When “balance” goes bad

Balance is an obviously good thing, isn’t it? After all, who wants to be unbalanced? “What is it indeed that gives us the feeling of elegance in a solution, in a demonstration?” asked the mathematician Henri Poincaré. “It is the harmony of the diverse parts, their symmetry, their happy balance; in a word it is all that introduces order, all that gives unity, that permits us to see clearly and to comprehend at once both the ensemble and the details.”

Lovely.  A lack of balance implies disunity, disharmony and, maybe, disorder. But is balance always good?

In education, those who are made uncomfortable by calls for curriculums to be “knowledge rich” and for teaching to be explicit often propose that the best education must be one that is balanced between factual knowledge and skills, between explicit teaching and inquiry. This can seem a persuasive argument and those who sit on the fence, undecided about what’s best, nod along at this sage advice because it all sounds so truthy.

For balance to be desirable it has to be between two things that are equally good. Who in their right mind who choose to maintain a balance to be between being punched in the face and not being punched in the face? What sort of person would argue there should be a balance between good and evil? When it comes to the question of how to design and teach a curriculum, who would advocate that it should be balanced between what we think is great and what we think is terrible? It’s important to point out here that a balance is not the same as a mixture or synthesis. Mixing water and cordial together does not produce a balance, it produces something distinct and new. A balance of water and cordial – first one then the other – is not a drinking experience anyone would wish for.

Balance is a weasel word; a lazy attempt to make an argument feel specific or meaningful, even though it is at best ambiguous and vague. It’s invoked to occupy a moral high ground that assumes anyone arguing for one thing over another is unable to handle nuance or complexity. This is argumentum ad temperantiam or false equivalence. The logical fallacy which asserts that truth must be found in moderation.

But balance is antithetical to change. For anything to change there must be a lack of balance. The Scales must tip. One thing must be preferred over another. There are times when attempting to maintain a balance might just lead to stagnation and false consensus.

This is not to say that there is just one way to plan a curriculum and one way to teach. No one thinks this. No doubt there are all sorts of excellent ways to do both. There is, however, some fairly clear evidence on what is less likely to be effective. For instance, a curriculum which sets out to prioritise “21st century skills” is unlikely to be effective because these aren’t really skills. A skill is something that improves with practice; creativity, problem solving etc. can only be practised within particular domains of knowledge. What happens is that those who begin with wider of the knowledge of the world look like they’re becoming more creative or critical because they know more. Those who begin with less broad knowledge of the world are disproportionately disadvantaged by such an approach. Does that mean we should seek to establish a balance between a curriculum focussed on developing 21st century skills and one that tries to prioritise helping students acquire broad schematic knowledge? It ought to be obvious that this is simply a balance between good and bad.

There’s also a broad scientific consensus that children will tend to learn more when instruction is explicit and less when discovery methods are used. We know this tips over when novices become sufficiently expert but there’s little reason to think that this happens for many children whilst they’re still at school. Again, advantaged children may well know enough to thrive in this kind of environment but it’s a terrible way to help the most disadvantaged make progress. A more specific example of where balance goes bad is in the hours and hours of pointless inference training that children are routinely subjected to in KS2 and in English lessons in secondary school. Beyond telling children that making inferences is possible, most of this time is wasted. No one can make an inference about something of which they are ignorant. The only way to help children to make inferences about unseen texts is to give them as broad as possible a knowledge of the world and hope it will be enough. Yet again, advantaged students are merely having their time wasted with mind numbingly tedious inference and analysis exercises, but at least they’re more likely to know enough about the texts they will encounter. Less advantaged children are far less likely to have this advantaged and are effectively written off.

So, should we have a balance between what might work for the most advantaged and what will probably be best for the least advantaged? Should we have a balance between pointless inference exercises and valuable exposure to a broad base of general knowledge? Only it you’re interested in maintaining the attainment gap between the wealthiest and poorest students. None of this is to suggest that all lessons should be the same. Where a concept like balance can become useful is when we carefully sequence the progress students need to make and think about where they will be taught and where they will practice. The balance I would advocate is the one between success and struggle. But this is a fully integrated approach to instruction – it is categorically not a balance between what I believe and what you might believe. I am utterly uninterested in a notion of a balance between what is most likely to be effective and what you would prefer to be true.

For the most part, balance is an indulgence. If you’re interested in closing the advantage gap you probably need to let go of what you would like to be true in favour what’s likely to work best.

If you want to read a positive view of balance, read this.

10 Responses to When “balance” goes bad

  1. Mark featherstone-witty says:

    Another balance: between support and challenge.

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    I’ve never understood why struggling is supposed to benefit the learning process. Considering that learning is exponential–the more your schemata grow, the more you’re capable of learning–it would seem that anything that slows the process down is undesirable. As an SEN teacher, I have never observed the slightest positive effect from my pupils’ previous struggling, and the first thing I told new pupils was that it was my job to make learning to read and spell easy.

    • Chester Draws says:

      I think struggle is the wrong word, because it implies long-term issues.

      Students do need to be challenged. A balance between challenge and routine practice is my preference. They get the feeling they can do it, but also that they have more to learn yet.

    • David Didau says:

      As Chester says, feel free to replace ‘struggle’ with ‘challenge’ if that helps. I wouldn’t want us to get hung up a word (!)

      • Tom Burkard says:

        I’d like to know how you reconcile this with Kirschner, Sweller and Clark? It would seem that you’re advocating minimally guided instruction.

  3. […] launched a stream of invective against the use of ‘balance’ as a weasel word in my last post, I want to offer a more nuanced take on what I think balance ought to […]

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