Watching all this binary, dichotomous, either-or thinking play out in K-12 education over the past few years has been frustrating as a parent of four adult children, including a recent high school graduate who is now a college student; as a consumer of social and traditional media; and an education journalist. It has been one of the ugliest periods of factionalism in the United States I have witnessed in my 59 years.
And it got me thinking: Why do we do this? Why is it so bad now? And, most importantly, how do we move past this rigid way of thinking and behaving so it doesn’t get in the way of meaningful and effective teaching and learning?
Turns out, the answer to the first question begins with how our brains work. For most of us, our tendency is to jump to conclusions with limited evidence. In other words, the first mistake our minds make is to move too quickly. This, in turn, denies us the opportunity to consider the nuances of a problem or issue. Some of us engage in this kind of thinking more than others—but we all do it.
Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book by Daniel Kahneman, a professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, offers a fascinating look into what drives this way of thinking.
“The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little,” Kahneman writes in the book. “We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing—what we see is all there is.”
This story is part of a special project called Big Ideas in which EdWeek reporters ask hard questions about K-12 education’s biggest challenges and offer insights based on their extensive coverage and expertise.
Kahneman uses an illustration of three men walking down what looks like a narrow hallway to show how this thinking works. If you make a snap judgment about the three men, you confidently assume there is one tall man, one of medium height, and a third who is the shortest. But if you engage in “slow” thinking, pause for a moment, and take a ruler to measure how tall they are, you see that all three are the exact same height.
Based on his extensive research, Kahneman explains that “fast thinking” generates these kinds of faulty judgments all the time—and not just regarding optical illusions. People, then, lock in the belief (in this case, that the three men are different heights), and that belief gathers strength and emotion the more they argue in its favor. And, sometimes, that emotion rises to the level of anger and even violence.
The work of psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger shows how this “cognitive bias” sets us up for creating all kinds of problems. They published a paper way back in 1999 titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Their resulting theory was later dubbed the Dunning-Kruger effect. Encyclopedia Britannica online defines the effect as “a cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general.”
In other words, if you have read it on Twitter or watched it on TikTok, you anoint yourself expert status with all the rights and privileges to promote your expertise on social media with scant evidence to back up your claims.
That sets in motion a big cognitive problem. Once we get locked on to a certain point of view, it becomes very, very difficult to get our brains to consider other perspectives. Instead of looking for information that challenges our point of view, we mostly seek out sources that will further confirm our opinion, a process called “confirmation bias.” We become so enamored with our own beliefs that we are literally incapable of considering others’. And the social media, political, and TV news bubbles we lean into further cement our own biases.
That’s when binary thinking brings out the worst in all of us—a process that is playing out in unfortunate ways in K-12 education that could have serious repercussions for developing the kind of open-minded, critically thinking students who represent our democracy’s future.
We need to listen more and talk less. It is that simple.
An Illinois high school teacher who responded to a recent survey from the EdWeek Research Center told us how this kind of thinking is playing out in K-12 education: “The political climate has absolutely ruined the fun of teaching. Parents have become so polarized without actually knowing what we do that they storm board meetings and threaten our superintendent with bodily harm over [critical race theory]—which we don’t even teach. It’s sad.”
In that survey, 58 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders said elected officials are now embracing rigid, binary thinking more than they did three years ago (Think, U.S. Congress); and 56 percent said the same of parents and guardians. Interestingly, a much smaller share—34 percent—said students are engaging more in binary thinking; and 41 percent said the same of themselves.
Are young people more open-minded, reflective thinkers than adults? Could adults learn some important lessons from them about productive dialogue?
Chris Dier thinks the answer to both questions is yes. The 2020 Louisiana Teacher of the Year is a history teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans. He is also a historian on the side who wrote a book titled The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre: Blood in the Cane Fields.
Dier, who is white, grew up and taught in St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana. He uncovered historical records about a reconstruction-era massacre orchestrated by white residents against Black people in that community in 1868, fueled by whites’ fears that Blacks had gained the right to vote.
