Getting to “Huh?” 4 Ways Parents & Teachers Can Embrace Disequilibrium




     One of the biggest challenges of my teaching career was dealing with parents who fought tooth and nail against a natural, healthy,  unavoidable part of learning – disequilibrium. 

     All educators should be familiar with Jean Piaget’s work on how learners, especially children, learn. One term that he coined was disequilibrium, a point in the learning process when new information tries to join our established reality and they don’t mesh. Generally, we can readjust our schema to accept the new learning. It can take time, maturity, further experience, assistance, and other supports, but learners typically can accept and internalize the new learning, resulting in new schema and improved understanding.

     When I began teaching in the 1980’s, one of many educational trends was that of seeking “student success”. Success - being successful, feeling successful, experiencing success -  became a buzzword with which most people couldn’t argue. I mean, who doesn’t like success? And what human wouldn’t want a child to be academically, socially, and emotionally successful? In some ways, it was a necessary and long-overdue paradigm shift. I saw a distinct swing in teacher perceptions in the classroom. Teachers not only changed how they viewed their students, but they also changed how they saw their own role: from one of finding and pointing out student errors, we moved to a more positive, supportive role of coaching and assisting students in reaching their own best level of success.

     Parents especially embraced the perception that all students can be successful.  They began to look forward to hearing about their child’s strengths as well as their weaknesses, to hearing about daily highs to balance daily lows, and to expect second chances and do-overs to erase anything representing a perceived failure.

     Somewhere along the line, however, we took this to an unrealistic extreme. Parents began to expect only success in the classroom, as evidenced by stellar grades and eternally happy children. Administrators began to expect only success in the classroom, as evidenced by stellar standardized test scores. Students began to expect only success in the classroom, as evidenced by effortless learning liberally sprinkled with rainbows and unicorns, and a permanent place at the top of the class. As often happens, teachers were left holding the bag. They had the same challenging job of presenting curriculum to students who had varying backgrounds, strengths, and weaknesses, but with the additional requirement of having every student be, feel, and perform with “success”. I have personally seen parents so determined to remove any semblance of struggle from their child’s learning path, that they actually changed the curriculum. Really. I remember in particular how parents complained fiercely about social studies teachers’ requirement for fifth graders to learn all 50 of the United States. The teachers literally gave up, withdrew that requirement, and told their district-level supervisor that they would no longer deal with that standard because they would no longer deal with the harassment.

     What too many people ignore is that disequilibrium is an essential component of learning. It is the point at which we must arrive if we’re going to learn anything new. Without disequilibrium, we will never gain new knowledge or understandings and we won’t create new schema.

     A couple of unscientific visuals sum it up nicely.


     Anyone who has ever had a child, been a child, or worked with children knows that children can and do regress at times during the learning process. The baby who has just graduated to a sippy cup may demand her bottle for a few days. The newly-walking toddler may decide to crawl again for a short time. The proud first grade reader may insist in tears that “d-o-g” is not a word. And let’s not even go into the back-and-forth of the teen years! The examples could go on, but the point is that learning is not a linear path, it doesn’t always have a clearly defined beginning and end, and there will be bumps along the way.

     How can we support our learners with this information? I suggest that we embrace and model these four perceptions:

     1. Understand what equilibrium is. Simply put, it is the point at which what we know and understand meets up with a new piece of information that doesn’t seem to fit. It’s where what we know meets something we don’t know. In my own classroom, I told my kids that when they became puzzled and felt a big “huh?”, that was disequilibrium!  I kept this poster on the wall all year. 

     2. Embrace the fact that arriving at disequilibrium (huh?) is part and parcel of the learning process. Without it, learners cannot advance to a higher level. Getting to “huh?” is actually a desired goal.

     3. Know that disequilibrium can feel uncomfortable. It can be felt as confusion, uncertainty, and puzzlement, or other generally unpleasant feelings…and it’s okay.

     4. This is the big one, readers: Good learners don’t walk away from that uncomfortable point. Good learners stay with the task. They enlist help. They raise their hand with a question. They try again. I encourage my own students to be that learner.

     Of course, learning how to learn is part of learning! It is our job as teachers and parents to instill students with positive attitudes and to teach  strategies that support meshing new information with established knowledge.

     My advice is simple. Parents, be aware that stumbling on the path to learning does not indicate a lack of “success”. Rather, it is the precursor of success. Support your children and their teachers by allowing time to be puzzled, ask for help, and try again – and, sometimes, again. Administrators, provide your students and teachers time and opportunities to fall back and re-group. Comfort parents with the knowledge that this is where true learning begins. Teachers, when it looks as though your students are stuck, take a deep breath, allow some time to process and try again, and know that it’s all a journey. You'll get to "I got it!"


     Best wishes!


Awesome photos by Fresh Snaps
Pat McFadyen
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