Cognitive tools: Binary opposites

Abstract Binary Oppositions are among the most basic and powerful tools we have for organizing and categorizing knowledge. It is as though we first have to divide things into opposites in order to get an initial grasp on them; so we easily divide the world up into good/bad, high/low, earth/sky, hot/cold, courage/cowardice, and so endlessly on.  Think of the classic fairy-tales and consider what lies just below their surfaces.  What is Hansel and Gretel about?  It reads like a meditation on the opposites of security/fear.  And Cinderella?  Rich/poor, vanity/modesty, selfishness/altruism.  Jack and the Beanstalk, and the others? Courage/cowardice, danger/safety, wealth/poverty, enterprise/timidity, cleverness/stupidity, familiar/strange, and so on.  It is as though young children begin to develop these powerful binary categories as soon as they learn language. Bruno Bettelheim observes that “[children] can bring some order into [their] world by dividing everything into opposites” (The Uses of Enchantment (1976, p. 74).

And it isn’t only children, of course.  Apply this kind of analysis to your favorite TV show.  Slugging it out just below the surface are these oldest and most fundamental abstract sense-making cognitive tools.  What else underlies the classic Western or Cops & Robbers or sci-fi stories?  We see these kinds of oppositions in conflict in nearly all stories, and they are crucial in providing an initial ordering to many complex forms of knowledge. The most powerfully engaging opposites—like good/bad, security/fear, competition/cooperation—are emotionally charged and, when attached to content, imaginatively engaging. You can read more about binary oppositions and their roles in teaching literacy here.

Give me a few quick example of how I might easily teach about, and help students practice using, binary opposites in literacy classes.

1. The teacher might use the attraction of oppositions in exploring just about any fairy tale with children. Take Goldilocks and the Three Bears. After telling the story and talking about it relatively freely, following children’s interests and questions or comments, the teacher might ask the children what opposites can they think of in the story. The children might recall, with or without a bit of prompting, the porridge being “too hot” and “too cold”, and the chairs and beds being “too soft” or “too hard”. The porridge and chair and bed that are “just right” are baby bear’s each time, of course. The teacher might ask can the children see opposites in the characters. After some discussion, the boldness of the (human) child and the considerateness of the well-behaved (animal) child are set in contrast. Goldilocks’ disregard for others and the bear parents’ concern for their child are also contrasted. Those observations may be enough for an interesting discussion of what is going on in the story—though the teacher could push further by picking up on the oddity of the nature/culture division, in which the natural animals are seen to be innocent and the human child is guilty, though unpunished. (The Golilocks version we tell today comes from the later nineteenth-century. In earlier versions the human interloper is seen to be punished.)

2. For a different kind of example, older students in a literacy class might enjoy exploring how many opposites they can find stuck together in common terms, and reflect on how they work.  What do we mean by old news, civil war, inside out, voice mail, industrial park, half naked, loose tights and tight slacks, criminal justice? One might give them the task of keeping a list of such terms.  This helps the students notice language in a new way, and they can be encouraged to consider the meanings behind terms they may hear, like non-working mothers, or military intelligence, or peace offensive and war games, or random order, etc.

3. When students have familiarity with a number of binary opposites, teachers can call attention to them to help make sense of stories and concepts. Teachers commonly teach binary opposites by providing students with two lists of words, and asking them to draw a line linking the opposites.  So the lists might look like this:

good                               in

big                                  poor

brave                              bad

high                                cowardly

out                                  little

rich                                 low

But we can then introduce more fundamental oppositions, such as the ten that Pythagoras considered fundamental to the structure of the world: limited/unlimited, odd/even, unity/multiplicity, right/left, masculine/feminine, still/motion, straight/curved, light/dark, good/bad, square/rectangle.  The teacher could write up the initial terms in each set of opposition and ask the students to guess the opposites.  Then the students might be asked to generate similar very basic oppositions that they have observed, like rich/poor, happy/sad, wet/dry. Keep in mind that these kinds of exercises can be made more engaging by combining them with uses of other cognitive tools, as you can see in the humor and jokes section.

How else can we use binary opposites in teaching?

On this page we will give a series of examples of how a teacher can use and develop students’ literacy capacities in everyday classrooms, associating “binary opposites” with many of the other cognitive tools in lesson plans you can use.

Some concluding words about binary opposites

Some of the teachers we’ve worked with have been initially reluctant to try out this particular tool. Some said that they didn’t want to encourage the children to see the world in terms of opposites, and they were especially wary of using such opposites as good/bad. They felt that it led to stereotyping and simplifying when the aim of education was to give children a more complex view of things. Also, they said, nothing was simply good or bad and no one was simply courageous or cowardly; that such opposites were always mixed in some degree.

“In the imaginative classroom, then, we will expect binary opposites to be used commonly to introduce topics to students, and also we will expect them occasionally to be made explicit and to be discussed.”

We spent some time discussing this, and indeed agreed that certain kinds of stereotyping in fairy tales could have bad results, especially the consistent association of male with active and female with passive. The main point we were concerned to emphasize was that this tool was not one that we were creating for children, but rather that it seemed to come along with language; it was there whether we liked it or not. Children, and adults, tend to break down our experience and what we know into oppositions to get an initial conceptual grasp on it. Thereafter we can mediate between the oppositions, elaborate and complexify our view, but it would be silly to ignore a tool that is regularly used by all children to make sense of the world around them.

We also discussed the use of oppositions in fairy tales a lot. Those of us defending the continued use of such tales argued that the presence of harmful stereotypes wasn’t a good reason for banning them, but that recognizing this tool provided a means to bring these hidden opposites to the surface, and allowed us to explicitly discuss them with the students. This tended to be the approach that most teachers took, whether with fairy tales for children or newspaper stories with adults in literacy classes. In fact, this tool alerted the teachers to the hidden messages of many stories in which they earlier hadn’t recognized them, and allowed them to raise them for discussion in class, at a level appropriate to the students.