Embracing Paradox Leads to Breakthroughs

“Revolutions in science often come from the study of seemingly unresolvable paradoxes,” according to the Physics arXiv Blog (@arxivblog), “An intense focus on these paradoxes, and their eventual resolution, is a process that has leads to many important breakthroughs.”

The cosmological paradox that captured the recent attention of Physics arXiv are observations that suggest the universe is expanding which would imply increases in energy–an obvious violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

(Remember our chat about entropy two weeks ago? Systems, like organizations, are naturally winding down not cranking up–that’s why Max DePree said leaders must be entropy catchers)

Back to paradox–it is the “intense focus” on the two opposing ideas that both must be true that often leads to “important breakthroughs.” This insightful claim is true in educational leadership even more frequently than science.

Eduparadox. The development of human beings is packed with paradox. During two intense days with Texas educators at the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, we discussed a half a dozen sources of tension. I added a few more common across these United States.

  1. Pressure & support. How to balance high expectations and strong supports? This is the ultimate parental paradox and central to teaching, school and system leadership. Setting high expectations and supporting growth are the keys to developing human growth and organization excellence. The trick is adjusting the mix of pressure and support and finding new ways to express the two over time.
  1. Improvement & innovation. How to drive instructional improvement and incorporate promising strategies? Leaders need to balance execution and innovation. Education is all about execution—talented and committed teachers meeting the needs of students every day in every classroom. But just making the old model work better isn’t good enough any more. We now have the opportunity to customize learning for every student. The trick is running a good organization while inventing the future. Managers deliver results. Leaders create the future. You need to be both—just find the right balance for your community.
  1. Personal & equitable. How to avoid allowing personalized pathways to become low expectation low income/minority pathways? How to avoid letting personalize pacing to become less well prepared low income students?
  1. Standards-based & interest-based learning. How to let kids follow their interests and make sure they learn what the need to? The intersection of for me and for degree learning is the most interesting design opportunity of our time. I think we’ll learn a lot about human motivation and will get more sophisticated about helping learning co-create pathways in the second half of this decade.
  1. Joy & rigor. How to promote high engagement experiences and rigorous learning. How to promote deeper learning and build basic skills? Innovative schools like Summit Public Schools and Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School have embraced the paradox and are trying hard to deliver joy and rigor.
  1. Art & basic skills. How to incorporate art and music into a day packed with literacy and numeracy? It’s not easy, but some schools do a great job of integrating arts into the everyday life of the school. I love that STEM-focused High Tech High is also the best art school I’ve ever visited.
  1. Community support & innovation. How to simultaneously build staff and community support while innovating in a tradition-bound community? Like #2, the key is serving as a community conversation leader and crafting a series of temporary agreements that moves iterative development forward.
  1. Answers & questions. How to encourage more student agency and resourcefulness by asking better questions and providing fewer answers? Guides at Acton Academy are more likely to ask than answer a question.
  1. Liberty & community. How to create learning environments that value individual differences and options while building a sense of community–what Henri Nouwen called, “obedience practiced together.”
  2. Opportunity & responsibility. How to create communities that maximize individual opportunity but reflect collective responsibility?

Good things, including a lot of learning, happen when we embrace important ideas that appear to be in tension.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.