Polarities and Why They Matter

“Too often, school visions and the strategies educators develop to meet them are concerned with fixing the present as opposed to embracing the future.” – Jay McTighe and Greg Curtis, Leading Modern Learning

I’ve been reading and enjoying Leading Modern Learning: A Blueprint for Vision-Driven School by Jay McTighe and Greg Curtis. Before we know it, January will be upon us, and we will find ourselves preparing (if not already doing so) for next school year.

The past 6 months have brought us rapid change in education. Change we didn’t ask for but change nonetheless. We’ve proven that we can do seamingless impossible things. We’ve whipped up online schools almost overnight. We’ve quickly gotten technology in the hands of K-12 students across entire school systems. We’ve collaborated and planned and executed on plans without ever being in the same room with one another. The list goes on – people have made it happen because when it comes to the education of our nation’s children, that’s what we do. We, as educators, find a way.

It has been exhausting and unbearable at times. This work has been no small feat. But we have done it. And here we sit, at a crossroads. We are tired. It’s easy for many of us to crave, “The way it used to be.” While others may wearily say, “The way we used to do it wasn’t working.” All the while, we are all tired, and we are tired at a critical point in time. Now is the time, while we are experiencing this rapid rate of change to ask ourselves, “What parts of this to we want for the future? How can we be intentional with our planning to keep certain parts of this, modify other parts of this ‘new normal’ and what needs to go? What is best for our learners and their futures?”

One way to gain clarity about what we want in the future and to what degree is to look at polarities that exist in our complex systems of education. Polarities are paradoxes “tensions.” It’s not about either/or, it’s about both. It’s about “Yes, and…”

When you look at complex systems and think about opposites in our work, sometimes looking at those topics together is helpful. What do we like/need about this end of the spectrum vs. this end and when/how do we like it that way? These questions help us define the characteristics of modern learning environments (more of this/less of that). It’s good to recognize polarities at times when people think there is one right way or path. Often what we are talking about is not a problem to be solved. It’s tension (polarity) we need to leverage.

I was first introduced to this concept of polarities in the text mentioned above, Leading Modern Learning. McTighe and Curtis suggest taking a look at 10-12 combinations of polarities. Then, they invite you to put those polarities into quadrants as a means of trying to define the characteristics (examples of) what you are trying to create in the future.

Examples of Polaraities:

Authentic Assessments vs. Standardized Assessments: Will learning be assessed through standardized measures or through relevant tasks?

Standardized Learning vs. Personalized Learning: Will learning be delivered through one size fits “all” or in more personalized ways?

Then, you can place these polarities into quadrants to examine them further:

I recently had the opportunity to leverage about eight combinations of polarities with a district leadership team, and it helped us start to define how much and to what degree we wanted various elements of the educational system to be true in the future. I’m still a novice in my understanding, but hey, we learn by doing, right? I’m excited to continue thinking about how leveraging polarities can be used to bring us closer to painting a clear picture of the kind of future we want to create. Which of the qualities and characteristics on the quadrant do we want in the future? Which characteristics are manageable as progressions into the future?

As McTighe and Curtis say, “An impediment to deep lasting reform in educational systems stems from our inability to envision a compelling future of a truly modern learning environment.” We must commit to future-oriented learning. We must commit to examining the complexites of educational systems and decide what stays, what goes, what changes and to what degree, and how much of each of it do we want and need and why.

Polarities examination is a small facilitation move that can have big implications for the future.

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