Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences: Polarity Thinking in our Schools

In a recent (January 30th, 2012) New Yorker article on “Groupthink,” author Jonah Lehrer observes the following: The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks. Lehrer's statement, grounded in decades of research in social psychology, is that the most constructive form of collaboration is one in which a diverse group of people, i.e., those from different discipline areas and backgrounds, engage in “the vigorous exchange of clashing perspectives.” Educators who have participated in effective PLCs have learned that some degree of conflict between group members is not only healthy but, in many cases, necessary to move the group forward. However, when strongly-opinionated individuals are unwilling to even consider differing perspectives, progress is unlikely. Perhaps more than any other human service, the landscape of education is characterized by deep divisions of opinion on any number of issues and practices. The language that often describes these scenarios, e.g., “reading wars,” and “math wars” hints at the acrimonious nature of the conflict. Each side of these debates is so polarized that when one group ascends, they frequently jettison everything connected with the other side, both the good and the bad. Just to cite one example, in recent decades, we've come full-circle from the mile-wide/inch-deep, curriculum-centered cramming of content that characterized the last decade to al return to a more holistic (child-focused) vision of teaching and learning that is so reminiscent of what we held dear in the eighties and early nineties. The field of polarity management shifts these deep-seated debates from either/or to “What is the upside of each position? What is the downside? How do we ensure that we access the best of both while avoiding as much of the negative as possible?” By identifying mutual goals and common fears, as well as warning signs that the pendulum is swinging too far to one side or the other, educators can learn to leverage the energy in these debates, turning vicious cycles into virtuous circles of managing these complex issues. Author Jane Kise applies the tools of polarity management to four contemporary educational reform debates: • The math wars • Highly effective teachers/teacher evaluation (accountability and teacher development/support) • Deep and wide curricula • Proficiency and student engagement Chapters based on each of these topics will discuss the polarity, following “See it. Map it. Tap it.” The “see it” section will provide an engaging history of each pole. In “map it”, the upsides and downsides of each pole will be discussed, including key research and stories from schools or educators who have tried each pole. “Tap it” will bring together the ideas from experts on each pole regarding warning signs that the polarity is swinging out of balance as well as action steps to manage it well. The second part of the book guides readers in applying polarity management to their local contexts: districts, schools, and PLCs. Mapping and tapping the energy polarities represent is a key strategy for effective change efforts, decision-making, sharing of ideas and collaboration. These chapters will include case studies based on common site and district-based polarities, group exercises, facilitation instructions, and PD activities. Without a coherent framework for evaluating educational policies and practices, the pendulums will keep swinging, and we will continue to fall short in efforts to help all students become successful, lifelong learners. Polarity Management has the potential to bring reason to conversations and decisions that affect the future of children everywhere. Leveraging polarities involves three simple, yet in no way simplistic, steps: • See it. We first must recognize when we're dealing with a polarity with two equally valuable perspectives on an issue, rather than a problem that has only one viable solution. • Map it. The “two sides” then work together to identify the upsides and downsides of each position, as well as where in the map (a version of an infinity loop) they would currently place themselves. • Tap it. Educators can then work together to identify how to leverage the best of both sides, warning signs that their efforts are swinging too much toward one pole or the other, and action steps they can take to manage the polarity.

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