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 possible. For 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. Ryan said:

    This is a great post. We often take the worst reaction to new ideas and suggest it will be universally adopted.

    Having said that, we also often take the best reaction to new ideas and suggest it will be universally adopted too. If I can generalize from Connected Principals for a second: if we don’t incorporate tech in every class: STUDENTS WON’T BE PREPARED FOR THE FUTURE. I wasn’t educated with tech, but I’ve managed to figure out how to live in this technological world and regularly incorporate tech into my classes.

    So I agree with your closing statements but would add one more: let’s be prepared to embrace new ideas, but let’s also be prepared to reject them. I think at that point, we have a mindset that allows us to critically evaluate new ideas.

    July 9, 2011
    • Tracy Rosen said:

      I had the same reaction as Ryan. Dichotomies are everywhere and not only in reaction to ideas of how to integrate tech into schools.

      When I read the title, before reading the post, I assumed you were going to address the dichotomous conversations rampant in talk around edtech – either pro or against tech, nothing in between. I’d go so far as to state that these dichotomies are what are stalling true advances in education. The higher the sides, the wider the valley.

      July 11, 2011
  2. Fred De Sena said:

    Yes a great post. My company is Innovations in Online Education and very often a potential client only considers the above mentioned “limited viewpoint.” The world is changing and not how we envision it or at the speed we would like it to. It will become what these young people make it and their tools are entirely different from our “pencil and paper”. As diffrent as that is from “stone and chizel” from a much earlier age. We need to embrace change not dread it. Always a hard thing to do! Fred

    July 11, 2011

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