The Problem With Black & White Statements in Education

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by the BCth: http://flickr.com/photos/bcii/4499830063/

I continue to hear how certain educational practices are harmful to kids. Things like homework, desks in rows,  multiple choice questions, worksheets, and tests are stated as being “toxic” and “educational malpractice”.  I think as educators we need to be careful when we make dichotomous statements like these as they tend to end the chance for any productive dialogue.

I have made this mistake before… many times.  I have my areas of passion and there are mindsets and ideas that I have strong opinions about but I have learned (and continue to learn) that when we make statements that polarize people, you leave very little opportunity to engage.

I saw this tweet today by a few educators whom I truly respect:

I believe this came from a statement from Alfie Kohn and people were just sharing his message but I am not sure. Now, I have big concerns about homework (see here for our staff conversation) but this statement about homework leads me to a response of: REALLY? Of all the things we do during the 7 hours kids are at school, homework is THE biggest killer of curiosity?  How are we defining homework? What if we move to an inquiry-driven system in which school is real life and they continue their learning at home?  How do we even start the conversation about questioning homework when the statement says that teachers who assign homework (again, not defining what it is) are killing curiosity more than anything else in school.  Do we really think someone who believes in giving  homework will discuss this after a statement like this?

Tom Schimmer once said to me, “Be careful of the tone of your message as it can alienate those you are trying to reach”.  When we use powerful polar statements, they often “sell” and get retweeted… but do they do anything to move the dialogue and create educational change?  It is no secret that I am a fan of Alfie Kohn’s ideas… but I struggle with the tone that is used.  Compare Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” with the writing that Kohn has been doing for years.  They both have similar messages (and cite similar research) but Pink provides a gentle nudge while Kohn makes us feel like we should lose our teaching licenses if we give homework, use worksheets, or have desks in rows.  Kohn has done very well with the language he uses (and again, love his ideas, personally enjoy his books, and the research he shares) but so many are alienated by his tone and the dichotomous statements he makes. As educational leaders, is this the tone we want to use to create the conditions for change?

We have some fantastic teachers at our school.  Sometimes we have desks in rows, sometimes we give worksheets, and sometimes we use multiple choice.  As my buddy Cale Birk mentioned to me: “Maybe we should be questioning the learning tasks (activities) that students are doing?”.  I would add – maybe we should be less concerned about some instructions/questions written on sheets of paper (or a screen) and the location in which students are sitting and instead focus our attention on student learning and level of engagement.  Is there NEVER a time when kids prefer to work alone?  Is there NEVER a time when some learning should be done away from school? Black and white statements make it seem like this is the case… and, unfortunately, often end the chance for any professional dialogue on the issue.

The few examples stated are important conversations we need to have as educators.  We need to question our assessment practices as well as our learning activities and what we expect of kids away from school; but in order to effectively engage in conversations around these topics, we need to move away from the dichotomous, or black and white, statements of education.

Education is full of grey areas – some darker and some lighter.  If it was easy we would have figured it out long ago.  The vast majority of educators do not intend to harm students with their practices… it is important we listen and attempt to view through the lenses of others.  Only then can we start powerful conversations about educational change.


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Chris Wejr

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


  1. Today I came home from a collaborative afternoon feeling confused. I started 3 different blog posts to try and process how I was feeling after a few polarizing conversations this afternoon. They included: you are either for technology or against it, technology is either good or bad, you are either for marks or you are against them, you either teach the curriculum or you don’t.
    In each of these conversations the predominant flavour was: this is how we are different (alienating), rather than this is what we share. I also reflected on how reference to a spectrum of growth we all work along, was missing.

