Polarity Thinking: Getting Unstuck in Education Debates (Part 2)

Jane Kise is facilitating a two day workshop on 11-12 September 2014 on Unleashing the positive power of differences for school leadership.

Jane Kise, Ed.D.

In Part 1 of this article, we met Pete's team as they struggled to help their students learn to be responsible. Once they recognised that they were dealing with a polarity, they were able to come up with a sustainable, effective plan.

Here's a simple polarity: take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can ... now exhale. Which is better: inhaling or exhaling? When I do this with groups, at least one person will answer, "exhaling". It's true that whichever we're depriving ourselves of seems like a "solution", but obviously our bodies need both inhaling to get oxygen and exhaling to clean out carbon dioxide as shown in the diagram below.

Figure 1: The Breathing Cycle Infinity Loop

Breathing Cycle Infiinty loop 

Breathing in and out is a virtuous cycle between two polarities; note that the majority of the area inside the loop encompasses the space above the poles; this represents maximising the positive sides of inhaling and exhaling. All too often, though, the two sides of a polarity fall into a vicious cycle, occupying the negative space below the poles.

Polarities aren’t new. Consider the tensions that arise when we need to honor traditions AND implement needed changes, or work independently AND collaborate, or meet individual needs AND build community. Literally from our first breath, polarities are part of our lives.

Consider, though, that simply breathing in and out doesn’t automatically lead to effective breath control for running or swimming. Similarly, simply working within educational polarities doesn’t automatically lead to highly effective education systems. Educators need to intentionally and systematically leverage key polarities to improve student learning.


The Core Tools for Leveraging the Positive Power of Differences

Let's look more closely at the dilemma Pete’s team faced to see how polarity thinking tools help reframe debate. The diagram below shows the two poles the team identified. At the start of our work together, the team operated within the Student Responsibility pole, resulting in a failure rate that was to them unacceptably high. The No More Failure initiative moved them toward the Teacher Responsibility pole.

Pete, though, had some fears about the legitimacy and sustainability of the resulting reduction in the student failure rate. All too often, those who raise opposition to change (especially when initial results are encouraging) are viewed as resisters, or as lazy, or uninformed or worse. When we map polarities, we instead recognise such fears as potential downsides of the pole toward which we’re moving. Follow the arrows in the diagram below and you’ll see the “vicious cycle”, the infinity loop that will continue unless the team uses the polarity thinking process to transform this into a virtuous cycle.

Figure 2: Vicious Cycle for Teacher Responsibility
AND Student Responsibility

Figure 2: Vicious Cycle for Teacher Responsibility and Student Responsibility 

By listening to each other, the team completed Steps 1 and 2 of polarity thinking:

See it: They recognised Teacher Responsibility AND Student Responsibility for learning as a polarity

Map it: They identified the upside and downside of each pole. Describing the values and fears in a polarity is the starting place for constructive dialogue. Each “side” can now step into the others’ shoes and understand the differences in how each views the truth. A full map shows 3-5 upsides and downsides for each pole.

But that is just the beginning: the team needs to leverage how they work with this polarity to accomplish their real goal - that students leave their classrooms with the confidence, knowledge and habits they need to progress toward lifelong learning. In other words, we want to maximise the upside of each pole while minimising the downsides.

The team’s “No More Failure” strategies are concrete action steps for maximising positive results from each pole. In addition, the team identified Early Warnings to judge when they’re over-focusing on one pole to the neglect of the other - either providing too much support or expecting too much too soon from students. These are quick "canary in the mineshaft" indicators such as an increase in students opting for teacher-designed projects (teachers taking too much responsibility) or students failing to complete work unless they do it during class (teachers expecting too much of students).

