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Transformative Inquiry


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Disrupting Binaries


You may have noticed in the last section, a somewhat dichotomous relationship between western scientific thought situated in positivism and a relational epistemology situated in an indigenist paradigm. While there can be a strong tendency to reduce understanding to an either/or dichotomy, the reality, much like classrooms, is significantly more complex and nuanced. Of importance is not simply identifying with one camp or the other, but connecting with the idea that philosophical traditions both inform and deform our thinking (Minnich, 2005). We must commit to doing the difficult work of becoming aware of formative, implicitly-held assumptions (Thayer-Bacon, 2003) so that we can disrupt the hold of the traditions that are no longer useful.

A useful image that helps is move away from binary thinking is offered in Interactive 5.2, the orb of complexity. Our culture, our identities, our interests can be envisioned as having multiple and moving layers. Binary thinking often leads us to hierarchical models (think pyramid or ladder), when in reality situations are typically much more complex. As you manipulate the orb imagine that your topic lies at it’s centre, and to fully understand it you need to travel through each layer. As you weave and bob, the layers shift, and new relationships are discovered. Keep in mind that in many ways, culture, identity and your topic are more about the relationships, rather than the thing itself.

One important approach in this work is paying attention to binary thinking. French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1983) used the term deconstruction as a deliberate, careful way to interpret what we read and write. To deconstruct means to look carefully at an issue to understand any apparently conflicting or ambiguous elements. Often this means looking at binaries. Here are some typical binary labels you might notice in a classroom:

  • individual/group
  • whole language/phonetic
  • good/bad
  • normal/special needs
  • black/white
  • female/male

The process of TI gives us time and space to thoughtfully explore the binary thinking that dominates educational settings. Binaries are one of the many ways we make sense of the world, yet these binaries can sometimes limit our thinking around complex topics and can be important sites for transformation. For example we know that a child labeled as the “bad” kid, actually has good qualities, even if these might be less obvious. We know that someone who identifies as male might later identify as female, or neither. We know that race is not biologically real, but is real in its consequences. According to Kalmbach Phillips & Carr (2006) when we see binaries, we tend to take sides:

Many individuals feel the need to be on one side or the other of such binaries. For example, in teaching, they must either be a friend or an authority; their lessons are either fun or boring; they must have control or risk chaos. With each of these, there is a sense that one of the sides is right and the other side is wrong. The side must then be defended; each side is isolated from the other. The result is a stagnant, single-view argument that is difficult to grow or expand. To deconstruct these binaries, we might instead make a list of what is dangerous and useful about each perspective. Consider the assumptions we are making about each term: what values, beliefs, and cultural influences frame our interpretations? The goal of examining our assumptions in this way is to tease something out of the text (and our own thinking) that we may not have noticed before. Such deconstruction allows us to start all over again and to consider the dilemma from another point of view. (p. 10)



In TI we move from either/or ways of thinking to both~and ways of thinking. Developing a habit for disrupting binary thinking can take practice. What are the perceived paradoxes in your inquiry? How might you deconstruct them in order to see what is dangerous and useful there? How might your worldview create or disrupt binaries? One of the benefits of the pod relationships discussed in Chapter Seven is that through layered and generous listening, we can help each other identify and disrupt binary thinking and see the complexity of situations.


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