    I wonder are the most strident boundaries in education those that we impose on each another? Do we as educators have a sports team mentality as in we want to be on the “right team” and that we want to pick sides “to play”? Do we fear the grey areas along a growth spectrum, as these are more out in the open as compared to being camouflaged within the polarized sides?
    More questions into the question soup 🙂


    • Your experience with the term “flipped class” is a great example. I used to have the flipped=bad mentality. Until I started to look through a different lens (thanks to you), I realized that this is not a bad/good idea – it depends on the who, why, what, and how of the idea. Many people take the black or white approach and fail to actually engage in dialogue around the pros and cons… and realize that maybe we need to go deeper in talking about engagement and assessment rather than “flipped”. Once we move beyond the “flipped”, then we can discuss the key aspects of education. Thanks for pushing me to explore the grey area of flipped… (and I realize that you are doing much more than just showing videos for HW :-)).

  2. Hi Chris,

    This post reminds me about a post I wrote in the summer about the absolutes people make in life and in education (http://henriksenlearning.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/no_one_knows_everything/ ) . It’s when people make statements that are absolute – all children should be like this, or all teachers should do that, etc… As you said, we must be careful with the words we choose if we want to continue the conversation (or even start the conversation with some). When we use absolute statements, we close off people, and worse, probably alienate them.
    Thanks for the though-provoking post. Nice to read your thoughts.


    • This sounds like a conversation my wife and I have had about the terms “always, never, all the time”… these absolute terms are often used to prove a point but also tend to create anger or defensiveness and move the conversation to a less than optimal place (and often end the conversation right there). Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  3. Thanks so much for this. Reminds me of some comments Royan Lee made in the June edupunk podcast, about the amazing teachers in his school who weren’t necessarily buying into the tech shift, and that that was probably okay- they were still amazing teachers. I think your comments about tone are really on-point. Sometimes, I get so caught up in my passion for inquiry-driven, tech-supported learning that I alienate people, and that’s counterproductive, to say the least.

    • Lisa, your words remind me of the statement “meet them where they are… and then provide a gentle nudge”. Sometimes our statements or actions are so far from where someone is that they shut down – it is almost speaking a different language. Meet them where they are and then go from there. Thanks for moving my thinking.

  4. Your post was a reality check for me. I received the tweet that you are talking about and it did make pause and think: Is my homework policy effective? My answer was no. But did that mean that I stopped giving homework? No. Instead I changed THE WAY in which I give homework. Your thoughts about not speaking in “black and white” terms are so true! Most things fall into the shades of gray. I use worksheets–sometimes. I put my students in rows–sometimes. I have my students work silently and independently–sometimes. Thank you for reminding me to NOT think my classroom has to be all or nothing. Sometimes in-between works out just right!!
    If you’d like to read my about my new homework policy (inspired by some of the HW tweets via Twitter, visit my blog: http://www.allstudentslearn.com

    • Stephanie, your comments make me think back to when I went completely away from grades.. went from marking everything to marking nothing (but still assessing). What happened was that I lost the trust of some parents and kids (and staff) as I never included them in the reasons for this shift. I also made the shift so quickly that I made a lot of mistakes along the way and gave some the wrong idea of why I was doing it. By making statements like “grades are harmful” made some angry and shut me out. Would have been better if I posed the question or stated that I was exploring the issue. In the end, I want people who see differently than me to engage in dialogue.. not walk away angry.

  5. Good bit, Pal….

    And it intertwines nicely with your thoughts about our reason for being in social spaces.

    If your goal is to drive conversations and to think together, polarizing statements are a horrible starting point.

    But if your goal is to gather followers and garner attention, black and white statements are the way to go.

    What’s frightening is that in today’s information-soaked world, being heard oftentimes depends on taking ridiculous, headline grabbing stands. Spend ten minutes following the actions of darn near any politician to see what THAT looks like in action.

    And what’s even worse is as more people see that polarizing works — that those who are being heard are all-or-nothing folks — those kinds of behaviors become the norm rather than the exception in almost every area of our lives.

    If we want that to change, we need to stop listening to those who polarize.

    I’m just not sure that’s ever going to happen — even if I can control it in my own life.


