Polarity Thinking and Systems Thinking in Education

Young woman working, biting pen top, with journal, mouse, doughnut, coffee, laptop, flowers, and candy in the background
Melissa Garner

I am nothing else if not a learner. There are few things more exciting to me than understanding a completely new idea and seeing where it fits into my current schema. In that light, I’ve learned two such concepts that have refined the way I think about digital learning.

The first is Polarity Thinking as described by Jane A. G. Kise in her recent book called Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences: Polarity Thinking in Our Schools (Corwin Press, 2014). Polarity Thinking includes the idea that initiative fatigue is caused when leaders respond to the inherent weakness in any sole system or belief by throwing it all out and going with its opposite. The opposite system or belief is then implemented in its place and the cycle begins again. One example of this that Kise uses is a policy of No F’s for Students set opposite of Holding Students Fully Accountable for their Learning.

The second is System Thinking primarily as taught by Joel and Antonia of Personality Hacker (http://www.personalityhacker.com/). Systems Thinking posits that cause and effect is far too simple an answer in any situation. Instead, there is a whole system of interconnected parts and processes that result in an emergent property that we can see. My daughter who is 8 recently told me that leaving our lights on kills polar bears (cause and effect thinking). As you might imagine, I pointed out that the underlying systems that support a polar bear are far more complex but that energy consumption is one of the sub-systems that can affect them. While cause and effect thinking is characteristic of children, holding on to it as an adult limits thinking in profound ways.

How do Systems and Polarity Thinking inform the way I think about Digital Innovations in education? This business of growing humans that we are in is much more complex than teaching in -> learning out. That’s not news, but simply changing one component of the teaching - adding an online component, introducing a game, using Canvas to organize content, or any of 100s of other things - may not be the component that modifies the system of a student in any meaningful way. Similarly, trying one digital tool and making the decision that since it didn’t have the desired effect, no digital tools are going to work is shortsighted.

What do I believe, then, about the role of Digital in the classroom or Professional Development? It’s one component in a complex system of strategies and tools educators can use to engage, educate, and excite students. But so are pencils and crayons. Getting to know our students in all their glorious complexity and working with them to grow them into better versions of themselves is my view of education at whatever level. Rather than making wholesale changes at a macro level, I should make incremental changes at a micro level based on what I know about my student.

Is this possible in our current environment of high-stakes learning and accountability? I don’t know yet, but I’m on a journey to find out.