Avoid Binary Thinking. Go To The Grey.

Much of what we do in education falls into grey areas. Yet, many of the conversations we have regarding education seem to use black and white statements and fall into the category of binary, or dichotomous, thinking. Binary thinking leads to look at ideas in education as right or wrong and good or bad. It can create an ‘us vs them’ mentality – “You are either with us or you are not!”  It can also prevent engagement in the conversations we need to have.

(I originally wrote about this topic a couple years ago in “The Problems With Black and White Statements in Education”

I think within our staff/district (and face to face) discussions, we try to go to the grey more often.  It is safer and people respectfully understand that most ideas and strategies we discuss fall on a continuum and we can explore the middle ground to seek to understand, reflect, and create change.  However, on Twitter and at conferences I seem to see/hear way more black and white statements – tweets or quotes that either say something is completely good or something is completely bad.  These polarized statements often get many retweets, yet I find that the big topic and issues in education are rarely so simple that they can be stated (and solved) in a single tweet.  Here are some examples of issues off the top of my head (I understand tweets are rarely stated like this but there are many examples that share a similar message):

Content is bad. Competencies are good.  Hold the phone… if we shift away from content to focus on critical thinking (for ex.), what the heck do we critically think about? How do we critically think about… nothing? How do we provide creative ideas on topics without an understanding of some content. We need BOTH! Yes, there have been times when a focus has been too much on content (I am definitely guilty of this) but I worry that there are educators shift so far away from content that students are missing out on key learning that can help with communication, critical thinking, creative thinking, etc. Find the sweet spot between content and competencies… that’s where the real learning happens. Learn competencies WITH content.

We need to end the use of worksheets.  Are ALL worksheets bad?  Doesn’t it depend on what is on the worksheet?  Doesn’t it depend on the task? Perhaps we need to talk about tasks rather than worksheets.

Grading harms kids and is bad practice.  Perhaps we should first discuss balanced assessment that includes effective practices in summative and formative assessments.  Is the problem more about how grades are used rather than the grades themselves?  Too often, we move away from grades (this is a ‘sexy’ idea that draws the attention of others and makes it seem like we are progressive) without changing our assessment practices. If all we do is move from a 6 point scale (grades) to a 4 point scale (performance standards) on report cards but we do not change our formative and summative assessment practices, it makes very little difference to student learning. I am not a huge fan of grades but I believe the conversation needs to first focus on balanced assessment… this is where we get the most impact on student learning.

We must stop lecturing in our classes.  I am not sure about you but I love a good storyteller or speaker. There is also a role for direct instruction. It is all about balance (and the grey) – if all we do is lecture, we likely have a problem; if we avoid direct instruction, the learners may not be clear on the content. A constructivist approach can help with engagement but as teachers and coaches, we need to lead the learning and this can include direct and explicit instruction based on key learning intentions.

Extrinsic motivation is harmful. (I have said this before).  Is ALL extrinsic motivation harmful? Hmmmm…. so feedback is bad?  Inspiring others through modeling is bad?  Motivation is on a continuum and there are areas (bribes) that pose problems but it is generalized statements like this that further encourage binary thinking that one is good, while the other is bad.  I believe we definitely need to move away from a focus on rewards (prizes, tickets, incentives) in schools and work to create more intrinsic motivation.  However, by using binary thinking around motivation, we miss out on the key conversations we need to have to make the shift toward more intrinsic (check out the research by people like Deci and Ryan who provide a balanced, informed perspective).

Homework hurts kids and does nothing for learning.  Homework is an important conversation. Maybe, though, we should talk less about the amount of homework and talk more about the tasks we are asking our students to do at home (and at school)? What if we get a student all jazzed up about a book and they rush home to open it up and dive in? What would happen if a student is so engaged in a topic or learning activity that they cannot wait to get home to do more? What if we work to bring the outside world into our kids’ learning so that when they spend time outside of school, they make strong connections to their learning inside of school? Still hurting kids? Does this do nothing for learning?

Desks in rows…. from the 19th century.   Are desks in rows always a bad thing? All the time? Not so sure. Do we need time for focused attention and quiet reflection? I would go nuts if I had to face the same person 4 feet away from me for 6 hours every day. Perhaps we should have more flexible spaces in the class that might be in rows and some in groups?

Leadership – good; management – bad.  Somewhere along the line, management got a bad rap. I have made the mistake of focusing too much on leadership and not enough on the management piece. Here is what I know now: if you cannot manage effectively, you will not be able to lead well. As Bruce Beairsto once told me, “Leadership and management are like the yin and yang… management builds the house and leadership makes it a home.”  We need to do both well.

