The Danger of Binary Thinking and Making It Work

By Richard Erdmann & Christine Drew

When we work with teachers, we ask them to report student improvement results at each professional development session. The teachers with the most impressive results have at least one practice in common. They explain to their students what learning practices they are changing and why. Students learn how to learn even within very complex processes. John Hattie has categorized this instructional practice as cognitive task analysis and it ranks fourth on his 2015 list of 250 plus influences on learning.

Cognitive task analysis was originally developed from observing and analyzing the behavior of experts and their own cognitive analysis – how they think and make decisions. The difficulty with an expert’s thinking, behavior and decision making is that they can make amazing and predictable mistakes.

In 2020 we worked with the Alabama Association of Curriculum Development and Supervision to design a conference discussing John Hattie’s work in concert with Daniel Kahneman’s, Kahneman is a Nobel Laureate in Economics and the author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman studies thinking and decision making. Kahneman’s reservation about using experts as models for cognitive analysis is that they, like all of us, often tend to think fast. They generalize from the past to think about the present and the future, applying the past as though it fits, rather than look for new inputs. They also, like all us, simplify and in decision making, simplifying frequently results in the binary framing of a decision. Binary framing results in a yes-no or either-or kind of thinking and this poses problems

Two business examples come to mind. In 1983 Quaker Oats purchased Gatorade from Stokely-VanCamp. In thirteen years it grew from $100M in sales to $1.4B in sales. The mastermind behind the acquisition was the Quaker CEO William Smithburg. In 1994 he framed a yes-no decision about the purchase of Snapple but because of his past success with Gaterade, it was really a yes-yes decision. His staff was expected to agree with him and he was confident based on his past success with Gatoraid. He took his past success and projected it into a very different circumstance. Quaker paid $1.7B for Snapple in 1994 and was forced to sell it at a $1.4B loss three years later.

An even more disastrous example is from the 1970s. Who do you think made the first digital camera? In the 1970s Kodak received a contract to build a digital camera for satellites. When the contract was completed the debate inside Kodak was whether to continue pursuing a digital camera. The executives and board of directors decided that Kodak was a film company. It made its money processing film and rather than consider doing both, they framed an either-or decision and chose film. Three decades later the company declared bankruptcy. Should they have considered both as good decisions? In other words could they continue with their film business while pursuing the digital camera as a long term investment that would eventually replace film?

The first time I encountered a binary decision as problematic was in a final exam question in high school physics class. The question was whether a sail ship in space could be propelled forward by the sun. Converting the sun’s energy was not an option in the early 1960s. The question was about the sun exerting force on the sail. A photon, a unit of light, can behave as a wave or a particle but can be only one at a time. This was a binary decision as a Fitzgerald classic (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote is close to the following – the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function). The difficulty with the binary proposition in my test question is that the two opposites are both true but cannot both be true at the same time. This concept is called complementarity and perhaps Kodak might have considered both opposites, film and digital cameras, as correct but they would be correct at different times, so they needed to pursue both.

The time when binary thinking seems to be prevalent is when, like at Kodak, there is a new idea and it is framed in opposition to the old. It happens even in science. Gregor Mendel is known as the father of modern genetics. He first presented his research in 1865 but it essentially disappeared from view. His career led him into administration and there was no real proponent for his work. Into this vacuum entered Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution.

Darwin certainly won the day but was never without his critics. First, critics did not like the concept of natural selection. It seemed to explain the survival of the fittest but not the arrival of the fittest. Second, Darwin was absolutely wedded to slow, small step evolution and few believed that small steps might eventually lead to big differences. Then there were statistical arguments against Darwin’s theories. But, at the time there did not seem to be an alternative until Mendel’s experiments were replicated in 1900 and rediscovered. Now there was a theory about arrival – genetics.

Just as Darwin was himself positioned against Lamark,1 Mendel was positioned against Darwin. This began the eclipse of Darwinism. In 1904 a German scientist, Eberhard Dennert declared “We are standing at the deathbed of Darwinism.” For the next thirty years genetics and Darwinism were positioned against each other. It was not until Thomas Hunt Morgan, the fruit fly, and the discovery of mutations that genetics and Darwinism began to fuse into a unified theory.2

How does this apply to education? Think about how we position cooperation against individual learning or collaboration against competition, repetition as boring versus repetition as creative, or surface knowledge versus deep knowledge. To make matters worse, we take our own experience on these issues and, like Smithfield, project them forward.

So, let’s return to Kahneman and Hattie. John creates a list and we tend to treat each item individually and on its surface. Let’s apply some cognitive task analysis to his list. Homework ranks relatively low on John’s influence list. Spaced practice ranks in the very impactful category. What if the two were combined? It is a story told in another article but the result of shrinking homework (not eliminating it), and spacing the homework problems over time in class resulted in an average end of unit score for fractions in the 90s for two separate classes of students. The two combined had a greater impact than either alone. The teacher was also taking advantage of the fact that while not very impactful on average, its impact was greater with older students.

Let’s take another example. Collaborative learning does not rank very high but a form of it does – jigsawing. In addition to developing prior knowledge prior to collaborating, a subject of another article, jigsawing also combines individual work with collaborative work.

We find ourselves in the middle of such an argument positioning PLB against repetition. We strongly advocate repeated, spaced memory retrieval with association and variation and have worked to illustrate it as part of PBL. We use art to illustrate how repetition merges with PBL and use two artists to make our point.

Monet painted the same thing maybe two dozen times but he did it at different times of the day and even in different seasons. He wanted to show how the color of light changed with time. Cezanne, on the other hand, painted the same thing, Mt. Sainte Victoire, over time but his spacing was over sixteen years. His objective was very different from Monet’s. He believed that with time the artist would see the same subject differently. It is similar to sleeping on it. Both cases illustrate a merger of repetition and PBL, not repetition in opposition to PBL.

What processes might we use when faced with binary thinking? Kahneman’s suggestion is to slow down. One of his solutions is the same as Cezanne – sleep on it. You may find yourself seeing the same problem differently if you give it time. Another is to determine if both options are true but at different times, a solution Kodak could have used. Maybe the two options could be combined, as done with jigsawing. When they are combined, they usually open a range of possibilities, as happened with genetics and evolution. Then there might be Monet’s solution – a what-if process using a variable. What if the light changes with time, how does that affect the painting? Finally there is standing outside the problem and looking for models, abstracting what fits from the model and extending the abstraction into the mix, resulting in additional alternatives for consideration. This is Depth of Knowledge and SOLO (an Australian taxonomy developed by John Biggs – the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) at their best. Hattie’s conclusion is that helping students and teachers understand learning and thinking processes leads to better learning results. Our teachers would support his conclusions.

1 Today the emerging field of epigenetics and understanding traits is restoring some of Lamark’s tarnished reputation.
2 This story is in Sam Kean’s book, The Violinist’s Thumb, an excellent book of tales about love, war and genius the book’s subtitle.