F.M. Alexander and the Psycho-Physical Basis of Learning

“The technique…of Mr. Alexander bears the same relation to education that education bears to all other human activities.” John Dewey, The Use of the Self, Introduction

By Catherine Kettrick, Ph.D.

F.M. Alexander was an Australian actor who, in solving his own vocal problems, discovered fundamental principles of human coordination and movement. When these principles are applied, the result is a gradual improvement in our psycho-physical functioning–what we commonly call our “mind” and our “body.”

By using the term “psycho-physical,” Alexander wanted to emphasize the fact that a person’s “mind” and “body” are not separate entities, but dimensions of one whole functioning being. All of our being and moving, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, involves the whole of ourselves and all of the “parts” we commonly talk about separately–thinking, “physical” movements, emotions, spirit. We always act and react as whole beings. Consider for a moment the simple act of taking a step. Walking for most people is unconscious–we don’t “think” about it, we just “do” it. Yet doing anything involves a dimension of directing ourselves in that activity, and how we direct ourselves involves what we believe we have to “do” to accomplish that action. Like walking, most of our patterns of directing ourselves are unconscious and unfortunately most of these habitual patterns involve far more effort than is necessary for any given task. Alexander, faced with this very problem, developed a technique for using a reasoned means whereby any activity could be performed in a naturally well coordinated and most efficient way.

In learning to consciously direct his actions, Alexander made another fundamental discovery: what feels right to us is almost always “wrong.” Alexander termed this condition imperfect sensory appreciation. The way we walk, for example, feels right and a new way of walking, even one in which we move more naturally and efficiently, feels wrong. It feels wrong because we have moved in our habitual way for so long that our habitual way feels correct and normal. As a simple illustration, clasp your hands together in front of you. One or the other thumb will be on top. Now unclasp your hands and reclasp them, interlacing your fingers the other way, so the other thumb is on top. This new position will probably “feel wrong” to you. If, however, you are willing to try an experiment, and consciously decide to clasp your hands the new way during the next few days, that new way will come to feel right. Whenever we learn any new task, we always want to do it in a way that feels right to us. Unfortunately, when we combine the almost irresistible desire to feel right with the almost equally irresistible desire to be right, changing to a new pattern of moving becomes a seemingly impossible task.

Alexander believed that his principles were of fundamental importance to the field of education. Most of us when teaching, for example, assume that if we choose carefully what we say, our students will have little difficulty in understanding us, or that if they do misunderstand us, we simply need to explain the concept in a slightly different way, or to find out what learning style our student is using and adapt our teaching to it. Furthermore, most of us also assume that if a student has a problem needing correction, it is only necessary for us to point out the correct way of doing the thing to be changed, and only necessary for the student to follow our instructions. In addition, students receiving instructions usually believe that if they decide to do something they can (perhaps with a little practice) and if it feels right when they do it, all is well. In fact, as Alexander discovered and repeatedly demonstrated, our understanding of any idea and our ability to carry out any instruction is based on the functioning of our whole selves, which is conditioned by the accuracy of our sensory appreciation. Students without benefit of Alexander’s technique, who try their best to “get it right,” can only perform in a manner that feels right to them. Indeed, one of the greatest difficulties in teaching is overcoming what the student is convinced (because it feels right) is the right thing to do or the right thing to think. Since we reward students for the right answer, for good grades and good test scores, it is not surprising that students are primarily concerned with results, and doing things the “right” way. Sometimes they succeed and all seems well. Students who fail in their initial attempts will often try harder. Unfortunately they can only try harder by relying on the same habitual mal-coordination that didn’t allow them to succeed in the first place. Equally unfortunately, when we work within a system that values results (learning to read, write, do math, get good grades, do well in sports) little attention is paid to the means whereby the results are obtained. But as Alexander demonstrated so well, if we are interfering with our normal, natural functioning, teachers will have difficulty teaching and students will have difficulty learning.

A pattern of directing ourselves that results in unnecessary muscular effort is obviously inappropriate in learning a new motor skill, but is equally detrimental in other spheres of learning. Take for example math. Many people’s feelings about math range from outright incompetence to complete phobia. If you observe students who have such a distaste for the subject, you will probably see people excessively tightening the muscles in their neck, pulling their head back and down, as well as tightening other muscles in their body. You may also see them making some extraneous motions, such as tapping their pencils, shuffling their feet or wiggling. The students, of course, will be largely unaware of all this activity. If it is pointed out, they may be able to stop the gross movements for a short time, but it will soon resume. If the teacher tries to explain how unnecessarily tightening their neck interferes with their learning math, the students will probably laugh. Nonetheless, all of this excessive muscular effort severely interferes with students attending to the information being presented. They literally block it out.

Of course the situation is compounded by how we as teachers are using ourselves when teaching. Our unconscious habits of moving will be seen and imitated by our students as we instruct them. This imitation is particularly obvious with a “physical” skill, such as golf, martial arts, voice, dance, or leading an exercise class. Our unconscious habits are still present however, when we present any kind of information. Habits of speaking with excessive effort, for example, will literally make what we say less clear and thus more difficult for our students to understand.

Alexander believed that the educational system could be improved only if teachers had a knowledge of his principles and employed them in their teaching. He established a school (The Trust Fund School) where the teachers were also teachers of the Alexander Technique, and the children had Alexander Technique lessons along with their regular school work. However, even if you are not an Alexander Technique teacher, a basic knowledge of Alexander’s principles will enable you to see when students are interfering with learning the material, and help them learn how to stop. It will also enable you to present information on any subject more clearly–for no matter what courses we take to improve our teaching skills, no matter what extra tutoring our students receive, the fact remains that how we understand what our teachers say and how well we teach is based on the quality of our whole psycho- physical functioning. The principles which F.M. Alexander discovered provide a way to improve that functioning, on a continuous basis, in all aspects of our lives.

This article first appeared in The Performance School Quarterly, April 1989

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