Disequilibrium (I): Real learning is disruptive  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

In the early part of the 20th century a child psychologist (he preferred to be known as a genetic epistemologist, but that’s a different story) became interested in how people learn. A careful observer, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) noticed that learning wasn’t simply a smooth, easy process of absorbing knowledge but instead proceeded in fits and starts. He called it disequilibrium.

Don’t let the jargon throw you, because the phenomenon it identifies is simple, straightforward, and common. We’ve all experienced disequilibrium. The basic idea is this. We tend to hold a view of life and reality with which we are relatively comfortable. Things fit and life makes sense. Then we hear or see or experience something that does not fit neatly into our view of things, and as a result we feel uneasy. Maybe life makes less sense, or we wonder whether the truth of this new thing might cast doubt on some of the rest of what we have assumed is true. So we wrestle with it all until the new thing makes sense—maybe because we’ve discovered more about it or maybe because we’ve adopted a whole new framework into which this new thing fits. This second possibility—a change in framework—is usually referred to as a paradigm shift, but the important thing is that in either case we have learned.

Piaget observed that this process of disequilibrium is involved in learning that moves us towards wisdom—as opposed to learning that merely consists of absorbing new data. So, as we grow to maturity we move from equilibrium (where everything fits together nicely) to disequilibrium (where some idea or event doesn’t seem to fit into our view of things), and finally to a new equilibrium (where we’ve made some shift so the new thing fits in and ease is restored). This process, Piaget argued, is essential to human learning.

[Note: I’m going to let Piaget speak for himself here. If you are uninterested in how he expressed it, feel free to skip this paragraph.] In studying the development of knowledge in children Piaget saw “a process leading from certain stages of equilibrium to others, qualitatively different, and passing through multiple ‘non-balances’ and re-equilibrations.”1 He concluded that these periods of disequilibrium are important in cognitive formation since they provide motivation for growth, a process which may involve the painful realization that one’s ideas and convictions fail to make adequate sense of life and reality. “[I]t is clear,” he argued, “that one of the sources of progress in the development of knowledge is to be found in imbalance as such which alone can force a subject to go beyond his present state and to seek new equilibriums.”2 Thus for Piaget knowledge is understood to be “a system of transformations that become progressively adequate,” punctuated by and motivated by periods when the individual finds their cognitive equilibrium disrupted.3 Trained in biology, Piaget observed organisms adapting to their environment and applied this model to cognitive development. In his view, intellectual growth is an ongoing process that includes four aspects: schema, assimilation, accommodation, and equilibrium. Schema are the “cognitive structures” or mental categories each individual develops to name, organize, and make sense of life and reality.4 Assimilation occurs when the environment presents new information or data which is absorbed into the existing schema. Some new data, however, does not mesh with the individual’s existing schema but instead conflicts with or fails to fit into the mental categories they have developed. This requires accommodation to occur, whereby the existing schema is refined, made more elaborate, or some new schema is developed. To the extent that this process of cognitive development is balanced and undisturbed, the individual is in the preferred state of equilibrium. Disequilibrium occurs, however, when imbalance produces a state of unease, when information that doesn’t seem to make sense must be made to fit into our understanding of life and reality. These temporary disturbances, though uncomfortably destabilizing, are necessary if the individual is to grow, since they provide motivation to accommodate new information and the opportunity to develop schema that more adequately embraces things as they are. “Only intelligence,” Piaget said, “capable of all its detours and reversals by action and by thought, tends towards an all-embracing equilibrium by aiming at the assimilation of the whole of reality.”5

I think Jean Piaget is correct: disequilibrium is a process essential to learning. I am convinced of it for two reasons. First, I’ve experienced it. And second, the Scriptures of the Christian faith (which I accept as God’s written revelation), and Jesus Christ (who I accept as God’s personal, living revelation), are so disequilibrating as to knock people off their feet—sometimes quite literally. I’ll come back to this interface between Christian faith and disequilibrium in later posts, but for now let me tell you a story of disequilibrium I experienced.

It involved art appreciation class in college. I had been raised in a home and church that saw the arts as an unnecessary luxury at best, a worldly sensuous danger at worst. Even if there were good painting in the museum, finding them amidst the nudes and decadence was like trying to find a meal in a garbage dump. And abstract art was silly and meaningless, something preachers reminded us with a chortle their child could do. I grew up shaped by this perspective, because it was all I knew. Then I signed up for art appreciation at the University of Minnesota. I thought it would simply be an easy way to get three credits of core liberal arts requirements out of the way.