    • Hey buddy… I think that sometimes statements can be made to get people’s attention but I worry that these statements make get people’s attention and cause what seems to be happening in the US education (and political) system in which the sides are so polarized that there is not even a productive movement to understand. As leaders in schools we need to work to seek to understand others’ views and then challenge and support. If I say to a teachers “worksheets are toxic to learning”, we both know where that conversation will go. If I say, I am wondering your view on worksheets as a key learning activity and then gently nudge and question from there… in my experience (from being on both sides of dialogue like that), we move to a more productive conversation that often leads to more action. Thanks for chiming in…

  6. Hey Chris,

    I agree completely…almost. ;0)

    Sometimes those black and white statements serve the purpose of generating conversation, as in this case. If everyone was advocating the middle ground, we wouldn’t have to think or talk about it much. No question, the tone matters, and Tweets are absolutely horrible ways to communicate an opinion. Zero space for nuance.

    I think Alfie Kohn knows that his absolutist approach ticks some people off. But he does so respectfully, and to be honest, that seems more effective to me than the fancy rhetorical spin that Dan Pink and others often bring to these subjects.

    The trick is to effectively navigate that space between push and polarization. Bill’s right; politicians suck at it. But if you don’t have those folks who stand up and say absolutely “This is wrong.” (i.e. Rosa Parks, Aaron Schwartz, etc.) we’ll never evolve to a different way of thinking. We’ll never have the conversations.

    Hope that makes sense…it’s early.

    • Thanks Will, I think you have added to the dialogue and I am pretty sure that I don’t disagree. There are key points when we need to stand up and state that _____ is wrong. It has been interesting being a bit of a “Kohn head” and then watching the impact that Dan Pink has had on sharing Deci and Ryan’s research (and others). If we bark at people and tell them what to do… very few listen. If we pose some powerful (different) ideas that challenge current mindsets AND try to see through the lens of where people are coming from, I think that is where we get some change.

      When I first started as a principal I made strong dichotomous statements about grading, classroom set up, rewards, worksheets, technology…. and the people who were already thinking this way kept doing what they were doing and making change. Unfortunately, the people who believed in some of these ideas kept doing them too… and now they were doing it and basically disengaged from any dialogue around it.

      So I guess this is a grey area too and we have to keep in mind our purpose and our ‘audience’. I don’t take offense to words from people like Kohn as I have read much of his work and understand the research he shares…. but I know some people that when you mention his name, you lose them. My main challenge is to drive conversations in our district, schools and classrooms so understanding what helps this the most is a key for me… one that I have not figured out yet.

      You’re right… Twitter mostly leads to different arguments based on different definitions of words and we rarely get to a deeper issue. Blogs and videos can be more powerful as there is more context and space for nuance.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment… always enjoy your work and the push you give us.

    • Chris and Will, I agree completely that Twitter is not a great platform for this kind of nuanced discussion, and that blogs are much better. I’ve also found Google+ to be great lately – even though it collapses long posts and comments, you have more space if you need it.

      Part of the culture that has developed on Twitter is “tweetable” and provocative quotes that vastly oversimplify the issues. My pet peeve is when people try too hard to say things that will be retweeted because of their pithy and provocative nature, at least when it detracts from the substance of the discussion.

      It’s great to be clever, but it also helps if you’re saying something intelligent with your cleverness.

      (Hey, that’s tweetable… 🙂

  7. Hey Chris
    I appreciate your comments here, and your measured, thoughtful approach to this issue. As educators, I think it’s always our task to do what’s best for kids’ learning, to put that first. And you’re right, sometimes they learn best in rows, or alone, or via worksheets. Statements that attempt to paint issues either black or white should always be challenged. Partly because they simplify a complex process. As one of my friends puts it, there’s a simple answer for every hard question, and it’s usually wrong. And partly because it’s our duty as educators and leaders to protect a process that’s critical to democracy, that of the balanced view and rational discourse which examines issues from all angles. All too often in our Survivor/Idol culture we jump to judgement, when we should be seeking first to understand.
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful writings. I do enjoy your contributions (even if I don’t comment that often)

    • Thanks Ron – your words take me back to when someone visited a school I was at years ago and peeked in a classroom and saw kids all working hard on worksheets in their desks in rows with the teacher at the front and said “looks like a great teacher”. There was a quick judgment made by this educator without ever taking the time to find out what the kids were doing, learning, thinking… I have been on the other end in which quick judgments have been made about learning in my class because kids were in the hall and it was noisy. Often when these judgments are made, we defend and instead of discussing, we just react with our backs up. Yes, seeking first to understand is what we need to do more of… and one that seems to be a challenge in 140 characters. Thanks again, Ron!

