Learning to lose our balance — Julie Timmermans

We spend much of our lives focusing on achieving balance: balancing our many work and life commitments, balancing our diets, and balancing our cheque books (actually, does anyone do that anymore?).  We are concerned with maintaining balance in the world’s ecosystems and balancing national budgets.  But what if an important part of learning involves losing our balance?

The notions of balance – and loss of balance – are prevalent in biology and psychology.  Lifespan developmental psychologist Robert Kegan explains that, in order to move forward, organisms must be thrown out of balance.  “Organisms organize,” he says, “that is their nature, and they are drawn to experiences of discrepancy in order to give them form”.  Growth of mind therefore occurs by having one’s equilibrium, one’s current way of knowing disturbed.

Kegan notes that learning of the sort that leads to growth of mind – that is, transformational learning – is not about knowing more, but about knowing differently.  But this transformation requires giving up current ways of seeing and being in the world in order to adopt new ones.  The learning process is therefore a dynamic dance of preserving, losing, and attempting to regain one’s balance.  And, as educators, we must be aware that this process is not only an intellectual one, but also a deeply emotional one for learners. It’s understandable, then, that some learners may resist teachers’ well-intentioned attempts to disturb this balance.

As I design learning experiences for others, I am therefore filled with questions: What if we were to perceive our role as teachers as involving disturbing the balance of learners in order to foster their growth? What disciplinary concepts could we introduce that would instigate a process of perspective and identity transformation? How could we design learning environments, so that learners feel exhilarated, rather than terrified at the thought of giving up a certain balance which has been successful for them until now? And how can we make learners feel comfortable with the discomfort that accompanies deep, meaningful, and lasting learning – that is, learning of the transformational kind?

Published by


As the Instructional Developer - Consulting and Research, Julie supports research on teaching and learning. She is Chair of the annual teaching and learning conference at uWaterloo: Opportunities and New Directions and manages the Learning Innovation and Teaching Enhancement (LITE) Grant program. She also collaborates on research projects, regularly reviews journal manuscripts, and works on publications. Most recently, Julie has had the opportunity to facilitate a week-long course design workshop in Japan and see first-hand how the questions, frustrations, and joys related to teaching are both similar and different across cultures.

Leave a Reply