Years ago, I was working with a group of educators in a professional development workshop, and one said, “We’re always innovating and trying new things. For once, I think we just need to stay the same.” His colleagues nodded—the group felt an overwhelming sense of initiative fatigue.
Too often in education, change is presented as “another new thing” or as an either/or debate. Think about these controversies: Teacher-directed or student-centered? Traditional instruction or project-based learning? Whole language or phonemic awareness? New math or old? When this happens, teachers (and students) can feel like they are constantly swinging from one side to the other, and leaders can find it difficult to begin new initiatives as reluctant teachers resist changes or just wait for the pendulum to swing back the other way. This initiative fatigue can lead to burnout, inertia, conflict, and animosity.
In Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences, Jane Kise presents a different strategy for teachers and leaders. Instead of viewing change as either/or, she suggests looking at it as a both/and polarity. The goal is to find a way to balance the positives of both options. Kise points to breathing as the ultimate polarity—it requires both inhaling and exhaling. To visualize the process, Kise recommends a strategy known as polarity mapping.
A polarity map helps to accomplish three goals. First, it allows us to see the positives and negatives of both sides of an argument—the two poles—so that we can gain a better understanding of the system. Next, it encourages the creation of concrete action steps. Finally, and most importantly, it identifies and codifies the greater purpose behind the intended change.
Identifying the Greater Purpose
The first step of a polarity map, before listing positives and negatives, is to clearly define the greater purpose that you hope to achieve.
For example, during a polarity mapping exercise at a 1:1 technology conference, a group of district leaders found themselves stuck. (You can see the map in an article I wrote for Education Week.) They had identified iPads vs. Chromebooks as their two poles. However, when asked to identify the greater purpose for these devices, they spoke of greater student agency and ownership of learning.
This led them to realize that the change they really wanted to make was the adoption of more student-centered practices as opposed to traditional, teacher-led approaches. The conversation about technology purchases became ancillary to the greater purpose that they hoped to achieve. By using a polarity map to better see the system they hoped to change, they could build a rationale for whichever device they might ultimately choose.
Acknowledging the Deeper Fear
Psychologist Kurt Lewin once said, “If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.” The psychology of change includes a range of emotions, from excitement and determination to frustration and fear. Most initiatives will face resistance if this psychology is ignored.
Last fall, I worked with a group of instructional coaches in Iowa debating traditional versus standards-based grading. They knew that their greater purpose was to provide students with more meaningful feedback about their learning. However, in collaborating on a polarity map, these coaches uncovered a host of fears their teachers had about standards-based grading, which ranged from record keeping to mitigating personal bias in assessment to communicating intent to parents to actually changing their assessments. The coaches realized that they needed to create supports to address these concerns before they could begin to implement standards-based grading.
Listing the Positives and Negatives of Both Poles
Polarity mapping can be an iterative process. After identifying the greater purpose and deeper fear, the two poles may also shift, as in the example of the group debating iPads vs. Chromebooks. Once the poles are established, the next phase is identifying the positives and negatives of both poles.
I worked with a group of instructional coordinators who used polarity mapping to build an understanding of homogeneous and heterogeneous groupings in math classes. Though they believed that students would ultimately benefit from heterogeneous classes, making themselves identify the positives and negatives of both groupings helped them acknowledge the ideas of those in favor of homogenous groups and ultimately encouraged more productive conversations with their colleagues.
For example, they realized that even in a supposedly heterogeneous class, teachers would often make homogenous groups by pairing students up and then differentiating to meet their needs. The polarity map helped the coordinators recognize the real challenge driving the debate: the difficulty of differentiating to meet every student’s needs. After completing their map, they could prepare for a very different set of conversations instead of another either/or debate.
Establishing Warning Signs and Action Steps
Polarity mapping helps identify interdependent pairs, meaning that both sides have a purpose and a necessity. We’ve always had polarities in education: individual work and collaboration, whole-group and individual instruction, individual responsibility and teacher support.
The final step of polarity mapping is to identify warning signs that the system may be tilting too far toward one pole, as well as action steps to bring the system back into balance. Consider traditional, teacher-directed instruction and student-centered learning. When a curriculum is too teacher-directed, the students may not be as engaged or may not have opportunities for critical thinking, so the teacher might introduce a unit of project-based learning to spark deeper inquiry.
Similarly, when students have too much autonomy, they may feel unfocused or may miss key components of the curriculum. To mitigate this challenge, the teacher might use a lecture and guided reading to increase content knowledge. By identifying warning signs, the teacher can take steps to keep the system in balance.
Too often, change in education is viewed as an exhausting either/or debate. Polarity mapping offers a strategy to see the positives in both sides of the conversation and a means to find balance in new initiatives.