Teaching in Mind

Helping Teachers Mindfully Transform Education

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The Teaching in Mind website has been refocused on how the unconscious beliefs and values of teachers influence the education of our children. Since the 2nd edition of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education was published in 2010, the lives of teachers and students have undergone major changes. To this end, our goal is to publish an updated edition of Teaching in Mind by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the key ideas about the effects of teacher beliefs can still be found here. New articles on the topic will be added as they are completed.

Other Articles

Articles about learning and assessment, historic foundations of education, current issues in education, and transforming education that previously appeared on this site can now be found at our sister site, Learning in Mind.

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The Danger of Dichotomous Thinking

"…We distort things…because we are trained neither to voice both sides of an issue nor to listen with both ears…. It is rooted in the fact that we look at the world through analytical lenses. We see everything as this or that, plus or minus, on or off, black or white; and we fragment reality into an endless series of either-ors. In a phrase, we think the world apart."
~ Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach

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uman brains naturally generate opposites. Someone says black and we think white. Someone says hot and we think cold. Binary thinking begins as the infant explores her world, playing with her fingers and toes and batting at brightly colored toys attached above her crib. She begins to recognize what is "me" and what is "not me." In short, she begins to categorize.

As they mature, people begin to classify ideas in terms of whether they are "me" or "not me." "Me" is anything that fits within my inner map of reality. "Not me" is anything that is not part of my belief system (and is, therefore, obviously wrong or illogical). Whatever adaptive benefits it has, dichotomous or binary thinking causes problems when done unconsciously and without regard for its potential hazards.

Simplifying Concepts…or Destroying Them

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s a person explains a complex idea to others, he picks out what he believes to be the most important points. Each time the idea is explained, it is further "simplified"—more of the specifics are deleted. But what happens to a Degas painting of ballerinas if it is simplified to stick figures, or to a Bach fugue if it is simplified to a melody line. Nothing is left of what made the original unique or interesting. Nothing is left of the relationships that were so critical to the whole. The same is true of ideas.

In education, new and promising theories undergo three destructive processes.

  1. A theory is simplified by the very people who support it. They do this to make the idea palatable to those they are trying to convince. However, this contributes to the theory's demise by distorting and weakening the total package.
  2. Supporters of the theory do not recognize the belief/value system upon which the theory rests. Failing to comprehend that one must hold similar beliefs and values to effectively apply the theory, they rush to get teachers to implement the "simplified" program.
  3. Teachers who are motivated by a wide variety of beliefs and values use the new program, often failing to get the results that the originators promised. The natural reaction is to condemn the original theory—a theory that teachers have never encountered in its entirety and therefore, never fully understood!

Today, many people picture John Dewey's progressive schools as places where students "do their own thing" with little control or planning. They think permissive rather than progressive. Nothing could have been further from Dewey's philosophy of education. Dewey's ideas were radically different from the prevailing views of the time, but people didn't recognize that they were attempting to understand the new from the point of view of the old. They were unable to accurately reconstruct Dewey's ideal classroom while still holding the values and beliefs of traditional education. As a result, they condemned Dewey's theory as flawed.

Two-Dimensional Thinking

"Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of Either-Ors, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities. When forced to recognize that the extremes cannot be acted upon, it is still inclined to hold that they are all right in theory but that when it comes to practical matters circumstances compel us to compromise."1

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nce people have simplified a theory, it frequently becomes one end of an imaginary line. At the other end lies its "opposite" theory. When I say something positive about the theory at one pole, I am accused of being against whatever is at the opposite pole. If I argue for a more humanistic approach to teaching, I am declared anti-intellectual. If I am in favor of more self-directed learning, I must be anti-standards. If I promote practical courses, I am deemed anti-academic.

[Note: You may find it helpful to read the article on metaphors before continuing…some terms in the following are italicized to show that they are metaphors.]