  8. Great post, Chris. There are no absolutes in the world and no one way of doing anything that suits everyone. Every style of teaching has been successful for many students. Every school is full of teachers that do things differently and succeed in the process. I recently wrote a post about whether everyone in education has to be tech savvy? http://mgleeson.edublogs.org/2013/02/12/can-everyone-in-education-really-be-tech-savvy/ I mentioned that some bloggers are very forceful with their views on this. I used to be but now prefer to gently encourage edtech rather than force feed it to teachers who aren’t comfortable with tech but still engage and teach.

    • Thanks Mark. I used to be the forceful person but some of my colleagues, staff, and mentors have taught and modeled that a gentle nudge can go a long way. Teachers need to continue to grow and expand their comfort zones… sometimes what helps me is a simple nudge in the right direction.

  9. Great post. We really want to think we have all the answers, that there is a black and white world, but it just doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t hurt to ask the students what they think either. I switch things around a lot – desks, hw, group/individual work. Some of my students prefer sitting in rows. Some prefer working alone. Do we encourage our students to try things they are not comfortable with? Of course we do, but we usually do it with a nudge, or we turn them off too.

    • It is interesting because as I grow as an educator, I am realizing that there is much more grey than I thought! Thanks for adding to the dialogue Joanne.

  10. This is the way I feel when “experts” say that all teachers should be on Twitter or all teachers should blog. We can’t all do it, and we all don’t care to. ( I am an avid blogger and tweeter though).

    • I think the big thing is we need to connect with others… how we do this depends on the person. Some connect across the hall on a regular basis, some connect online… with social media there are more options and for me, the key is that we need to connect with people both in and out of our schools to help us grow. Yes, the “I am connected so I am better” certainly does not get more people using social media 🙂

      Check out Cale Birk’s post on this:

  11. The conversation here is fantastic. One thing I want to add.

    Something which serves to further problematize dichotomous thinking and polarization is when either sides adds an alarmist tone to their assertions. We often see this in 21st Century Learning rhetoric: ‘are our students prepared?!?!’; is your kid literate?!?!; etc. When making polarizing statements, we often denounce the way others use ‘the real world’ as an example and then proceed to use it ourselves to defend whatever alarmist ideas we support. I’ve become very impatient with Ken Robinson’s Schools Kill Creativity meme for instance. I used to adore it like a 13yo girl loves One Direction, but I don’t think it’s necessarily any more helpful than Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall”.

    The alarmist language needs to stop, especially when it’s used hypocritically. We shouldn’t think that the only way people will listen is if we inject a bit of fear into the equation.

    Thanks for facilitating this great convo.

    • Great point… fear drives so much and the alarmist method is certainly powerful in getting people’s attention… but I wonder, it gets people’s attention but does much change or do the people who already felt this way stand up and cheer and the others ignore?

      Sir Ken is a great example… I do enjoy his stuff but I find I am left going “now what…” Wondering if we need the Robinsons and Kohns for the big picture and people who actually create change living in the greys???

      Would love your thoughts on that. I believe WIll touched on this above.

      • That’s a great way to put it. I was first introduced to Kohn via parenting, and while I loved and agreed with his ideas, I found myself saying “so how do I actually DO this? how can I apply this to a toddler?” and feeling bad when I was not always able to be “unconditional” in my day to day choices as a parent. Now as a new teacher, I feel the same way.

