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Countering Binary Thinking

January 9th, 2018

Suzanne’s leadership work has focused on building sustainable equity across public educational systems in order to ensure parity of access for all teachers and students. Suzanne sets the vision and oversees the design, delivery, and quality of LDC’s resources, tools, and professional supports. She also works with the LDC Academic Advisory Board to establish and ensure LDC’s partnership in the most current and pressing issues facing the field today. Previously, Suzanne ran turnaround partnerships for American Reading Company and worked in both higher education and PK-12 systems.She holds a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. Suzanne sits on the Board of Trustees and the Pepper Council of the Free Library of Philadelphia, on Philadelphia’s Read by 4th Leadership Council, and on the boards of Scholar’s Promise and the Benjamin and Fredora K. Wolf Memorial Foundation. She is committed to the vision that all means all, and that every student can and should be well served through a commitment to equity. 

One of the legacies of 2017 is the amount of time I’ve spent thinking about civics, fairness, and responsibility. As we head into this new year, I think it’s fair to say that many Americans are more civically engaged than in past years—protesting and marching, writing and posting, joining active communities, voicing personal opinions, and even running for office. 2017 galvanized many citizens to consider how high-level politics affects daily life and to become more involved.

While this level of engagement is exciting and optimistic, it is accompanied by some inherent challenges. For the past few months, the conservative New York Times Op-Ed columnist, David Brooks, has been writing about “The Retreat to Tribalism,” including in his January 2, 2018, editorial. He points out that “over the past two generations...excessive individualism and bad schooling” have corroded our society’s willingness to find “universal principles and common humanity.” Instead of focusing on the strengths of what we have in common, identity politics leads us to focus on common enemies.

Brooks’ identification of “bad schooling” as one of the challenges leading to an “us/them” mentality, or as Brooks calls it, “binary thinking,” piqued my curiosity. To me, “binary thinking” sounds an awful lot like yes/no, multiple choice, and right/wrong answers. Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like what students do in school these days? Students in most schools are well versed in searching for the “right” answer to a question—whether it’s “right” because it’s a fact they can look up, or “right” because it’s the answer the teacher wants them to find. We have students answer these kinds of questions often—every day when responding to low-DOK text-dependent questions, every six weeks or quarter in periodic assessments, and every year in high stakes testing. The constant use of the kinds of assessments that force or reinforce binary thinking makes it clear to students that this low-level discrete thinking is what we value.

In contrast, an important benefit of the push for academic standards has been a focus on argumentative writing. Argumentation counteracts binary thinking; it can help students learn nuance in ideas, positionality in framing concepts, the separation between personal opinion and logical rationales when presenting a thesis, or using evidence to build and construct claims—all goals of any system of rigorous intellectual standards. This kind of argumentative thinking and practice can help students move beyond “my-answer-is-better-than-your-answer” binary thinking. In fact, when teachers really teach true argumentation, they help students practice civic and intellectual engagement: learning that issues and concepts can be presented and realized in a variety of ways and that real civic engagement depends on the discourse rather than the “right-ness” or loudness of our voices.

The challenge for us across our educational system is unequal access to this type of argumentative assignment by all students. When Ed Trust completed its 2015 report, Checking In: Do Classroom Assignments Reflect Today’s Higher Standards, it found that only 4 of 10 assignments given by teachers reflected the rigor of the new academic standards, and unsurprisingly the ratio of rigors assignments provided to students in high poverty schools was even lower. In fact, only 13% of assignments overall reflected higher order, Depth of Knowledge levels. LDC’s annual review of assignments through the SCALE/LDC Curriculum Alignment Review confirms this data.

My takeaway is that all kids do not get to experience rich, thoughtful assignments often enough. However, some kids get to practice non-binary thinking more often than their peers.  In other words, rich kids get some practice and poor kids get less. If some students practice the complex thinking and communication needed for higher education and careers (rather than jobs) more regularly than others, they are leaving our schools with a distinct advantage. The work kids do every day prepares them for the work of their future. This may be one of the reasons the opportunity gap is so prevalent in communities across the country.

Whether or not this is the case, I head into 2018 feeling a great sense of urgency. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to engage in the world when most of our time is spent at work or with family. But assignment quality is a huge differentiator that is within our power to change every day. Imagine what would happen if all of our students spent significant time arguing, positioning, and framing their thinking in multiple ways—it could change the way all students leave our schools and venture out into society. In fact, I believe it’s our responsibility as educators to ensure this happens for all students.

LDC provides multiple tools to help teachers provide all students with this type of intellectual practice. The LDC Task Templates provide the start for turning any assignment into a higher order one. The LDC Library provides ready-to-use assignments that can be implemented immediately in classrooms. The Standards Starter Tasks are assignments designed to teach specific rigorous standards—all the teacher does is substitute a text or content and they are good to go. LDC’s online and blended professional development supports teachers as they find, adapt, or design assignments that are rigorously engaging for students. Finally, the Task Pitfalls Checklist outlines the main barriers to a rigorous, quality assignment—it can be used to double check assignment quality.

So, if you’ve been bitten by the civic engagement bug of 2017 and are wondering how to enact it in 2018 amidst your busy life, consider this. Regular practice with higher order rigorous thinking can change outcomes for students. Use 2018 to ensure that every student in your classroom, your school, your district, or your state has access to high quality, rigorous assignments.  

As LDC’s designer Eleanor Dougherty says, assignments matter! Assignments matter as more than a grade or a task to complete. They matter as equalizers of opportunity. They matter as a practical way to combat the power of binary thinking. They matter as practice in thoughtful discourse for the coming generations of citizens in our country. Assignment quality is a very real way that you can enact civic engagement, fairness, and responsibility— all while doing your professional work. I hope we can agree to do one thing in 2018. Make sure every assignment we put in front of students is high quality, worthy of the time they will invest, and allows them to practice complex thinking skills.


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