Friday, February 02, 2007

Is Balance Always a Good Thing?

Amanda had an interesting post recently where she said (among other things):
The thing I like best about constructivism is that class is more interesting because each period is different. The biggest struggle I have is making some lessons (especially those involving very difficult and intricate material) constructivist. But at the same time I am fine with not being constructivist all the time. I think it is all about balance.
After I read it the first time, I commented:
I agree for the most part, but I would quibble with "it is all about balance." I think it's all about learning. As long as you are doing everything possible to help the actual students that are in your classroom learn (whether that's "constructivist" or not), then we're on the right track. But I don't think "balance" is always the best way to accomplish that . . .
I’ve been thinking about this post a lot since then. (Thanks a lot, Amanda!) I’m not picking on Amanda (as if I could), because as I said in my comment I think our thinking is pretty similar here, but she really got me thinking about the word “balance.”

Many folks in both cohorts one and two have said essentially the same thing about balance, and I’m pretty sure I’ve said it a few times myself. I think this is a natural reaction among educators who’ve been around for awhile. We’ve seen different ideas come and go and have learned to distrust anything that seems too far from the norm, to reject “radical” ideas because they are “extreme” and not “balanced.”

But I wonder if balance is really what I’m after? When I look at folks that are held up as leaders in their fields – from politicians to religious leaders to civil rights leaders to athletes to authors to whomever – rarely can I think of a case where their approach was a “balanced” approach. It seems as though the people that have really made a difference, who have really impacted the world around them, are people who tossed balance out the window. I’m sure there were many contemporaries of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, William Shakespeare and John Steinbeck, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, Tiger Woods and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who counseled them to not be so single-minded in their approach, to not ruffle so many feathers, to be “balanced.” The teachers that most folks remember aren’t the ones who took a balanced approach, but the ones that were most passionate about their subject matter and teaching and learning. And I certainly want the folks who are currently trying to cure cancer, or make solar power more practical, or figure out how to build levees that will hold up to the next major hurricane to be “extreme,” to push possible solutions to their limits if they feel they are on the right track. If they find a cure for cancer, I don’t want a balanced approach; I want them to carpet bomb the planet with it.

Now I’m not saying that I feel there is only one right way to teach or learn. I value a variety of approaches, and I think different students learn best in different ways (and even the same student learns different things best in different ways). But I’m hesitant to equate that with the word “balance.” If, for example, we found that a particular method (be it “constructivist” or otherwise) was really making some headway in a class, why wouldn’t we go for it? That if we feel like we’re finding a better way, that what our students need in the 21st century really is different and therefore requires different approaches, why wouldn’t we toss the current definition of balance out the window and move forward? We would probably ultimately come to some new ground where we would find a new balance, but that might look extremely unbalanced through the lens of current expectations and practices.

I sometimes worry that “balance” is another safety net for teachers. That it’s a built-in braking mechanism, a self-induced friction so that we don’t have to ask and answer some of the hard questions before us. That it allows us to shy away from some controversial issues in the name of harmony and stability. That we are confusing complacency with balance. Again, I don’t think I have all the answers (really, I don’t think that, honest!), but I’m not sure that an incremental approach is what we need at this time. You can’t leap a twenty-foot chasm in two ten-foot jumps.

If we’re not happy with how we’re doing, if we don’t think we’re adequately preparing students for the 21st century, if we’re not being successful with the students that in our classrooms right now – then maybe we need to occasionally “lose our balance” and take a few 20-foot leaps of faith. Because it should be about the learning. The learning of the flesh-and-blood students actually in front of us in our classrooms, not some theoretical notion of balance for the average hypothetical student.

As always, I’m mostly processing and thinking out loud here. Besides, it’s been awhile since I posted something that I knew would get everyone all fired up, and I figure this might do it. So please add your thoughts to the conversation, maybe provide some balance to my thinking . . .

Image Citation 1: .Balance_, originally uploaded by Diana Madrigal
Image Citation 2: Balancing on the Invisible, originally uploaded by Drew Brayshaw


  1. I wonder if it is really balance that Amanda meant or the slow evolution of our teaching methods that we are changing to fit the new student and world we have in front of us. If we look at it as "balance" maybe it is that we refer to because becoming constructivist teachers take so much time and energy to move from the old to an approach to one that enables the student to be actually engaged in their learning. It is overwhelming to look at my classroom and see where I actually spend much of our classroom time in front of students instead of giving them the opportunity to discover and learn for themselves.