See it. Map it. Leverage to transform it. These steps form the foundation of effectively working with polarities. The alternative is fighting the same battles over and over. Why? Because when polarities are treated as solvable problems, when one side “wins” and implements its solutions, the “solution” isn’t sustainable. Eventually, the over-focus on that pole to the neglect of the other will lead to its downside as well. The “win” will be seen as a mistake, to which the solution is the upside of the other pole. However it wasn’t a mistake, it just wasn’t a solution; remember, polarities are inherently unsolvable.

Is the time invested in using the polarity thinking tools worth the effort? Consider a few examples.
  • In one school, administrators imposed a "test retake" policy. Students could retake examinations until their scores showed mastery of the materials. When asked how the policy was working, teachers said that constant retesting made it difficult to stay on pace with the curriculum. However, after they participated in "mapping" the issues and took a survey based on their map, curriculum pacing ranked as a minor concern. The bigger issue was that many students were taking initial exams without studying; they used the test to learn exactly what to study for their second attempt. Addressing this downside required different action steps than concerns over pacing.

  • The reading specialist at a primary school wanted teachers to incorporate more free-choice reading into their lesson plans. She assumed teachers preferred using the reading curriculum, so she was creating professional development sessions to demonstrate how to teach comprehension and analysis skills when students are reading different books. However, from the mapping process, the reading specialist discovered that most of the teachers weren't avid readers - they didn't know what to recommend to their students.  Again, very different action steps were needed.

  • Another school used polarity thinking to examine the tension between evaluating teachers and supporting them for continued growth. Again, a survey based on the polarity mapping process revealed that while administrators believed their processes were working well, the instructional coaches didn't think the evaluations accurately measured professional growth in newer teachers. The process opened new dialogues about how to accomplish both goals.

We don’t have to look far to see the emerging downsides of “winners” in education policy. A clear example in the United States is the growing protest against the Common Core State Standards, the new national standards that have purposes similar to Australia's National Curriculum. As I finished writing my book on polarity thinking last year, Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences (Corwin/Hawker Brownlow, 2014), I noted that the creators of those standards had over-focused on standardization to the neglect of the customization needed for different communities, cultures, students, and other factors. Again, a sure way to increase resistance is to neglect the values and fears of the other pole. Legislators in several states are currently looking at repealing the standards in spite of the investment of millions of dollars in new curriculum, assessments and training.


How Smart Educators Can Hold Opposing Views

That these battles continue - with the perennial losers being the students who have just one chance to be six, or eight, or fourteen years old - is, unfortunately, understandable, given human nature. The more scientists learn about neuroscience, psychology and the decision-making process, the more humble we need to be about the stands we take and the positions we hold.

Recent research provides a very real clarion call for tools that get us beyond the paralysis of polarised sides. Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University, shares his extensive research on the subject of how we form and defend beliefs in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012). His conclusions also apply to why great educators find themselves on opposite sides of reform issues. All of us frequently make snap judgments based on prior experience and knowledge, and then work to justify those conclusions. All of us are subject to confirmation bias, that tendency to readily note information that supports our position and unintentionally ignore conflicting information. All of us have other biases based on culture, background, education and more. And only through deep conversation with those who think differently do we overcome these biases. Polarity thinking provides proven tools for ensuring that we listen to other points of view.


Can We Move Forward?

Too often, though, we fail to have these conversations. Haidt (2012) suggests a path that seems a great fit with learning to use polarity thinking tools.

We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board) (p. 90).

As educators, we are both searching for the truth about how to help students succeed and for public policy that can bring that truth into reality, yet we so far seem to lack the tools to bring opposing “sides” together in productive dialogue. Instead of continuing to let the pendulum swing on major educational priorities, it is time to master tools such as polarity thinking to create sustainable, effective plans for moving forward.


Unleashing the Positive Power of differencesUnleashing the Positive Power of Differences
Jane A. G. Kise
Move from entrenched differences to common goals!All too often, key education initiatives collapse because leaders fail to anticipate and learn from the concerns of those charged with implementation. This illuminating book shows how education leaders can bring opposing groups to common ground, resulting in a solid plan built on diverse wisdom.



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.