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.


2 thoughts on “Disequilibrium

  1. emilly mcleay

    I still think that both disequilibrium and Erikson’s turning points are far less than the examples your class (and my class – learning that Adam & Eve were metaphors) brought up. If one was brought to a point of shock that is remembered 15 or 20 years later before one learnt anything at all, how could anyone get through school? Is accommodation through dis- and re-equilibirium really a supposed to be developmental breakthrough? I understood it to be part of learning, generally, as an everyday thing.

    (Also, the amount of people in my class who tended to equate “showed signs of grief” with “love” in the second half of my class was frankly disturbing. What, do you think, would have been the right question? What learning are we supposed to get out of a story of hiding your identity and death in a class about learning theory?)

    1. philipthiel Post author

      I can only think of right questions for an English class. “Learners, Teachers and Pedagogy” in a session about developmental theories of learning? Not so much…

      Thanks for these thoughts about disequilibrium. What was going on in our classes – Adam and Eve and the Holocaust? Actually our seminar leader started with a story about learning about the existence of Santa Claus. That was an early one, for me.


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