  12. Often, this rhetoric comes without any nuance. We fail to show empathy. We fail to grasp the paradox. We fail to see the need for humility. Almost every practice (aside from hitting kids for screwing up) has a place. The real issue is seeing things conceptually and understanding that every practice is contextual. What makes it wrong isn’t that it is inherently wrong, but that it is used in the wrong way.

    • Well said, John. Yes, there are things that we need to stand up for as wrong and we can be firm in our beliefs but we also need to seek to understand by showing empathy and humility. Without doing this… there is no dialogue.

  13. Just found this quote at Big Think that I thought might be relevant.

    “”Strong opinion’s aren’t free. You’ll turn some people off. They’ll accuse you of being arrogant and aloof. That’s life. For everyone who loves you, there will be others who hate you. If no one’s upset by what you’re saying, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.”

    ~Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson (Rework).

    • Wondering… maybe we need both – people to stir the pot and make powerful statements at a larger level AND people who can take these statements and personalize them so they can gently nudge people and have impact at the classroom and school level? Thoughts?

      • Yes, yes, yes! And I think we all are in different spots on the continuum on different days, and in terms of different skills. Off to reflect on that. 🙂

      • I think that’s it. Maybe what we need is a forum where we take a “powerful statement” and then restructure it so it’s accessible.

    • So now the challenge is understanding our role and creating this balance. Thanks for pushing me on this one.

  14. Appreciate this post, Chris. Good contributions by all too.

    Today I was thinking about the labels often used in reference to parenting and or parent concerns in education. I see that also creating black and white conversations and statements, and perhaps dichotomies that don’t really exist. A label such as “helicopter or snow plow” parenting is sometimes used in article titles or in conversations and I think the understanding or getting to the “gray” of the actual circumstance or situation is then lost.

    It is great that this post has helped others contribute what may have already been on their minds but weren’t sure how to address. Thanks for putting yourself out there to open up this conversation.

    • Hey Sheila – you and I have complained together privately and publicly about this so we are definitely on the same page. These labels do nothing to help as when we put people in boxes, we attribute qualities that may or may not be there and apply more of a fixed mindset. Thanks for commenting!

  15. Great conversation. So much to disagree with! Not really… hard to argue with the premise that we should dial down rhetoric and occupy the boundaries between the big ideas. Our education system serves too many competing interests for schools to stand on singular goals and system-wide paradigms. We still need bold voices and unique contributions from leaders to provoke thought, otherwise our work truly becomes “gray,” lacking fervour and direction. I have noted, though, that educators tend to skim from the top from innovative ideas, taking on the easiest and least controversial parts while balking from the rest, or we co-opt the jargon while missing out on the challenge to change behaviours. Going “gray” is definitely safer, we have many examples in BC where we’ve latched on to big ideas and find out later they are a disaster, in part because we didn’t go “all in” but just as often because the ideas simply sucked.

    • Hey Glen – not sure what I can add to your comment as you have touched on some key points that really resonate with me. We do need bold voices and we also need to be careful that we don’t skim from the top and make judgments without going deeper into the impact of these ideas on student learning. Thanks for adding some key insight to this dialogue.

  16. Hi Chris, agree fully.
    We all have areas / interests we are passionate and consider ourselves knowledgable about, but we should be wary of letting these passions overwhelm our ability to effectively communicate a message and lead change.
    Like society, what we know and believe about teaching and learning has been and will continue to change – we need to be conscious of this fluidity and not ‘nail’ ourselves too staunchly to extreme ends of continuums…
    People are generally doing the best that they know – we shouldn’t be making them feel bad and inadequate if their knowledge and practice is a little out of date with what we desire… Instead, (like with students… ) we need to acknowledge that everybody has different starting points and capacities, then work with people to develop their own knowledge and skills, as well as collectively work towards a shared vision.

    • Well said! People do the best they can with the knowledge and experience they have. The challenge is to encourage growth in a way that does not end the conversation – and like you said not nail ourselves too staunchly to extreme ends of continuums. Thanks for adding your experience to this dialogue.

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