Black or White? 7 Alternatives to Binary Thinking for Your ESL Students

Black or White? 7 Alternatives to Binary Thinking for Your ESL Students

Wherever they are from, and for whatever reason they sign up, ESL students arrive in their classrooms with their culture and philosophies in their rucksacks.

Even if they’re studying abroad, we can’t expect our students to immediately embrace western thought and adopt the mindset and worldview we’ve spent our lives constructing. Instead, they’ll arrive with their own opinions and ways of thinking, and that’s as it should be.

I’ve taught students from a hundred different countries, and each arrived with ready-made, home-grown opinions. Whether it’s the tenets of religion, beliefs about historical events, the relative merits of political systems, or the roles of men and women in society, I’ve met some deeply entrenched views.

I hope it’s obvious that our job is not to unseat those viewpoints or try to replace them. Instead, we should equip our student with the language to express themselves and bring their beliefs into the open, where they will meet with other, perhaps contrasting views of the world.

A major theme of this process, in my experience, is the issue of duality, or binary thinking. By this I mean the tendency to consider a question only through an ‘all or nothing’ lens; opinions are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and ideas are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Often, there is little discussion of anything which might exist between these polar opposites, and I’d like to set out some ways to encourage our students to consider those all-important gray areas.

7 Ideas for Considering Alternatives to Binary Thinking for ESL Students

  1. 1

    Skills and Environment

    A good place to begin is to establish a classroom environment in which there is no real notion of being ‘wrong’. This is difficult and takes time, especially if your students arrive with a fear of making a mistake (a trait often found among Asian students, for example). The key is to respond in a non-binary way to your students’ errors, even if they directly ask if their answer is ‘right’ or not; most ESL answers are improvable in one respect or another, so I try to focus on helping them make things better, rather than highlighting ‘wrongness’. Here’s an example from my classroom:

    Teacher: OK, let’s finish up these answers. Question nine? Chen, what have you got?
    Chen: ‘Roger fall off his bike and hurted his knee.’
    Teacher: One more time, Chen. I’d like to listen again. (Cups his ear with a hand)
    Chen: Is right or wrong?
    Teacher: It’s going to be fine, just let me hear it again.
    Chen: ‘Roger fall from his bike and hurted his knee.’ Is not right, I think.
    Teacher: Your verbs are the right ones. Now think about the form. Are we in present or past? (Open gesture to the whole class)
    Class: Past!
    Teacher: Good. So, try the past forms, Chen.
    Chen: Roger fell?
    Teacher: Awesome… Keep going.
    Chen: … And hurted… no, hurt his knee.
    Teacher: You see? A little teamwork, and now it sounds great. Good job.
    Chen: Thank you, teacher.
    Teacher: (Quick reminder to call him by his first name, rather than ‘teacher’.) OK, last one, number ten…

    A strong and deliberate focus on listening will also help. New points of view will crop up all the time, even during relatively innocuous feedback sessions like the one above; if your students approach the language with open ears and a willingness to wait patiently and listen well while others are speaking, they’ll be exposed to all manner of viewpoints.

  2. 2

    Teach the Language of ‘Grayness’

    We’ve all heard what happens when students try to superimpose their own L1 (first language) onto English; we get Chinglish, Konglish, Spanglish, etc. But when we listen to these intermediary languages, we gain some insight into the way our students L1 influences their thinking, as well as their use of English.

    Take the example of Chen, above. His first thought was to ask, “Is right or wrong?” I hear this kind of question very often, from Asian students in particular. In a culture which strongly emphasizes exam performance, and (at the risk of over-generalizing) where there is often a single, received, concrete way of seeing a given problem, students develop a tendency toward binary thinking. I chose not to see his answer as wrong, but as improvable, and I believe the teacher’s reaction makes a material difference to our students’ perception of learning; rather than a black or white dichotomy, correctness is now a spectrum.

    The structure of the students’ own first language might also present special implications. In Chinese, for example, questions are asked by affirming and negating the verb (literally, ‘eat, not eat?’ and ‘like, not like?’) which runs the risk of setting up an expectation of grammatical duality. English doesn’t work this way, and answers are very commonly something other than an affirmation or negation of the verb. Invite your students to consider answers which go beyond these two choices.