In a recent phone conversation, Dier told me he brought this research to his classroom. He had white and Black students in his classes, and a few of them were the descendants of the perpetrators of the massacre or the descendants of victims. The students discussed the painful findings in a civil manner, and things never got ugly, Dier recalls, because the kids seemed very curious about what actually happened and why. In other words, they wanted to know the truth. (Now, the teacher records TikTok lectures about U.S. history, which are watched by people all over the world.)
Then, in the spring of 2021, a bill was introduced in the Louisiana legislature that would prohibit teachers from teaching content that suggested there was systemic racism and sexism in our country’s past. Dier and other teachers across the state saw this as extreme binary thinking and spoke out in opposition to the bill. He self-published an opinion piece that made, among other points, this one: “Teaching students the truth of the foundation of our country, highlighting the systems that perpetuated slavery, genocide, and sexism, and creating space for students to address their lingering impacts are components of true patriotism. Unlike blind nationalism, true patriotism seeks to actually improve the lives of those who inhabit this land.”
In a Republican-controlled legislature, the bill never made it out of the House education committee. Dier chalks up the bill’s failure to educators speaking up publicly.
“Students are much more open to have these discussions,” Dier told me. “They are more willing to engage in difficult conversations.”
Yet, it is not just the adults and legislators on the far right of the political spectrum who are making these conversations difficult to have. John McWhorter, a Columbia University associate professor of English and comparative literature who is Black, cites a “prosecutorial mood on the left” in his book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. White people, he says, are branded as racists and sometimes lose their jobs or have their reputations tarnished simply because they ask honest questions about the value of certain policies or practices, such as anti-racism curricula or diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
That environment, McWhorter and others suggest, has silenced many of the more moderate voices on the left and right in K-12 schools, on college campuses, and in the public square, leaving the far right and far left to battle it out with insults, threats, and vitriol on social media. And it “makes people left of center wonder just when and why they started being classified as backward,” he writes in the book, “and leaves millions of innocent people scared to pieces of winding up in the sights of a zealous brand of inquisition that seems to hover over almost any statement, ambition, or achievement in modern society.”
That leads us to a concept in social psychology called “fundamental attribution error.” It is why people mistakenly assign the root cause of an observed behavior to the person’s character or personality, rather than something about their circumstances or a mix of their personality and circumstances. That explains the widespread use of personal attacks by extremists on social media or why people of opposing viewpoints can’t debate an issue without flinging personal insults at each other.
Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the popular book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, shared an unpublished manuscript with me in which she outlines how fundamental attribution error can play out in education. (Duckworth is also the author of an opinion blog hosted on edweek.org.)
A few years ago, a large urban school district asked for her advice in designing a program to help students build personal grit and invited her to observe classrooms. During one visit, a 6th grade teacher rolled in a cart of laptops, and students picked theirs off the cart and returned to their desks. Most students were working on the assigned activity during the observation. But two boys were just sitting at their desks, doing nothing, their laptops unopened.
Duckworth points out that if she had walked in just a moment later than she did and was asked to assess the willingness of these two students to work on challenging tasks, she might have concluded that they lacked work ethic. In fact, they simply (and unknowingly) chose laptops that were not working. They did not lack grit, she points out—they were just unlucky in their choice, unlucky to attend a school that couldn’t afford enough working laptops, and unlucky to have a teacher who didn’t think to ask students to pair up and share laptops.
It was not their personalities or character traits that were barriers to their engagement—it was their “situation,” Duckworth emphasizes.
Herein lies the problem: When we engage in fundamental attribution error that focuses too heavily on a person’s character or personality—without engaging in “slow” thinking to consider their situations or circumstances—it is much easier to get frustrated and angry with that person. And that’s when the pointless name-calling starts at school board meetings and on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.
That’s a big reason why Chris Wejr—the principal of Shortreed Elementary School in British Columbia, Canada—scaled back his personal use of Twitter after being a heavy user for years. It’s simply become too binary and too mean, he says.
He recalls how COVID masking quickly devolved into a divisive, nasty issue in Canada during the height of the pandemic, much like it did in the United States. That ugliness played out on social media. “There was no room for real discussions,” he recalls. Wejr said it divided families, ruined friendships, and created divisions among educators. Fortunately, he said, his school was spared the ugliness.
What is interesting is that Wejr kind of foreshadowed the rise of this dichotomous thinking and behaving before the pandemic even started. In January 2018, he wrote a blog item titled “Avoid Binary Thinking. Go to the Grey.”
