In education, we regularly engage in either/or conversations:
- Direct Instruction OR Student-Centered Learning
- Print OR Digital Reading
- Traditional Teaching OR Project-Based Learning
- Content OR Creativity
- Paper OR Technology
The list of topics and debates exists throughout the blogosphere, in classrooms, and around districts. When this occurs, each side views the other like a battle to win. However, both sides of the argument often have merit. In these situations, rather than see the pairs as independent problems to solve, what if we considered them as interdependent polarities to manage?
In a polarity, both sides need to function to achieve a balance (Kise, 2014). Think about the act of breathing. To stay alive, you need to harness the benefits of both inhaling and exhaling (Kise, 2014). Over the past few weeks, I have been lurking in an email thread about a different polarity: extolling the value of 1:1 programs to teachers and parents. The educators engaged in the conversation have been discussing how to justify the use of devices to their constituencies. And yet, instead of seeking out a solution to rationalize one specific pole (technology in the classroom), what if they considered the desired learning environments as a polarity to manage?
In her book, Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences, Polarity Thinking in our Schools, Jane Kise describes five steps for mapping polarities. First, see the situation as a both/and paradox versus either/or dichotomy. Next, map the two poles. The above illustration serves as an example based on the previously mentioned email thread with Traditional vs. Innovative Classroom Practice comprising the two poles. Though the online conversation debated 1:1 programs, I had to think about the greater purpose of those programs - Effective Learning Environments for students, as opposed to the greatest fear - Dysfunctional Learning Environments. After identifying the two poles, describe the benefits as well as the negatives. Engaging in empathy and deeply considering all sides of the argument removes some of the risks for confirmation bias (seeking out only information to further your original conception) and also shifts the conversation from choosing a particular side to establishing a balance.
Managing a polarity requires constant adjustment, and warning signs indicate when an action may need to be taken to re-establish balance within the system. For example, when teachers employ too much technology absent of purpose and clearly defined objectives, then students may be distracted by devices and regularly off-task. Providing a clear vision as well as language to support instructional design might be an action step to help the teacher regain that balance and focus on effective learning. At the same time, students who do not seem engaged in class or who resist intellectual challenges might exhibit warning signs that teacher needs to create new types of learning opportunities.
Particularly when introducing new technologies and types of instruction, teachers, students, and even parents may resist change. They may abandon these new initiatives, express sentiments of apathy to just “wait for the next change to come,” or exhibit animosity towards the initiators (Kise, 2014). However, acknowledging both poles and working to find the positives of both sides can help school communities see the interdependent nature of the system and achieve the best of both poles.
Kise, J. A. G. (2014). Unleashing the positive power of differences: Polarity thinking in our schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
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