    Other key language in the exploration of these concepts includes the modal verbs of probability (might, could), a huge expansion of the concept of ‘maybe’  and the family of modifying words which express compromise, incompleteness and subtlety:

    Somewhat, perhaps, rather, quite, partially…
    To a degree, to some extent, in a limited way…
    A qualified success, a middling result, an unconvincing display…
    Shared responsibility, honors even, divided spoils

  3. 3

    Be Aware of ‘Binary’ Language

    I’ve lost count of the number of times one of my Chinese students begins a presentation with the well-worn classic, “As everyone knows…” I try not to stop students in mid-sentence, but for me, this opening has two problems: 1) for all its enduring popularity, it’s a rather dull, uninspiring way to start, and, 2) It’s just not true! The student is launching into a complex issue, and there’s no way that all seven billion of us recognize the same point in the same way.

    I’m similarly cautious of expressions like these:

    • It’s obvious that…
    • An all-out effort is needed to…
    • …. Is now inevitable…
    • It’s certain that…
    • A complete solution can be found if…

    Choosing to challenge statements like these can cause actually quite profound issues, and I treat these situations with care. An awareness of their origin helps, and here I speak only from my own limited experience in China, where I found that public statements tended toward the absolute and dualistic; this problem is the most important one facing the country; that issue requires a one-hundred-percent effort; this old-fashioned policy should be entirely eradicated immediately. The examples available to our students from their own culture will heavily inform the structure and tone of their presentations in English.

    I generally applaud my students’ passion and immediacy, but then ask questions which invite them into those uncharted gray areas. Could there be other issues which are just as serious? Would a measured, slower approach yield better results and fewer side-effects? What would happen if this policy was trialed in a few provinces, and only then rolled out nationally?

  4. 5

    Highlight the Dangers

    Dualistic, oppositional thinking has been at the root of many terrible moments in human history. Under Chairman Mao, the ‘Great Leap Forward’ focused so exclusively (and dualistically) on the production of iron, and rapid industrialization, that the annual harvest was all but forgotten; millions starved. The Nazis (themselves fervent champions of blinkered, derelict ‘either/or’ thinking) desired a ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish question’, and consigned Europe to a dark decade.

    Illustrate these dualities with modern examples, too: is it possible, according to the noise created in the media, to ‘Support Our Troops’ but simultaneously favor the closing of Guantanamo Bay and an end to drone strikes? An examination of this very special duality will teach your students meaningful lessons on the nature of modern America.

    And bring to their attention duality in their own lives. The very designs of video games tend toward binary constructions: success/failure, life/death, friend/enemy, me/him. Religion teaches a similar duality: heaven and hell, a notion which has informed thought and debate for millennia. In education, testing is carried out more and more through true/false and multiple choice tests, which (in my personal opinion) dangerously exacerbate an already growing problem. Even a quick glance finds our students surrounded by opposites, while the subtle truth of most arguments resides in those more elusive (and intellectually challenging) gray areas.

  5. 6

    Show That Lateral Thinking Works

    Bring in examples of compromises, deals and negotiations which resulted in success for both sides. Reinforce the idea that creativity and problem solving are skills, and certainly not innate qualities with which we either are, or are not, born. Remind your students that creativity is not anarchy, that solution-finding relies on understanding the whole issue, and that it’s really, truly OK to be different.

    And just as in the language example above - when Chen wasn’t wrong, but his answer was improvable - there’s no need to assert that the viewpoints with which your students arrive are wrong. Presenting an alternative offers a refinement, an additional tool, but not a replacement. As Chairman Mao himself said (perhaps ironically, given events during his administration), “Let a thousand flowers bloom; let a thousand schools of thought contend”.

  6. 7

    Explore the Gray Areas

    There are dozens of excellent ways to encourage your students to think ‘out of the box’. Negotiation and compromise exercises like United Nations  and the Antarctic Debate  offer just such an opportunity, but here’s an exercise I found very illuminating:

    Invite your students to write a ‘constitution’ for your school. The stated aim is ‘maximal student achievement’, and the charter should reflect that. Have them concoct rules relating to lateness, attendance, homework and exams, all with this aim in mind.

    Then, have them step back and examine their constitution, and ask the following question: Would you want to live within such a set of rules? Often, my students see the rules as too rigid, and incapable of reflecting the variety of students we have, and their personal lives.

    I then rely on the students’ empathy, and ask how the teachers, managers and administrators of the school would react to these rules. Again, I find that there is the likelihood of resistance; the rules would create too much paperwork, or would feel too harsh on the students.

    Invite your students to compromise a little on each rule, and write in exceptions. For example, a student who would otherwise have been punished for lateness, but who waited in vain for a bus which never showed up, should be given the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone will be ready to hand in their homework at the same time, so why not create a ‘window’ within which submission is possible?

    Personalizing these concepts, and making them relevant to the students’ own lives, helps to bridge what might be a significant gap in their life experience.

    Duality is among the most natural human philosophical instincts, but it can be a dangerously unwieldy tool in a complex world.

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