Polarity Thinking: Getting Unstuck in Education Debates

​​ Polarity Thinking

Jane Kise, Ed.D.

At a school with families from predominately low socioeconomic backgrounds that I worked at, only about 70 per cent of the students were completing longer assignments such as reports and science projects. That’s a problem to solve, isn’t it? (In many schools where the families come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, lack of student effort is disguised by over-involved parents - a related dilemma with different potential solutions).

I assisted one of the teaching teams as they created and implemented new “No More Failure” strategies:
  • Students learned to break projects into steps. What specific tasks did they need to complete? By when?
  • Students updated their planners each day with assignments, test dates and the next steps on their projects.
  • Any work not worthy of a passing grade had to be redone.
  • If students fall too far behind on a major project, the teacher could require them to do a structured alternative assignment.
Within just a few weeks, one teacher reported a passing rate of 98 per cent for a unit. “Some of these kids had never finished a big project,” she told the team. “Their smiles were so big that I took pictures as they showed me their work,” she added as she passed around the snapshots.

Soon, two other teachers reported similar results - “No More Failure” seemed to have erased failure from the grade books!

Problem solved, right?

After a rather euphoric team meeting, one of the teachers - let’s call him Pete -  pulled me aside to voice some concerns, summarised below:
Are we helping students succeed? Or are we enabling them to continue to be irresponsible? If they know they’re always going to be reminded of what they need to do - what to take home, what is due the next day - where’s the incentive to develop their own organisational system?
Pete is rightly pointing out that by solving one problem, the team may have created others. He’s correctly identified a tension between supporting students and teaching responsibility. Too much emphasis on either one creates new problems.

Perhaps you’ve seen the extremes of teachers who take responsibility for student learning - they keep student work in bins from one day to the next so students can’t lose it, or schedule endless after-school catch-up sessions so that students feel no urgent need to attend.

And you’ve probably seen the extremes of expecting students to be responsible - teachers who give zeroes for any work turned in late, or who assume that “natural consequences will teach responsibility” even though students continue to fail.

So how can this team take responsibility AND teach responsibility? If Pete’s team interpreted the “No More Failure” results as problem solved, they’d eventually see students become too dependent on teachers. They would perhaps devise an initiative called “No More Apron Strings,” insisting that students organise their own schoolwork. And students would start to fail again … and they’d resurrect “No More Failure” … and …

Think, though, how the conversation changes if the team sees the above solutions as interdependent rather than independent. Each is just a partial solution. Many education issues involve paradoxes, or tensions, or both/and rather than either/or thinking. Barry Johnson coined the term “polarity” as he developed organisational tools for working with them.

Polarities are interdependent pairs that can support each other in pursuit of a common purpose. They can also undermine each other if seen as an either/or problem to solve. Polarities at their essence are unavoidable, unsolvable, unstoppable and indestructible. Most importantly, they can be leveraged for a greater good (2012, p. 4).

What does interdependent mean? Neither pole can be “the” solution. If you want to guarantee that a change effort will fail, build it solidly on the positive results one pole has to offer to the exclusion of the other. Pete's questioning helped his team avoid this trap.

The Problem of Polarisation in Education

Polarity thinking works for local issues such as the one Pete's team struggles with, but also for major policy issues. Just think of the cost - in terms of curriculum, professional development, and policy formulation - of the “reading wars” as we swung from phonics instruction to “whole language” to “balanced instruction” to “scripted” programs and so on. Linda Darling-Hammond (2010) points out how our inability to solve these problems once and for all has stymied true reform in the United States and many other countries.

Local, state and, sometimes, federal policies frequently force schools to change course based on political considerations rather than strong research about effective practice. In the long run, the fact that these battles must be continually refought means that we make less headway on student learning than we could and should - and the students most harmed are the most vulnerable students in urban and poor rural schools where the political currents are strongest and changes of course most frequent (p. 15).

Right now, key issues in education are being “solved” without considering key underlying polarities - including how teachers are evaluated, how curriculum is standardised, the balance between academic coursework and other purposes or goals of education, and many, many more. Polarity thinking provides tools for ensuring that we listen to all voices in debates to ensure we get the best sustainable outcomes possible.

In next month’s newsletter, I'll discuss how Pete's team used polarity thinking to come up with a plan that not only helped them get the upside of both supporting students and teaching students to be responsible, but also provided continual feedback on whether the plan was working. In other words, by listening to the wisdom and fears of both points of view, they created an action plan that leveraged everyone's wisdom.

That's what the tools of polarity thinking make possible.

Jane Kise is facilitating a two day workshop in September on Unleashing the positive power of differences for school leadership.

Cont​inue on to Part 2 >>


Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world and education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. New York: Teachers College Press.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Johnson, B. (2012). The Polarity Approach to Continuity and Transformation. Sacramento, CA: Polarity Partnerships, LLC.