“Brokeback Mountain was one of them,” said the tutor. “So was The Catcher in the Rye.” I snapped to attention, like a high-school student watching a film about cowboys. “Who wrote that again?” asked the tutor. “Salinger” I replied, too quickly. How did Holden Caufield keep finding me?
We were talking about “disequilibrium,” the state that Swiss theorist Jean Piaget sees as key to learning. It happens when our prior learning is disrupted in some way, causing a “cognitive conflict.” Without experiences like this our “schema” stay unchallenged, leaving us in a kind of developmental limbo. According to Piaget, learning experiences are only effective if disequilibrium takes place, after which we can assimilate, accommodate or avoid a new insight.
“Salinger, that’s right. With The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger caused a kind of nation-wide disequilibrium – disequilibrium on a grand scale,” said the tutor. Meaning, a nation-wide opportunity for learning. Now there’s theoretical backing for Holden Caufield as my muse.
Then we talked about our own experiences: when had we made a developmental breakthrough by assimilating new ideas? “When I first learnt about the Holocaust,” someone said. “Rwanda,” someone replied. I was still thinking about the movies, how conspiracy action films like The Bourne Legacy make us adopt a different vision of the world, letting us rehearse a kind of fictional disequilibrium until the credits roll. “Yugoslavia,” someone said.
Later, the tutor recited the lyrics of Ted Egan’s folk song “The Drover’s Boy,” accompanied by two sets of images that showed different perspectives on the same text. “Did he love her?” the tutor asked, which I thought was the wrong question. In fact, the images on the screen had me floundering, lost in a sense of injustice and confusion. Was this a Piagetian cognitive conflict? If so, I was tempted to let my development stall…
If classrooms are sites of conflict and unbalance in which students’ development depends on their ideas being unmoored, then the role of teacher becomes a pastoral one, making a space in which equilibrium is not only troubled but safely restored. Because, as I discovered, unbalancing and tipping over are one angle apart.