Friday, July 8, 2011

The Dichotomy Defense

False dichotomy: aka. the either-or fallacy, fallacy of false choice, black-and-white thinking or the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses) a type of logical fallacy that involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are additional options (sometimes shades of grey between the extremes). 

How many times in education do we invoke "The Dichotomy Defense"?  You know, the one where we refute a suggestion or new initiative by bringing up the most extreme, unlikely, one-in-a-million, contrary, doomsday example possibleFor example...

- "Texting in class?  We can't allow students to text in class because, once we start that, ALL THEY WILL DO IS TEXT."
- "Give students choice in what they what they want to learn and how they will be evaluated? We can't do that, KIDS WILL JUST CHOOSE THE EASY WAY OUT."
- "Flexible deadlines and re-writes? We can't do that, KIDS ARE LAZY AND WILL TAKE ADVANTAGE OF US."
- "Unblocking websites and social media tools?  We can't do that, because once we do, ALL STUDENTS WILL DO IS SURF INAPPROPRIATE SITES AND BULLY EACHOTHER."
- "Let students come up with expectations for themselves and their conduct? We can't do that, KIDS ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE AND THEY ARE NOT CAPABLE OF GOVERNING THEMSELVES--IT WILL BE ANARCHY."

In each one of these aforementioned examples, the extreme COULD happen.  A few students (and adults) might text all of the time.  A couple of kids (and adults) could choose the easy way out.  Some children (and adults) are lazy and will take advantage of the system.  Some kids (and adults) will surf inappropriate sites and bully eachother using social media.  Some students (and adults) are not responsible.


However, if the initiative is important enough, if it is the right thing to do, we can sort it out with those few people.  And we will.

Recently, our school district entered a partnership with Apple to get iPads for one of our local schools as a pilot project to increase student engagement, achievement, and 21st Century Skills through an infusion of technology.  Personally, I am proud that our district is starting to look at partnerships to help our teachers augment the good things they are doing in their classrooms.  Many other schools in our district are excited at the future prospects of this partnership.

The following is an excerpt of a response to this initiative from a writer in the local paper. 

"Yes, it’s an essential part of our work and lives, but I worry about the future of generations who can’t even spell, completely reliant on their iPhone’s auto-correct, and who think Twittering is meaningful dialogue.

So hearing the news that Grade 5 and 6 students at Bert Edwards Science and Technology school will be utilizing iPads, courtesy of a partnership with the school district and Apple Canada, leaves me a little uneasy. Working on computers is one thing but bringing the highly interactive iPad into classrooms is a whole different kettle of fish.

The Kamloops school has the laudable goals of improving reading comprehension and numeracy, which the iPad is somehow supposed to help with (what ever happened with those old standbys called pencil and paper?), and the kids will create “e-portfolios” among other things and blog about the process.

The biggest concern raised by school trustees is that the Mac products might not jive with existing IBM technology used in the district. But just how far will this go?

In the United States, teachers are incorporating social media into their lesson plans in dramatic fashion. Instead of discouraging kids from chatting online, a “backchannel” lets students ask questions and express their views via Twitter-like technology during class.

Educators say it encourages shy kids, who might otherwise never engage, to interact via texting.

In other words, don’t bother raising your hand and using your “inside” voice to speak, just text your thoughts to your classmates — something kids are already inclined to do outside the class anyway.

Where does the madness stop? We are the makers of our own destiny on this one and it’s not looking pretty. Diabetes and obesity are rising at alarming rates among youth as they sit at home playing on their Xbox and Playstations, now we’re encouraging them not to talk during class, just type? If they were shy before, this isn’t going to help bolster their confidence."

Whether one agrees with the author or not (I clearly would be in the “not” camp), I know that in education, false dichotomies such as the several listed above are easy defenses.  They are easy defenses to philosophies that challenge our own, initiatives that might not be our idea, technologies that we don’t know or understand, or to ideologies of the generation of students that we serve that we might not relate to as well as we want to believe.

Challenging new ideas is important and valuable.  And there are times when new ideas must be taken back to the drawing board, or just scrapped altogether.  However, using extreme examples to scare people into believing the sky is falling just slows progress.  When we confront new ways of thinking, it is important that use the best facts, information, and data that we have availed to us.    

By doing this, we avoid the easy defense, the Dichotomy Defense.


  1. Brilliant post, Cale.


    The Dichotomy Defense is all too common and all too frequently the stumbling block to any kind of meaningful change in education.

    You rule.

  2. I’ve heard every single one of these arguments along with many more, and they are all maddening. Catastrophic thinking will not get us anywhere in our efforts to improve teaching and learning in our schools. For me, putting a name to this kind of rhetoric is the first step in effectively combating it so that we can have the kind of meaningful dialogue we need to move things along.

    I’d like to suggest a simple strategy for dealing with the defense. It’s as simple as replacing “but” with “and”. The “yes…and” strategy is used in improv comedy all the time and it is a way to foster collaborative thinking and keep things going up on stage. So, the next time you are talking with someone about a topic (texting in class) and they respond with their catastrophic thinking (all they will do is text each other), try this. Instead of beginning your response with “Yes, but…” try “Yes some kids will do that AND we when that happens we can address it with those couple of kids.” Chances are, the response will involve more catastrophic thinking, but if we keep the “yes…ands” going we can start building a dialogue around these issues with those folks who are most uncomfortable with change.

  3. Today is Violet Folklore’s 5th anniversary! It was on September 19th, 2008 that Sasha and I, after weeks of talking about how we’d work it all out, plunged forward and set up our Etsy account. We had met at a local herb class the previous year; I remember noticing Sasha right away on the first | | |

    thewebconfessor |

    naturegroupplc | | | | |

    farm-a-round |


Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog!