Central to the Institute’s philosophy is the recognition that learning is not just an affair of the mind but of the whole person. Our Western tradition has put so much emphasis in school on learning subject matter (as opposed, for instance, to the study of the arts) that it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to think about functioning and development, in both children and adults, in a truly holistic way.
But a child does not learn simply with its brain but as a psychophysical whole, and an education that omits an understanding of the workings of this total system is lacking the most fundamental knowledge we should possess, since all learning should rest upon a sound foundation of self-knowledge.
To perform any activity, the child must employ a motor system of incredible complexity. A major of focus of the Dimon Institute is to study this largely unrecognized aspect of child development. This includes the study of habit and its impact on functioning and learning, and provides a new standard of assessment for parents and teachers. Applied in practice, this knowledge represents a new model of learning that focuses on the functioning self as a crucial part of the learning process, rather than on the results to be achieved.
F. M. Alexander was the first to recognize the implications of this knowledge in the fields of child development and education. The following is thus a partial answer to the question, What is Alexander Technique?
The following text was presented by Ted Dimon as a plenary talk at the 2015 Alexander Technique Congress in Limerick.
The Supreme Art of Education
Imagine, if you will, a classroom full of children. There is a teacher at the head of the room, and children engaged in various activities: drawing or making letters, playing games, socializing. These children are not 4 or 5; these children are 10 and 12, 14 and 16; and they aren’t just engaged in activities but paying attention to themselves in a way that has virtually never happened in a public school classroom. Their teacher is likewise concerned not just with what they are learning but with the quality of how they engage in their activities, because she (or he) has an awareness of the child’s whole system and appreciates that it is the true foundation for whatever the child does. In short, the teacher cares as much about how the children do things as what they do, about the process of learning as much as the goals. This is a truly enlightened approach to education that takes into account the child’s emotional, intellectual, and psychophysical development, encouraging the fullest development of the child and not simply focusing on end-goals and accomplishments.
A New Approach to Child Development
The way the child uses him or herself is of fundamental importance to health, development, and learning. Here is this child, at perhaps pre-school age or in grade school, using him or herself in a way that is clearly harmful, and the entire educational process is not only unaware of this but actually encourages the behavior. And because this is such an observable problem, we might think that merely demonstrating the issue to parents and teachers and showing them how we can address it in the classroom will solve the problem, establishing a new approach to education that focuses on the child’s use.
Although theories of cognition and learning have advanced in recent decades, many children continue to struggle in school because the teaching of skills is based on crude ideas of drilling and correctness that remain much the same today as they were two hundred years ago.
Learning should focus not on external action and accomplishment but on mastery of oneself as "the central instrumentality upon which all learning depends.” In addition to being eminently practical in helping children to overcome basic learning problems, such an approach leads to the fullest development of potential because blind habit is replaced with intelligent self-awareness, giving the child command over the self as the basis of all learning processes and as the foundation for a completely new and intelligent approach to learning.
Perhaps the first thing we have to look at in helping children in this way is the process of breaking down a skill into discrete steps so that, instead of focusing on the end-goal we can master intermediate steps in the process of learning and, in this way, pay more attention to how we do things than to what we are doing. Even so simple a skill as swinging a baseball bat or tennis racket, if examined closely, can be broken down into at least five or six different elements; yet we are rarely given a chance to master these steps separately, or even realize that these different elements exist.
A second element of skill is what I call the “receptive” component. If you have ever watched someone learning to hit a moving ball with a racket or bat, you know that the teacher’s main preoccupation will be to show you how to swing the racket or bat properly as the basis for hitting the ball. But how can the student hit the ball if he or she doesn’t first see it, or if the process of trying to swing the racket actually distracts the student from seeing it? This may seem obvious, yet how many of us have been given the opportunity, when learning a racket sport, to learn simply to see the ball first, as the basis for hitting it? Most skills are in fact comprised of a number of receptive components like this one, and if we want to perform effectively, we need to take the time to identify and to learn these elements or, in the case of children, be given help from a teacher who understands these elements and structures the learning environment in such a way that the child has a chance to master them.
The third element is coordination, which is by far the most complex element in learning a skill. Learning to swing a tennis racket may seem to be mainly about what you do with the racket--how you grip it, take it back, and so on. What most learners are usually unaware of is that, in order to swing a tennis racket, you must be able to perform a coordinated crouching position and to shift your weight; otherwise, you will be unable to transfer weight into the racket face or to properly coordinate the swinging action of the arm with the trunk. In this sense, swinging the racket is not actually about what you do with the racket but about what you do with your whole body, and if you are not well-coordinated, you will not be able to swing the racket properly.
