Fourteen False Dichotomies in Education

My son starts to draw a picture with sidewalk chalk. I ask him some questions and wait for him to ask a few questions back. He tells me about his picture and then I ask him a few more reflective questions. I listen while he talks. His assessment is descriptive, analytical and evaluative, all within a matter of minutes. Learning is an internal, cognitive process and an external product. He is motivated intrinsically (the desire to create something new, the fun of learning) and extrinsically (the desire to impress his friends). One simple picture and I'm struck by the layers of paradox within it.

It has me thinking about the false dichotomies I often see in education regarding teaching, learning and school. Here are a few that come to mind:
  1. Learning as a skill, a concept, a process or a product: So many arguments I see online treat learning as if it's always one or the other, when it is often a blend of those. 
  2. Learning as an observable behavior versus learning as a cognitive process: There is a real danger in viewing all learning as something that must be observed externally and missing out on a mental process and there is also a danger in forgetting that learning at some point must be "shown" somehow
  3. Teaching as an art and a science: I'm starting to think this dichotomy is ridiculous, period. There is a real science to any art and there is an art to any science. The distinction is often a relic of an Enlightenment mindset. 
  4. Learning can always be quantified with a metric versus learning is seldom measurable and should be looked at through a qualitative and descriptive lens: I've seen bloggers who think that everything must be measured and others who think all tests are evil. There is often little nuance on either side.
  5. Learning as linear or connective: I've heard the tree versus rhizome point way too often. Why not both? If you're going to look to nature, can't there be a place for both trees and rhizomes? Stories are powerful, profound and linear. Conceptual attainment is often web-based. 
  6. Education as a system, a structure or a series of relationships: Often this plays itself out in an unnecessary argument about changing culture versus changing structures or dealing with people (teacher is most important) or pedagogy. 
  7. Assessment as something descriptive, analytical or evaluative: Sometimes a student needs to describe the learning, but other times he or she needs to learn that "this is the wrong or right way." When assessment becomes either/or, we miss out on a broad, holistic approach that could ultimately help students think better about their learning.
  8. Practical and theoretical: All theory is rooted in practical observations and has practical implications. All practices come from some theoretical mindset. Busting on one or the other seems kind-of silly. 
  9. Motivation being primarily extrinsic or intrinsic: I also see a dichotomy sometimes in negative or positive reinforcement. Spend some time and ask honestly about motivation and intentions and it almost always gets muddled. Our minds and motives are complex.
  10. Freedom and guidance: Personal learning advocates (myself included) often talk about the need for student interest or inquiry in driving learning. Yet, there is an equally valid point in the will of the group and the guidance of a teacher to help students learn what they need to know rather than what they want to know.
  11. Classroom management and classroom leadership: I've made this distinction before, but I think it's unfair. Great teachers do both. There is a real need to manage a group and let them lead themselves or to lead a group toward a goal while helping students self-manage. 
  12. Knowledge constructed internally versus externally: Yes, we construct knowledge internally, but we are heavily influenced by external stimuli. True, prior knowledge is critical, but so is the introduction of a new text, concept, etc. 
  13. Universalism of theory versus theory as context-dependent: We have to recognize that there are some practices that work better than others while also being critical about the context and the role it plays in the construction of research and the implementation of theory.
  14. Transformation and restoration: We've lost some great vintage ideas and we have some great things going for us. At the same time, the system needs transformation. We need a dialogue that includes visions for the future while also bringing in great ideas from the past.
These are simply the first fourteen false dichotomies I've seen over the last few weeks. Watch closely to many Twitter chats and blog posts and you'll notice someone building up an idea or philosophy and creating a straw man villain over the opposite side. 

Case in point: I recently got into a heated debate with another blogger regarding homework, data and what we should accept as valid research. In the process, I lost sight on the nuance, paradox and the need to see another person's viewpoint. The conversation turned ugly and I was left with a reminder that neither of us were finding the paradox in the truths we were trying to express. 

The danger I see in these false dichotomies (and I have been a part of this problem) is that in advocating one over the other, we run the risk of confirmation bias (using information to back up our ideas rather than question our presuppositions) and potentially taking an approach that might not be best for students. 

So, it leaves me with a lingering reminder that truth is almost always paradoxical, solutions are almost always nuanced and that the best approach is to approach teaching with a healthy dose of humility . . . but still be bold. See that? There's a paradox in that one, too.

Any other false dichotomies you see?
John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. Fourteen? Yet re-read your first paragraph following #14. Perhaps there was a disconnect in your learning of math?

    1. I'm not really sure where that's coming from. Care to elaborate?

  2. Absolutely valid points hightlighting the contextual nature of teaching and learning in general.

    1. Aesthetic versus Commodity.

      Extract from 'Is education a commodity?' http://martygull.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/is-education-commodity.html

      '... If education is a commodity (a market currency) then places of education are, in essence, the apprenticeships of business and should be funded by trade guilds. If this is so, then education is not a ‘right’ in any meaningful sense. I have the ‘right’ to apply for a job in a fast food franchise, but going to my local ‘McUni’ it is hardly the stuff of universal declarations of human rights.

      If education is the more idealistic encouragement of individual excellence in whatever skills and interests a student shows, this would require a complete overhaul of the current system in order to allow for true ‘differentiation’. Tragically, this was the wasted opportunity of the last decade. I now suspect that neither the political will, nor the money, are available to do this...'

  3. This post really resonates with me. So often, it feels like everything is made to be black and white and there is little acknowledgement of the shades of grey. My challenge is how to help my students understand the nuance.

  4. Collective Vs. Individual: We tend to accept that knowledge (and the capacity to learn) resides within the individual, and hence, all testing, assessment and grades are given on an individual basis. We are educating the individual child, instead of helping them to access the massive pool of knowledge and potential that larger collectives have. Collective systems are capable of learning too. Read Steven Johnson's Emergence for an mind-twisting look at this.

  5. Thanks for your grateful informations, this blogs will be really help for Students blogs.

  6. It reminds me of the quote by Robert Benchley:

    “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.”

  7. Great post and so true. Inspired me to write about something similar, thanks http://thoughtstreamblog.ca/types-of-problems-in-education/

    Barry Johnson's book Polarity Management also has some great ideas on how to manage the paradoxes you identified here.

    Thanks again for the inspiration!


  8. Your unique points helped me think about this information differently. thanks to share.


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