Awards are good/bad. Yes, I am pretty passionate about rethinking awards in schools. Does this mean that I oppose all awards? No. Does this mean I am opposed to competition? Nope. Does this mean I think there should be a focus on participation trophies? Definitely not. We need to have the conversation… are awards ceremonies the best we can do to honour the efforts and abilities of our students? If we simply say awards are always good/bad, we may miss out on the chance to have the conversation about rethinking how we honour students.

I will be the first to admit that sometimes I see an old tweet or slide that I wrote and I shake my head at how polarizing (and sometimes arrogant) it was. Here’s the thing… it is EASY to tweet a dichotomous statement in a succinct manner that gets people’s attention and gets 100s of retweets; but we often lose out on the grey and miss out on the opportunity to engage.  If we do feel the need to make a polarizing statement, we need to be willing to engage when someone challenges us.  Keep the social in social media; respond when we are respectfully challenged so the conversation can move deeper and move to the heart of the statement. We need to continually reflect, be willing to be challenged and open to others’ ideas and opinions.

Some argue that binary thinking often elicits emotion and therefore, can initiate dialogue and I can appreciate that view.  We need to be careful, though, that our polarizing statements do not cause people to disengage. Yes, a less polarizing statement may get fewer retweets but maybe we will get more engagement and cause more people to actually reflect and discuss the topic instead of simply disagreeing and disengaging. If we are using polarizing statements to create conversation, once we engage, we need to avoid binary thinking and be open to other views, be open to life in the middle… and go to the grey.   The grey is where we find deeper reflective dialogue that helps create real change in education.


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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of James Hill Elementary School (K-5) in Langley, BC, Canada. Passionate about strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. Great blog post Chris. Nailed pretty much everything. One thing I would add is testing. While there are terrible tests and testing policies, testing/retrieval practice is a highly effective learning strategy.

    • You raise a great point. When we use a balanced assessment approach, tests can play an important role. I think the high stakes, standardized testing model has caused people to completely move away from testing. For me, as a teacher, when I moved from testing using questions I thought were important (and assigning arbitrary point totals to the questions) to using quizzes and tests based on the standards/learning intentions, I found it gave me a much better snapshot of the learning that was going on in class. Too often, the conversation is about tests or no tests when perhaps it should be about valid and accurate summative assessments. As you shared with me earlier, I really appreciate how you have also shifted the focus to feedback in your day-t0-day practice… this is where we get the most significant gains in learning. More people need to make this shift! Thanks for the comment and for often pushing my thinking.

  2. Great story! Very well-written about the need for people to be flexible, rather than rigid in their opinions, ideas, and feedback towards others. Sometimes, it can be tempting to want to dig in, and be “married” to an idea or opinion, because we can feel entitled to how we feel about it. However, when debating or discussing ideas, if we refuse to budge, any outcome will result in a lose-lose conversation, or a win-lose at best. Only when we open our minds and hearts to new ideas, and move to the middle in the grey area, are we able to make progress, and have win-win outcomes. That is how I see it anyway!

    • Open minds and open hearts… that is huge!
      I have the hardest time when I have made a shift in my beliefs… I can understand why others may feel the way I once felt but I need to have more patience to meet people where they are at… and this requires an open heart.
      Thanks for chiming in, buddy.

  3. What about accepting that there are multiple perspectives, each deserving of respect? Can those exist in one place?
    Now I am not saying that mediating it to grey is wrong! Compromise has its place as well. .. If you hate chocolate? I will not try to convince you to like it only on Tuesdays. But If you want to meet at 8 and I at 10, then 9 it is.
    Is testing good? Is testing bad? Testing can be an important measurement tool. Overemphasis on testing alone is not the best way for most to learn. A well-rounded curriculum of several learning methods might provide a deeper, critical understanding of the material, and the test scores would then come naturally. So testing can be either good or bad, situationally. I perceive that the importance of being “with testing” or “against testing” has become the focus, so many no longer even know how to assess the situation. Though I’m now speaking metaphorically, about polarized thought in general.

    • Hey Leigh. I think going to the grey is exactly that – appreciating there are multiple perspectives. One can like chocolate while others may not… so it is not about chocolate is good/bad or tasty/not tasty, it is a matter of understanding context – how, when, and why it is used.
      Of course, there are some things that some people would be unwilling to budge on -that may not require the grey. For me, an example of this is discipline through corporal punishment. There is no point that I would agree this is good for kids. However, I would be willing to listen and engage with a principal around many other discipline strategies that focus on teaching.
      The vast majority of topics we discuss have a place of nuance that we can explore and we need to do this more often. This takes way more time but we all grow together when we do this.

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