All of these elements fall under the general category of focus on process, which raises an even more fundamental issue which I touched on earlier--namely, the approaches to learning in schools. If the child is to learn based on attention to the process, then the methods on which all learning is based, both in and out of schools, must be conceived in kind. We can’t teach kids to use themselves better without thinking about the assumptions underlying methods of learning, and without articulating a new and coherent theory of learning based on the means-whereby principle.
Psychophysical Health and What This Means
Let’s say you are trying to teach a child to draw in a more coordinated way and adjust his musculoskeletal system so that he is more balanced in sitting and can now use his arms without unnecessary tension. You might expect that the child would now be able to perform the action in a more coordinated way, since the system, working more efficiently, is perfectly set up to allow the child to accomplish his end without difficulty.
What happens instead is that, in response to the intention to draw, the child’s muscular system seems to engage in the old way--that is, the harmful muscular activity is brought into play all over again. At this point, it becomes difficult to say whether the problem is in the faulty working of the muscular support system, which is clearly out of balance, or in the neural messages being sent to the muscles. It seems as if the wrong activity of the muscles (physical) is engaged by the nervous system (physical and mental) in response to the child’s intention (mental) to act. Perhaps the problem is more in the nervous system, since a child of about two years of age often demonstrates perfect muscular balance and yet already shows evidence of misguided direction from the nervous system. Whatever the answer, we can only conclude that, because the activity is so complex, the instinctive working of the nervous system itself cannot be trusted to provide the correct guidance for the act, which must, accordingly, be taught to the child at a more conscious level.
We can now see that the act of drawing is psychophysical in the truest sense of the word, and that it is essential that we understand exactly what this means. It is now well known that mind and body are connected, which usually refers to the subtle influence of mental and emotional states on bodily function--a connection that is usually drawn from studies on the role of stressors in influencing bodily functions and signs of increased stress such as increased heart rate and stress hormones. In the present context, however, we see that the body is not simply influenced by stress but is itself part of a total psychophysical system as it functions in activity. This bodily system, which is neurologically complex because of the proprioceptive elements that are essential to its organization and control, is not simply influenced by the mind but is part of a total activity in which the mental and physical operate together as a system in action.
This activity, as we’ve seen, tends to be imbalanced and misguided in two ways. First, the action requires the coordination of various parts that must all work together in order for the motor act to take place in a balanced way. Second, the child’s response to the stimulus to act will tend to be imbalanced and needs to be brought under greater control. To address these problems, we must teach the child how to draw in a new way based on the balanced working of the muscular and proprioceptive systems and show the child how to respond in a new way to the impulse to draw as the basis for gaining greater control over the action.
Attention and Psychophysical Health
There is an additional factor that must be mentioned, one that is integral to the psychophysical nature of activity and intimately connected with motor function and behavior--namely, attention. We normally speak of attention as a mental function that is operating efficiently or inefficiently and that can be diagnosed and treated on its own. But attention is related to action and is a fundamental part of the holistic working of the system. We can see this very clearly in the behavior of an infant after six months or so, when the child is able to actively crawl. At this stage of development, an infant is highly alert, is able to distinguish objects of interest, and can reach for or move toward them, as we see when an infant spots something of interest and reaches for it or crawls toward it. Once she becomes interested in the object, she immediately moves toward it--a response that we might describe as instinctive because it happens at an automatic level, or without any reflection.
Let's consider how the motor system figures into this equation. No sooner has the child become interested in the object than she starts to move toward it. Her interest in the object and the act of moving toward it are so tightly linked as to be, for all intents and purposes, one total activity. Her state of motor readiness, her overall attention level, her interest in the object, and her motor response are all tightly coupled, operating as a complete and unitary system to produce an activity that can only be described as psychophysical. Her condition of mental attention, her motor system which is in a state of readiness, and her actual motor response all function as a unified pathway of activity, operating at an entirely instinctive and automatic level.
