Dichotomy

noun n.
a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.

In life, few things are black and white. It would certainly be easier if they were. And yet as educators, we tend to separate many of the apparent issues into extremes. Our views become polarised. We fit things into neat little boxes and sometimes become unable to open that box up and examine the real nuance of the debate.

There seems to be a tendency in life; in education but particularly on social media, to label and categorise, to sit firmly at either end of a continuum unable to see other perspectives, which at best is narrow-minded, and at worst is divisive bullying. I wrote a bit about this here in a blog exploring knowledge and skills.

It’s great to have strong opinions on things. I believe it’s really important. Especially when they amplify the importance of issues which directly impact our young people. However, there’s a difference between passion for something you believe in and conversely a firm reluctance to shift your stance or see things from another point of view. I would argue that as educators we need to be more skilled at examining the shades of grey and finding the best viewpoint, not just the one which people are shouting loudly about.

Personally, I sometimes struggle to find a strong voice because my arguments are never usually either/or. (As someone who is known to do a lot of black and white thinking in my personal life, this in itself is a strange dichotomy!). I find it’s not always as straightforward in schools. Especially when it comes to the incredibly complex, wonderful individual young people in our care. For a while I somewhat downplayed my educational values because they seemed to cross too many extremes. But I’ve come to realise that it is entirely possible to believe two things at the same time – it’s not a weakness to be want the very best for young people through high expectations, boundaries and routine, teaching behaviour as a curriculum of its own, and yet at the same time demonstrate compassion and understanding for the individual circumstances. Often it’s precisely because of that strong sense of care and duty to the young person, that you want the best for them. It is possible to believe that excellent learning and teaching, high standards and nurturing classroom environments are not mutually exclusive.

‘’Dichotomous or black-and-white thinking can be dangerous and is often based on the premise of achieving perfection. It gives you only two alternatives, one of which is usually neither attainable or maintainable. The other then tends to be the black hole in which you inevitably fall after failing to get to the first. You set your sights so high, constantly chasing an ideal that you can grasp only moments at a time. When the standard for being okay is this lofty, you’re destined to feel lousy most of the time.’’ Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch

Often if we examine approaches more carefully; if we look beyond the attention grabbing headlines or the 140 character tweet, we come to realise that there are many subtleties, and it is absolutely key to understanding these if we are to learn as professionals and develop the best systems for our young people. Most of my educational views have been formed due to a professional learning ‘pick n mix’ of theory, research, practice and experience. Yes we can veer more towards one approach. It is quite possible to believe that a particular way of doing something is the best. And as leaders of learning, I think we need to ask ourselves if we have the conviction and direction to lead with purpose, yet the humility and integrity to adapt and be flexible within our approach to meet the individual circumstances of of our wonderful young people and their families.

And likewise, as human beings we need to accept that our feelings are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly acceptable and indeed quite normal as teachers to feel absolutely exhausted, and still be hugely resilient. We can very much be independent, and yet still need others to support us. It is entirely possible to feel apprehensive about returning to school after the holidays, yet at the same time be very excited to see the young people and teach them face to face once more. It’s entirely normal to know that others have it way worse than you, but accept your own pain and hurt – something which has been a huge learning curve for me.

Let’s cut others, and indeed ourselves, some slack. Let’s realise that it’s ok for two opposites to exist in harmony. Let’s have a voice but use it for good, to shape things for the better and take people with us rather than knocking others down. Let’s practice what we preach to our young people, and be tolerant of other viewpoints. By all means challenge others’ thinking by sharing our views, but accepting that context is key. We may all be teachers, but no one knows your school and your pupils quite like you.

The problem with black-and-white thinking is that you never get to see the rainbow. Omar Cherif

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