    To say that I need to balance the old with the new is more for me about not biting off more than I can chew. I know that I need to change my approach and my mindset, but the task is daunting. That is where the "balance" seems to put the task into perspective.

  2. Perhaps if you are very inspired and skilled at a given approach, you can get away with a single-minded pedagogy. The problem seems to be when other, less inspired and skilled folks try to copy the technique; usually making some unwise simplifications and corruptions in the process.

  3. Missy - thanks, I hadn't considered that way of thinking about balance. I think I've been out of the classroom too long to say I truly understand what you're feeling, but I do at least identify with it. I'm feeling overwhelmed with my role in all of this - both with managing the technology and with planning and implementing the staff development. I often curse myself for writing those darn grants . . .

    Tom - thanks for the comment, although I hope you'll forgive me for being a tad bit nervous when I saw your name pop up. :-)

    I agree that copying someone else's single-minded pedagogy can be a recipe for disaster. I guess I wasn't trying to argue so much for a single-minded pedagogy, but to not artificially restrict ourselves from using a technique that was successful in an attempt to maintain some kind of balance.

    I'm reading a book right now that talks about taking a systems approach to teaching and learning. One of the questions it suggests we ask ourselves is "Who benefits from the ways things are right now?" So I guess I'm asking myself who benefits from the current so-called "balanced" approach. Now some students are certainly successful with the current approach, but that doesn't really answer the question, because they might be being successful despite the current approach, not because of it. And they might be benefiting from it simply because they aren't being harmed by it as much as other students are. If that is indeed the case (and I'm not saying it is), then that would obviously be a horrible reason to keep the current approach.

    The question I'm really thinking hard about is how much better could we be serving all students - even the ones who are successful now - if we weren't so afraid of straying too far from the norm. When you combine that with my belief that what students need to be successful in the 21st century is very different than what they needed in the 20th, then the 20th century definition of what balance looks like needs to be abandoned. If students need different skills and abilities and habits of mind in a rapidly changing world, then shouldn't we be developing a new definition of what balance looks like in order to meet their needs?

    Ahhh, so many questions, and not very many good answers yet . . .

  4. I think that balance can also mean a way to validate what works in the "old" system while incorporating the "new." But I am of the mindset of jumping before looking. Not always, but very often. I want to push students to another place; a new way to look at the world. I don't have a clue how to do that yet, but I do want it. Seeing this makes me want to know more about make the video this professor made, to read more to know the latest changes in education, to speak out when pessimism surrounds me...Balance for me is a sense of comfortability and right now I am ok with risk. Many aren't ready to leap, and maybe that's why we have visionaries able to reach new sites...

  5. Great posts on this topic...One that I have pretty much been consumed with since 21c began. Wait, let's be honest. Since I started teaching, I've been oh so curious about how to mesh new and old practices. Like the last comment, I find it especially hard when I feel pessimism surrounds me on this topic. I understand that people don't want to feel like they are not valued, that their careers haven't been meaningful, that everything they have been doing is not totally archaic...However as we discuss regularly at 21c is how we need to adjust to the times and there is nothing wrong with talking about what really WORKS in teaching. Like all fields, practices get better with time, modern technology, fresh ideas...So there is nothing wrong with throwing out some old and plunging into the new.

    Something I relate to this is how much I adore my childhood dentist, but there is no hiding how pleasant my root canal experience was this week with a laptop photo tour of my mouth that left me feeling so much more knowledgeable about what was going on, a variety of options in front of me because of it, and the iPod they lent me during the procedure didn't hurt either. Not that I'm comparing learning to a root canal, but who says that things haven't improved and some old practices can go out the window?

  6. I agree with most if not all of the original post as well as the comments.The issue may be that what we as teachers see as "balanced" may seem far from it for our students.Perhaps "balance" is not the correct term for this situation and I'm sure I don't have the right one but maybe... Guided integration...Regardless, I believe that the changes inherant in Constructivist Theory are positive in that they force the teacher and the learner out of their respective "comfort zones".

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  8. I think that Missy gets the closest to what I was saying when I referenced balance. Last year for me was all about trying new stuff all the time. It was fun, educational, refreshing, and about did me in. This year I'm trying to go back and see if the new things that I tried last year work again, try more new things, and see if there are a few "old" things that still work well. My 21C experience last year was about trying everything new, and this year it's about seeing if the old, the new, and the brand new can be (and should be) integrated. I'm mulling over a totally new way to approach Western Civ next year, but so far it's still all in my brain because I am just stretched too thin to think it all the way through. Don't worry, though, Karl, it's revolutionary!