Yet his attention level is still an integral part of the activity and is linked with the actively-working motor system. If, for instance, this boy becomes worried about what he is doing and whether he is doing it well, he may begin to focus too intently on what he is doing and to use too much tension to perform the act, in which case he will no longer appear to be enjoying the process. At the other extreme, if his attention becomes dispersed, he will tend to slump and appear to perform in a desultory way. Just as in the infant, attention in the five year old still functions as part of the motor and behavioral systems, but in a way that is more complex and more easily disturbed. Precisely because his action is more cognitively complex, we tend to separate the act of attention from the total activity of which it is a part. Yet the disturbance in attention is not separate from the psychophysical system as a whole, and if we want to help the child to function in a more balanced way, we have to understand all the factors that enter into balanced action, including physical poise, motor control, response to stimuli, attention, and behavior as a whole.
We could say, then, that the act of drawing is not only a motor and cognitive act but also a psychological activity involving attention to what one is doing--that is, it is a total psychophysical act in which motor coordination, the response of the motor system to stimuli, and attention to the task at hand operate as a total system. Seen in this context, attention is not just a clinical issue, and disturbances of attention cannot always be reduced to chemical or genetic causes. Once the child passes the age where attention is part of a purely instinctive process and where he engages in what we would call voluntary activities, attention can become disturbed quite easily. This can certainly become a clinical issue, but clinical assessments cannot substitute for an understanding of how attention operates as a normal function, which requires ongoing observation and guidance from a teacher knowledgeable in psychophysical education. Yet even though we know that attention operates naturally in this way, we have not sought to understand the normal conditions associated with balanced attention because we lack a concept of the child’s system as a psychophysical whole and thus of what it means for this system to be disturbed. Understanding how this system works in a balanced way must form the basis of a positive and constructive program in which children are taught in the context of a working knowledge of psychophysical health and functioning.
In the example of the child who is worried and fixated on doing something right, we are speaking about preoccupation or narrowed attention, but the same is true when a child is spaced out or inattentive. A few years ago I worked with a child who, when sitting normally, was quite alert; but after a minute or so, he would go into a slump and become spaced out. When I pointed this out to his parents, they were very much aware of the problem, which they had first noticed when he started first grade and began to spend most of his time in school sitting. When that happened, they said, he lost something, some quality of vitality that his younger brother, at four years old, still possessed. Instead of thinking about what was good for the child, his teachers simply expected him to do well; when he didn’t, he was diagnosed for performance difficulties. This is an unacceptable way to address problems in a child who does not suffer from ADHD or show any outstanding clinical symptoms. There was nothing wrong with this child but what was being put wrong and allowed to go wrong. To help such children, we need to understand how the child’s psychophysical system functions, based not on a clinical standard of what constitutes abnormal function but on normal development. This includes knowing how much the child needs to move in a way that is appropriate for his age; how to sit in a balanced way as the basis for learning to write; how to be attentive without fixating on the task at hand; and how to achieve his ends in an intelligent and balanced way. And we need to be able to monitor these activities in order to ensure reliable and healthy development in the child. This isn’t simply a matter of getting kids to move more, or criticizing the focus on intellectual development that characterizes traditional schooling. We need a positive understanding of how this system works, based on a new paradigm of psychophysical functioning.
We have now identified three elements--the working of the motor/proprioceptive system, the functioning of the system as a behavioral whole, and the quality of attention--that constitute what I would call psychophysical health. Taken together, these elements form a new and comprehensive standard for understanding how the psychophysical system works in a balanced way as the basis for reliable development and learning. When this system is imbalanced, we usually do not notice it except in the form of symptoms, since these functions operate at a mostly automatic level. For instance, someone who is physically collapsed and has low muscle tone, or who is performing actions in a harmful and reactive way, will be unaware of these problems because they function below the level of consciousness. And yet these problems are very real, can be objectively observed, and can often be seen developing in otherwise normal children as early as two years of age. Because we lack a standard of psychophysical health in the developing child, we tend to ignore these factors until they reach clinically abnormal levels and fail to see that they are part of normal educational growth. Instead of treating children after the fact, we must develop a standard of psychophysical health in the developing child that places the burden of health not at the back end in the form of clinical treatment but at the front end where it belongs--in our understanding of normal development and learning.
“Use,” then, refers not simply to the pattern of harmful tensions that interferes with the primary control but to the entire psychophysical act of responding to a stimulus, and this is at the heart of what “use” really is. Use is about how action takes place at a largely unconscious and mechanical level, which is not just physical but psychophysical. When we help a student--even a child of 5 or 6 years old--we are helping them gain greater awareness of themselves in action, which is not simply a matter of applying principles or enhancing kinesthetic awareness. We are helping them to gain greater control over the unconscious and instinctively-directed elements of action.