It was a bad learning environment in almost every way. The class was huge and so was held in an auditorium, rows of seats lined up before a stage and a large drop-down screen. There was no interaction, merely lecture, our instructor talking about the works of art projected on the screen. He didn’t even bother with eye contact, but always faced the screen, his back to us. I don’t even remember him being a particularly scintillating speaker.

I was captivated, however, by the beauty projected on that screen. I had not been exposed to art, and growing up in a missionary’s family had provided a level of isolation that was fairly complete. So, it was new to me. And though I could not have verbalized it at the time, beauty in art touched me deeply, in a way that was almost frightening, because it evoked a sense of awe that I had rarely known.

I don’t remember being conscious of moving from artwork that was representational to pieces that could be called abstract. The instructor stood there, back to us, telling us what he saw, how to look at the pieces, what the artist seemed to be communicating, how there was a language of form and shadow, color and line, shape and composition that could express longing and love, fear and hope, despair and redemption. And wonder of wonders, I began to see. It was like a whole new world was opening before me, a world of beauty and creativity, of brokenness and pain, of dreams and grace. I was stunned, and the class left me reeling. I knew, deep in my heart that this new world for all its possibilities called into question my old one, and suddenly certainty was in short supply and the faith that formed the core of my being was shown to be insufficient. Over weeks old beliefs cracked open with questions, then hardened into doubts, and slid towards unbelief.

One of my assignments that semester was to write a paper on a piece of art hanging in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I went to look at the piece hesitantly. My girlfriend came with me, a lovely woman from a farm in a northern Minnesota who would later become my wife. Margie and I stood before the work and looked and talked, and looked some more. If memory serves, the piece I wrote about was a large canvas by Larry Rivers (1923-2002). I haven’t been drawn to Rivers’ work as a whole, but that day in the gallery was at the heart of a period of several years of profound disequilibrium for me. As we looked and talked, the painting seemed to unfold before me, and soon the paper was too short to contain all I saw and thought. More profoundly, my view of things no longer made sense, and I was increasingly haunted with a sense of dis-ease. I found myself thinking and rethinking, questioning and searching, reading and discussing, and as weeks stretched into months and years, sometimes I feared I would teeter into despair. Margie and I walked through it together.

In the end, my disequilibrium provoked a paradigm shift. What I experienced in art appreciation class was not new data I could absorb into my beliefs as a Fundamentalist. My Fundamentalist worldview, values, convictions, and theology were insufficient, incapable to account for the expression of beauty, craft, and human creativity I had encountered. All I wanted was three easy credits to help maintain my student deferment in order to stay out of the Viet Nam war. Little did I know that signing up for that class would be one in a growing series of experiences that would force me to go back to basics, and in the process discover something of God. In hindsight, that poorly taught class is one of the very best learning experiences I have ever encountered.

Have you learned by experiencing a period of disequilibrium? Would you be willing to share something of your experience in a comment? I’d love to hear your stories.

Graphics: Picture of monkey in what seems to me as a perfect expression of disequilibrium (www.calxibe.com). Picture of Jean Piaget (http://faculty.weber.edu/pstewart/6030/6030.html). Makoto Fugimura Four Holy Gospels, a project of Crossway publishing (http://www.crossway.org/). Book cover: Larry Rivers: Art and the Artist (Corcoran Gallery of Art) by David Levy, Barbara Rose, and Jacquelyn Serwer. 

1. Jean Piaget, The Development of Thought: Equilibrium of Cognitive Structures (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1975, 1977), 3.
2. Jean Piaget, The Development of Thought: Equilibrium of Cognitive Structures (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1975, 1977), 12.
3. Jean Piaget, “Genetic Epistemology” in Jean Piaget: The Man and His Ideas by Richard I. Evans, trans, Eleanor Duckworth (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1973), xliv.
4. Barry Wadsworth, Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development: An Introduction for Students of Psychology and Education (New York, NY: David McKay and Company; 1971), 10.
5. Jean Piaget, Intelligence, quoted in P. G. Richmond, An Introduction to Piaget (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1970), 78.

This entry was posted at Monday, January 31, 2011 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Thank you for sharing this; as learning 'motivates through unchartered methods' I have also come to a greater appreciation for the creative art forms as well.

January 31, 2011 at 11:29 AM

Appreciate your agreement. Thanks

January 31, 2011 at 11:41 AM

When Donald first lectured on disequilibration I had to go home, shut the door, and process everything he just threw at me for about 2 hours. It was brilliance upon brilliance for him to teach disequilibration by USING disequilibration.

