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Every day, teachers and school administrators are making thousands of decisions to support student learning and well-being.  Some of these decisions are simple: 

  • Can Mark go to the restroom? 
  • What time should the assembly be today?
  • What makes sense as the next step in our learning about fractions? 

Some of these decisions are much more complex: 

  • How do we balance time for traditional academic classes with time for arts and enrichment activities? 
  • How much time do we spend learning facts and procedures and how much time do we focus on problem-solving and inquiry? 
  • How do I best balance maintaining discipline and order in the school while also being an effective instructional leader?

According to Dr. Barry Johnson in Polarity Management:  Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, these more complex problems faced in schools may be labeled as polarities to manage rather than problems to solve.   According to Johnson, the criteria to determine if you have a polarity to manage vs. a problem to solve are (1) is this difficulty ongoing?  If after a decision is made, you and your colleagues continue discussing the pros and cons of the two choices, it is likely you may be dealing with a polarity.  If making a decision settles the issue, there is likely no polarity.  And, (2) polarities have two interdependent poles.  Like Frank Sinatra sang about love and marriage, “you can’t have one without the other!”  One polarity we all find familiar is breathing in vs. breathing out.  Breathing in and breathing out are two interdependent poles and are both necessary for sustaining life.  Similarly, administrators must find ways to both maintain discipline within the school and lead the instructional choices.  Polarities present as both/and choices, as opposed to problems to solve with either/or choices. 

Once a polarity has been identified, what next?  Johnson offers a map to help individuals and teams analyze polarities to determine how to best manage them.

For example, a polarity map for the discipline vs. instructional leader polarity might look something like this:

Ideally, this map would be created through a team brainstorm to get all ideas on the table and hear possible positive and negative effects from all stakeholders.  Once the map is created, and the potential positive and negative results are agreed upon, your challenge is now to manage the polarity.

To manage the polarity, you’ll work to maintain the positive sides of both options (because polarities are both/and decisions), while watching for signs that you may be overemphasizing one option to the neglect of the other.  The identified downsides will help you know when that is happening.  The bottom boxes on the map are your “caution flags,” letting you know when adjustments may be needed as you manage the polarity.

What are some polarities you encounter in your work?  How would mapping the polarity in this way help you better manage both/and decisions?
Johnson, B. (1996). Polarity management: Identifying and managing unsolvable problems. Amherst, Mass: HRD Press.

Visit our S²TEM Centers SC team!  They will be at the following conference offering sessions.

What’s in Your Disciplinary Literacy Strategy Toolbox?

Participant’s toolbox will be filled with disciplinary literacy strategies that can easily be implemented in classrooms and assist students in developing world-class skills.


STEM’s Not What We Teach; It’s What We Do

How do you STEM? We will examine community partnerships and instructional leadership experiences in STEM to become better prepared for implementing STEM-mindedness communitywide.

Wow!  So That's a STEAM Classroom

Designed for Administrators, participants will examine the components of a successful STEAM classroom as well as discover new ways to support and observe these classrooms. Facilitated by Alice Gilchrist.

Making It Matter:  Giving Purpose to STEM

Participants will explore purposeful and inexpensive ways to engage underrepresented groups in STEM.  Facilitated by Jodi Zeis.

Free Downloadable Math & Science Lessons

A collection of professionally developed K-8 lessons, aligned with the latest SC standards.


Explore our collection of STEM events and opportunities around the state. 

Have a STEM event you'd like to adverstise, visit STEM Linx!  Posting is free for registered users.  Add your opportunity to STEM Linx and you just may find it advertised in our next issue of Insights!

Differentiating Adult Learning 3--Day Course

Explore strategies for how adults learn and learn how to transform your schools and districts into sustainable learning environments. Learn More

Storm the Citadel

February 10, 2018
The Citadel, Charleston, SC
Teams of students in grades K-12 from all over the state of South Carolina will participate in trebuchet, bridge building, Lego robotics, and water bottle rocket competitions.   Find out More!

South Carolina Recreation and Parks Association Programming Summit

February 21-23, 2018
Myrtle Beach, SC
Join us in sharing educational or recreational programs and learn from others in the field about developing new opportunities.   Find out More!

iMAGINE Midlands STEM Festival

March 3, 2018
Columbus, SC
Bring the entire family for a fun-filled day of hands-on STEM experiences and interaction. 

iMAGINE Upstate STEAM Festival

April 7, 2018
Greenville, SC
A free community event featuring interactive exhibits and live stage shows from more than 70 STEAM organizations.  Find out More!

KidWind Challenge

April 7, 2018
The Citadel, Charleston SC
Students in grades 4-12 are invited to participate in two fun renewable energy competitions.  Find out More!

Creating a Mindset for Innovation

April 11, 2018, 8:00 am-noon
Trident Technical College
North Charleston, SC
Bringing together those with interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) innovation taking place in classrooms, the workplace, and the community. The symposium will center around Creating a Mindset for Innovation.

4-H Engineering Challenge

April 14, 2018
Midlands Technical College, West Columbia, SC
An opportunity for students 9-19 to learn, have fun, demonstrate their science, technology, engineering and math skills, and compete for individual and team honors.  Find out More!

Code Quest

April 21, 2018
Greenville, SC

Lockheed Martin hosts Code Quest, an annual computer programming competition where teams of 2-3 high school students each work together for 2.5 hours to solve problems by using JAVA, Python and/or programming to complete the “quest.” The problem set consists of 15-20 challenges created by Lockheed Martin engineers and computer programmers.

Dig STEM Festival 2018

April 21, 2018
Williston, SC
Come experience STE(A)M with your the entire family!  Hands-on activities, live performances, interactive demonstrations, and family-oriented STE(A)M entertainment sure to nurture a students’ curiosity about STE(A)M as well as engage parents.


The Gene Machine Mobile Science Laboratory

This mobile science lab allows the technology and expertise of the Greenwood Genetic Center to come directly to classrooms across South Carolina at no charge to the school. Find out More!


Clemson University Life Sciences Outreach Center

Offering laboratory field trips in modern genetics and biotechnology to school groups. Students will use modern technology to generate and analyze results and to learn key concepts.  View a list of labs and for information on bringing CULSOC labs to your school.
Copyright © 2018 South Carolina's Coalition for Mathematics & Science at Clemson University, All rights reserved.

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