Notice also that, in this context, the term “psychophysical” does not refer to the connection between body and mind but represents a new paradigm that makes it possible to conceive of the child as a total system in which mental and physical elements operate as a unified system. This can’t be done by studying or promoting methods but only by understanding how the musculoskeletal system works in a positive and objective way, how the child responds to stimuli, and whether the activity taking place is balanced. If we want to understand psychophysical health and functioning in the developing child, we need the kind of knowledge that comes from studying the organism in action, from identifying the ways it becomes interfered with, and from knowing how to gain greater control as a matter of practical knowledge and growth.
Although this new approach involves the education of the kinesthetic sense, it is also important to be clear that it is not a form of kinesthetic or movement training. Most of the approaches that have attempted to address psychophysical health thus far have focused on changing harmful movement patterns through movement and awareness exercises. But we must remember that giving children the opportunity to perform movements designed to enhance kinesthetic awareness will not address the essential underlying problem--namely, the misdirected and unconscious actions that undermine the child’s efforts to learn. To be complete, psychophysical education must include an understanding of the psychology of action and of the need for children to acquire increasing awareness and control in their various activities. Action in children takes place at a largely unconscious level and must be brought within the field of conscious awareness--a process that requires in-depth knowledge of how the organism works in activity and of the psychological component of action, not just movement systems for training the kinesthetic sense.
The Discovery of “Use”: A Psychophysical Approach to Education
In the last century or so, we have made great strides in broadening our knowledge of child development, particularly in the areas of emotional and cognitive development. Two hundred years ago we had virtually no understanding of the importance of emotional development in the child; today we have quite sophisticated models describing how a child develops emotionally. We have also gained an increasing understanding of cognitive development and its fundamental importance in learning.
What we lack is an understanding of the child as a whole organism, of the acting, moving organism, and without this, we have a disembodied, incomplete conception of development that, in spite of advances in the field, is still rather archaic in its lack of knowledge of the biological foundations of the functioning child. One reason for this omission is that we tend to see this aspect of development as mere posture and body mechanics and therefore fail to see it as part of an integrated, complex whole worthy of serious study. Our Western world has put so much emphasis on thinking and learning (as opposed for instance to health, functioning, and mindfulness) that we simply do not take the living, moving organism and how it works seriously, except when children exhibit problems that are considered clinically abnormal.
Our situation here is analogous to the situation prior to the discoveries of emotional and cognitive development.
F.M. Alexander's discovery of "use" was nothing less than the discovery of a previously unrecognized aspect of child development, as fundamentally important as emotion and cognition. The study of "use" must take its place alongside these more established fields.
We are at a stage in evolution when human beings, even young human beings of four and five years old, do not function reliably, and we cannot expect even the most basic activities--the ability to move, breathe, and speak--to take place in a balanced way unless we bring them within the educational sphere. All action is mediated by proprioception, which is foundational to learning and central to functioning and health. As such, the study of proprioception and motor control is not only worthy of our attention but essential to a complete model of health and assessment in the developing child, and to a model of learning based on a full understanding of the functioning self as the central agent in learning.
This represents a truly enlightened conception of development, and if our work is to develop properly, it cannot be placed in the therapeutic sphere because, in this context, it will inevitably be misunderstood and utilized largely for its benefits and not as a foundational part of child development.
To be recognized in its full measure, to fulfill its promise as the revolutionary breakthrough that it is, we must place our work in the field of child development and as the foundation for a complete model of conscious development.
Motor function plays a similarly critical role in the attention level of school-age children who perform more complex tasks. In the photo, we can see this 5-year-old enjoying what he is doing because he is calmly engaged in the activity--neither completely engrossed and hurried on the one hand, or bored and desultory in his interest on the other. This boy’s ability to engage in this activity represents a huge advance in complexity compared to the action of the infant. The infant, as we saw, acts intentionally but instinctively. In contrast, the boy is performing a truly voluntary act. He is painting because he enjoys it and chooses to do it; he can stop what he is doing to admire his work, or take a moment to think about what colors he may want to use and then resume drawing. In short, he can stop and think about what he is doing because there is no longer a fixed connection between his interest in what he is doing and his response in the form of painting.