Consider the metaphors inherent in such polar thinking. These and similar terms are often seen in articles describing educational issues. Education is a battle zone of dichotomies. Proponents of each theory, armed with research, launch a barrage of evidence for their views. Each camp has expert opinion and research data used as ammunition to shoot down opposition in this battle of ideas. Researchers, experts, and policy makers are the generals. "For every Ph.D., there's an equal and opposite Ph.D."2

Clearly, these statements are all part of a military metaphor. Is it any wonder that there is so much animosity, so much name-calling among different stakeholders in education? This is, after all, war! The metaphor forces educators to envision ideas as opposing armies on a two-dimensional battlefield. We have academic achievment on one side and education based on human development on the other. Externally-generated standards battle active learning based on student interest. Each camp is lobbing data and research studies at the other from their respective positions. When the data doesn't overwhelm the enemy, when theoretical attempts to prove the superiority of one camp over another and fails to force the enemy to surrender, the battle often disintegrates into insulting the intelligence of combatants in the opposing camp. When all else fails, call them idiots!

Dove

On this two-dimensional battlefield, the combatants, entrenched in their own belief systems, can see only their immediate position and, at a great distance, the position of their opponent. "You couldn't be further from the truth." Truth, of course, is my position.

This war metaphor leaves observers with the impression they must take sides. It intimidates some teachers into believing they must choose A or B rather than AB or aB or Ab—even if some combination of the theories is the most logical, or effective, choice for a given situation. In the words of an educational proverb, "Successful teachers are effective in spite of the psychological theories they suffer under." These teachers don't allow rigid rules to dictate their behaviors.

Theories as Complementary Rather than Opposing

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ducators who aren't rigidly attached to any position—who don't waste their time taking a stand—can rise above the battlefield to view the various theories from a new and much more comprehensive perspective. Those teachers perceive theories as resources—ideas from which to choose depending on the current situation. Disciplinary situations require a different resource than nurturing situations. Teaching basic skills requires a different resource than fostering creativity. Teachers who perceive the entire plane of ideas can zoom in to the resource that most closely fits their needs at any moment.

Let's begin by tossing out the war metaphor. Many other metaphors could provide a more productive background for discussion. For example, what if we think of educational theories as flowers in a huge garden? People rarely argue over which is better—a rose or a daisy, an orchid or a violet. Each flower has something unique to offer. The effectiveness of the landscape is a result of the judicious combination of color, shape, and size. The bee gets to fly from flower to flower, collecting the sweetest nectar and returning to the hive to produce the finest honey. Just imagine the quality of the honey teachers might produce if they were free to draw from the rich repertoire of possibilities in the garden of educational theories.

Don't care for the "flowery" metaphor? How about thinking of theories as an assortment of tools to be used for the appropriate job? To paraphrase Abraham Maslow, "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." A single theory is like the hammer. It's very useful for some things, but not for others. Perceiving educational theories as tools offers us choices.

Educational theories are different points of view rather than either/or positions to be defended. Each point of view contains valuable insights. The idea that one must adopt one end of a spectrum and stay there, defending it against all evidence to the contrary, is as limiting as eating only one type of food or always wearing the same article of clothing.

Dichotomous thinking is an adaptive behavior that is part of human nature. The wonder of the human mind is that we can change it. We don't have to behave habitually. We can actively choose to think in a different way. Human minds are enormously adaptable. Establishing different patterns of thought will take some effort, but once established, those new patterns will become as natural as the old way of thinking.

The first step is to recognize the dichotomies under which we operate in education. Rather than asking, "Which theory is right?", begin asking "Under what circumstances would this be useful or effective?" Broaden your repertoire of approaches by seeking the value in each new idea rather than mindlessly applying the same traditional approaches to every situation.

"Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it. Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, new insights begin."
~ Herman Hesse>

For more on the topic of dichotomous thinking, you may wish to read the article "Who's Right, Who's Wrong?"]


References

  1. Dewey, J. (1939). Experience and Education: Traditional vs. Progressive Education. New York: Macmillan.
  2. Ohanion, S. (1999). One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 23.

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New!

The Teaching in Mind website has been refocused on how the unconscious beliefs and values of teachers influence the education of our children. Since the 2nd edition of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education was published in 2010, the lives of teachers and students have undergone major changes. To this end, our goal is to publish an updated edition of Teaching in Mind by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the key ideas about the effects of teacher beliefs can still be found here. New articles on the topic will be added as they are completed.


Other Articles

Articles about learning and assessment, historic foundations of education, current issues in education, and transforming education that previously appeared on this site can now be found at our sister site, Learning in Mind.

Email Updates

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