Schools are complex, ambiguous environments. Trying to understand the motivations of one student in one classroom is challenging enough. When you expand that to 30 or more students in each classroom, the complexities grow exponentially. Then, there are teachers – who live their own complex lives – and all of the other educators and professionals within the system, which itself is part of a larger political entity. All of these parts interact with each other constantly to create endless challenges and possibilities. These complex situations demand complex solutions instead of binary thinking.

Binary thinking is a way of distinguishing all things as one of two mutually exclusive options. As in an either/or situation, but never both. Challenges are often framed in binary terms – as one thing or its opposite – because it can be easier to come up with a plan for a solution that way. People are sometimes so troubled by ambiguity that they feel better about embracing a plan that will not actually work rather than having no predetermined course of action. A bad plan might make us feel good in the short term, but it will not lead to the growth and change in schools that students deserve. Instead, we must learn to consider the complexities of every challenge and adapt to their specific needs, realizing that the solution is not one thing over another but rather a combination of many.


Teacher Choice

It is a common misconception that schools must either be all-in or all-out when it comes to teacher choice. When it comes to leadership in an organization, there are always going to be certain messages people need to hear directly, and there needs to be coherence in the organization. So, even when teachers are offered a degree of choice and autonomy, there are certain choices that are never on the table.

For instance, teachers cannot choose to say, “I’m not really a morning person, so I’m just going to start teaching at 11.” They have to begin when the day begins for everyone. No one can choose to be unprofessional. Teachers must balance the specific requirements of their duties with the professional choices and autonomy they deserve in their practice.


Student Achievement & Student Engagement

Some educators argue that student achievement is the ultimate goal, while others value student engagement and well-being over everything else. The truth is that one is not more important than the other.

John Hattie’s Visible Learning has become a major force in education, and his book Ten Mindframes for Visible Learning provides a set of mindframes to help teachers “see learning through the eyes of the students” and increase engagement. However, just because educators may increase student engagement, that does not mean that they should turn a blind eye to student achievement. In an article for Education Sciences, Jim Knight illustrates how the use of instructional coaching can be used to implement the concepts of Visible Learning and address both the achievement and engagement needs of students.


“Students described as ‘bad students’ simply have not yet learned the skills they need to behave in complex situations like those found in classrooms and schools.

Good Students & Bad Students

In Changeable, J. Stuart Ablon argues that no students actually want to be bad students. If students are behaving poorly, it is helpful to approach the issue as a learning problem instead of an attention problem. Students described as ‘bad students’ simply have not yet learned the skills they need to behave in complex situations like those found in classrooms and schools.

If we can approach students with an empathetic mindset and consider that they are dealing with countless pressures and challenges – in school, at home, and in the outside world. It can be all too easy to designate students into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories, but the reality is that each student is doing their best to navigate their own unique situation and they can all learn the skills necessary to succeed.


Technical Challenges & Adaptative Challenges

In a recent article in Educational Leadership, Jim Knight discusses technical and adaptive challenges as described by leadership experts Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky in their book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.

Technical Challenge:

  • A challenge presented by simple or complicated tasks that have known solutions which can be implemented through authoritative expertise.
  • Examples include:
    • Creating a schedule for bus duty
    • Determining a teaching schedule for specific classes and teachers

Adaptive Challenge:

  • A challenge presented by complex tasks and can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties.
  • Examples include:
    • Enabling students to embrace the opportunity for learning when they are dealing with so many things outside the classroom that interfere with their ability to learn

Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky write that “the most common failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.” For instance, trying to come up with a standardized, checklist-style response to racism or prejudice in a school and its community will fail because such technical response does not address the complexities of the issue. Or in regards to coaching and teaching, there is no one-size-fits-all plan to ensure students are motivated which educators can simply implement to solve a motivation problem.

An adaptive solution is one that evolves over time and requires people to make changes. It’s a learning solution: we see what works, we change what doesn’t work, and keep moving forward. Using the Impact Cycle is one way of doing this. The Identify-Learn-Improve framework ensures that each situation’s specific needs are addressed and that changes are made as needed along the way. It is a structured process but it is different every time, and an instructional coach helps make the necessary adaptations to actually achieve student-focused goals.


Schools need solutions for both technical challenges and adaptive challenges just as teachers thrive when given choice and autonomy but they must also follow guidelines. It is important to increase student engagement but not to lose sight of student achievement while doing so, and there are no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ students, simply students with differing skills. None of these things are one or the other.

Framing challenges as black or white, all-in or all-out realities might make us feel more comfortable because simplifying things makes them easier to understand. But this binary way of thinking will not provide real solutions to challenges facing schools and educators. If we can shed our binary thinking, we can develop thoughtful and effective solutions for the complex challenges facing all schools, educators, and students.