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”.
~Parker Palmer in The Courage To Teach
Human 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 adults, people 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 it is done unconsciously and without regard for its potential hazards.
As people explain a complex idea to others, they pick out what they believe to be the most important points. Each time the idea is explained, it is further "simplified"—more of the specifics are deleted. 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 procedures, 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 they were attempting to understand the new from the point of view of the old. They simply could not 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.
“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. ”
~John Dewey (1)
Once 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 in-depth learning, I must be anti-standards. If I promote practical courses, I am deemed anti-academic.
Consider the metaphors inherent in such polar thinking. Education is a battle zone of dichotomies—armed camps prepared to launch a barrage of evidence for their views. Each camp has expert opinion and research data used as ammunition to shot down opponents in this battle of ideas. Researchers and experts are the generals. “For every Ph.D., there’s an equal and opposite Ph.D.”(2)
Such language is all part of a military metaphor. Is it any wonder that there is so much animosity, so much name-calling among different theorists? This is, after all, war! The metaphor forces educators to envision ideas as opposing armies on a two-dimensional battlefield. We have Descartes’ rational mind on one side and subjectivism on the other. Externally generated standards are battling curricula 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 fail 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!
These 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.
Teachers stand by and let the experts fight it out. Is there is a right way to teach, a right philosophy of education? If so, then why, in the history of education, has one side not been able to convince the other? Whose intellects are flawed? The fundamental belief that one or the other idea must be correct blinds even the experts to the recognition that almost every idea provides useful insight into some aspect of the problems. None contains all of the answers.
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 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.
Teachers who have no great attachment to either position—who don’t insist on 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 “the basics” 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 don’t think to ask 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.
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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