It begins: “Much of what we do in education falls into grey areas. Yet, many of the conversations we have regarding education seem to use black and white statements and fall into the category of binary, or dichotomous, thinking. Binary thinking leads us to look at ideas in education as right or wrong and good or bad. It can create an ‘us vs. them’ mentality—‘You are either with us or you are not!’ It can also prevent engagement in the conversations we need to have.”
Back then, he was talking about debates over things like lecturing vs. guided instruction, homework vs. no homework, grading vs. no grading, and even desks in rows vs. collaborative seating. (In this country, you could imagine adding school start times to that mix.) Wejr observed that educators and parents in both Canada and the United States would make assumptions without evidence to support them about what was best, dig their heels in, and pick sides.
In the United States, once the pandemic started, that attention shifted to issues around remote learning; COVID masking; vaccinations; and, following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent public protests, teaching about racism. It was a volatile mix that fueled frustration, fear, and anger, further cementing educational factionalism across the country.
For me and most of the people I interviewed for this piece, it feels like binary or dichotomous thinking and behaving is only going to get worse before it gets better. So, that raises the question: How do we turn the tide in a more open-minded, collaborative direction?
For starters, we need to listen more and talk less. It is that simple. I am a talker by nature so that can be a challenge for me and people I am in contact with. But two years ago, I made a vow to listen more to family, friends, and work colleagues, even people I hardly know. It is more empowering and refreshing than you can imagine. And I am getting far fewer complaints from my wife that I am interrupting her.
Second, take a cue from Wejr and scale back the use of social media and encourage students to do the same. Let me be clear, do not take the extreme approach and just shut down your social media accounts or tell students to do the same. That is a form of binary thinking of its own, and the reality is that social media provides a good chunk of social good, too. If you want to think more about why this might be a good approach, I highly recommend you read social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s piece in The Atlantic, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” He argues that social media platforms are “perfectly designed to bring about our most moralistic and least reflective selves.”
Third, give kids opportunities to challenge their own beliefs. One of the most fascinating and powerful examples I witnessed came about as the result of the youngest of my three sons’ participation in his high school debate team. On several occasions, he was handed a debate position to argue that he was at odds with personally. The opportunity to challenge his own beliefs opened his eyes to new ways of thinking, and he continued down that intellectual path on his college debate team. As a result, he entered the workforce a far more analytical, creative, and open-minded thinker than he would have been otherwise.
“The pathway out of this is for us to realize a lot of these [polarized] debates being had are not improving the conditions in schools for kids,” said Jonathan Collins, an assistant professor of political science, public policy, and education at Brown University. He cites lack of clean drinking water, educational technology in disrepair, students trailing one or two grades academically, teacher shortages, and declining college-admittance rates as evidence. “We are pulling energy and resources away from things that really matter,” he told me.
It’s time to resist the worst impulses of our brains and dedicate ourselves to full-spectrum thinking. If we want students to embrace a wide array of ideas and complex thinking, we owe it to them to lead the way.
Jonathan Collins, assistant professor of political science, public policy, and education at Brown University, and the founder and director of the PAVED Research Initiative for urban school improvement through democratic innovation; Chris Dier, history teacher, Benjamin Franklin High School, New Orleans, and author of The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre: Blood in the Cane Fields; Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology, University of Pennsylvania, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and the founder and CEO of the Character Lab; Andrea Kane, professor of practice in educational leadership, graduate school of education, University of Pennsylvania, and a former superintendent of the Queen Anne’s County school district in Maryland;
Ron Myers, assistant professor of professional practice, college of education, Texas Christian University, and a former teacher, assistant principal, and principal in Oklahoma and Texas for nearly 40 years; Faris Sabbah, county superintendent of schools, Santa Cruz County Office of Education, Calif.; Chris Wejr, principal, Shortreed Community Elementary School, Aldergrove, British Columbia, Canada.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman; Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America by John McWhorter; “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid” by Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic; “Avoid Binary Thinking. Go to the Grey” by Chris Wejr, The Wejr Board blog; EdWeek Research Center survey, May 2022.
A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2022 edition of Education Week as Why Can’t We Talk to Each Other Anymore?