My most recent disequilibrating experience was when I had a particularly tough day with people on Sunday, and I had to go home and simply cry. I was sure that I was right, the way they treated me was wrong and that was the end of the story.

Then Lord whispered to my heart that perhaps I was letting my role in ministry define me, rather than allowing Christ define me.

If having a few people yell at me for things that aren't my fault is what it took to teach me that lesson, so be it.

January 31, 2011 at 12:58 PM

Whoa. Being yelled at is a form of learning we usually don't recognize as learning. Usually we think of it in terms of rights, or hurts, or reconciliation. Your willingness to learn is admirable.

January 31, 2011 at 1:19 PM
24/7 Mom  

Classes can provide a certain level of disequilibrium; everyday life can take it beyond guided disequilibrium (which in the end, is often designed to align the student in some way with the teacher’s perspective) to utter chaos. There are those who delight in introducing that chaos into our lives. For the most part, though, it simply happens. Whether we experience a shift or an explosion in our paradigm, we learn. I think it’s possible to learn lessons that are contrary to truth. It’s also possible to come closer to truth than we would have without those experiences. Having been through a paradigm explosion, I recognize that I was in deep need of the end result. I do wonder, though, if there might not have been a more effective classroom in which to alter my thinking. I also recognize that the “what if” is rarely the case. The reality is that we have opportunities to learn in any circumstance. Of course, that learning isn’t complete until it’s altered our habits (not just temporary behaviour). The warning I hope to constantly place in front of me is to ensure that the learning I follow through to action is based on truth. I also hope to clearly identify that truth. Now that the dust has mostly settled from my personal Hiroshima, the lessons are coming piecemeal and much easier to process. I'm challenged by Stephanie's post; our business deals with edgy clients every day. I’m off to today’s learning curve!

February 2, 2011 at 9:46 AM

I really appreciate this post. I remember when the term paradigm shift started to really resonate with me. I'd heard the term before, but never really understood how to apply it in life.
The one really big shift for me isn't a crisis of faith per se, but it followed that it would shape the way I live out my faith. It seems so elementary now, but when I realized leaving the lights on in an empty room is unnecessary the shift began. It started sinking in when light bulbs had to be more energy efficient. The light bulb went on in my head that it really is a waste of energy to leave the lights on. And from there, I found myself on a journey of realizing our impact on the earth, that God gave us to live on, and to care take. I shifted from someone who thought the planet was a never-ending resource to a person who sees that while the Lord does care for everything, even the lilies of the field, we need to live wisely with these resources and not squander what God has so graciously given. It has made me even more appreciative of all He does give.

February 4, 2011 at 9:57 AM

Considering the depth to which I have experienced the equilibrium-to-disequilibrium-to-equilibrium paradigm shifts, I still end up about as wise as Wile E Coyote. It's unconscionable, the patience and love of our Creator.

February 4, 2011 at 12:55 PM

I am reminded of the Peart lyrics from Entre Nous.

We are secrets to each other
Each one's life a novel
No one else has read
Even joined in bonds of love
Linked to one another by such slender threads

We are planted to each other
Drifting in our orbits
To a brief eclipse
Each of us a world apart
Alone and yet together
Like two passing ships

Just between us (Entre Nous)
I think it's time for us to recognize
The differences we sometimes fear to show
Just between us
I think it's time for us to realize
The spaces in between
Leave room for you and I to grow

We are strangers to each other
Full of sliding panels
An illusion show
Acting well-rehearsed routines
Or playing from the heart?
It's hard for one to know

We are islands to each other
Building hopeful bridges
On a troubled sea
Some are burned or swept away
And some we would not choose
But we're not always free

February 4, 2011 at 1:27 PM

Anonymous (Ron):
So glad you added these two comments.

Hadn't thought of the Peart lyrics, but think you are exactly correct. Sometimes a song says things best.

Learning is humbling, I agree. I find I have to keep learning the same lessons, over and over, each time swearing I'll get it this time. But no.

Look forward to seeing you this week.

February 23, 2011 at 11:09 AM

I too had to go through a process of realizing that the earth is precious, that God has called us to care for it tenderly, that to mistreat it is to be dismissive of his grace, and that the issue is not primarily a political issue but a theological/gospel one. But then I am a slow, slow learner.
Thanks so much for your comments.

February 23, 2011 at 11:12 AM

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