily or inherently always wrong, or that the new position of knowing to which they move is always going to be an improvement.  However, it is to say that if we don’t provoke an attempt to shift into a new position, we – and, more importantly, the trainee – will never know.

While we may usually employ more subtle methods, here is an extract from a conversation between me and a trainee during teaching practice guidance on a pre-service teacher training course.

As context, the trainee in question had never taught before starting the course, and the conversation was in relation to this trainee’s third  teaching practice, so after teaching two previous classes for a total classroom experience of 80 minutes:

TRAINEE: “So I thought I’d start the lesson that way because that’s my usual routine and…”

ME: (interrupting) “I know, and that’s precisely why I don’t want you to do it that way.”

TRAINEE: “Oh, I see. So you think that what I usually do is not a good idea…”

ME: “No, that’s not what I said. What I want you to realise is that doing something simply because you have done it that way before is not a good reason for doing it.”

ME: (At the end of guidance, addressing the group) Just to come back to that point about how far to experiment during these lessons, you have all spent a lot of money on this course because it gives you a chance to try things out and learn from doing new things. If you spend the whole time doing things the way that you always did them in the past, or the way you have become comfortable doing them, then I would say that you have wasted your money.”

This is a quite direct, and perhaps controversial, intervention.  The question is, do you think it is helpful?


  • Yes, I think it is helpful, though I may be biased because it sounds very much like some of the things I say to my trainees as well.

    Without risk there is not so much opportunity for learning.

    I do concur with what you,re saying, Anthony. I think part of what we must do is to rattle and shake, cause our trainees to question deeply held values and beliefs and encourage exploration and experimentation.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Marisa, and for agreeing with what I am doing 🙂

      One thing I am interested in now is: is there a language that trainers can develop to make such conversations useful, and what that would sound like?…Hmmm. Food for thought!

  • I can understand why you intervened Anthony. As Marisa states, trainees should be encouraged to make the most out of this learning opportunity, which means experimenting. If we don’t explore varying possibilities how will we know what functions in practice and what doesn’t. And it varies of course with the context. As teachers, I feel we have to remain curious and flexible no matter how much experience we have. Adaptability is a skill that ranks highly in my teaching, survival toolkit.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Patricia. I agree that experimentation is key to development (once you add reflection), but on many courses aimed at attaining a qualification, there is a bit of a double-bind, isn’t there? I mean the one that says “experiment – but make sure you are successful.”

      How to get out of that one?

  • Hi, there! It really depends on the students. There are some students who are very open. And there are some students who don’t like being told off. That’s why it’s very important to know your students, their motivations for learning and why they are in class. For my Korean students, a lot of them have been forced by their parents. So in terms of motivating them, it’s kind of a challenge. For adult learners, you can do the the direct approach.

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