SIP 14.6 ‘Queering’ Your Curriculum: Teaching and Learning Beyond the Binary

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Student waving transgender flag at Pride Parade.

Often in our attempt to simplify learning, we reduce concepts to either/or, this side/that side, traditional/nontraditional, black/white and other binary constructs. By simplifying complex relations, ideas and thought into two sides, groups or elements that are diametrically opposite, we are using dichotomous or binary thinking.

Dichotomous instruction has often been encouraged as helpful when setting a foundation of knowledge in math, chemistry, ethics, medicine, political ideology, history, etc. – most of our disciplines. In addition to foundational understandings, the context in which we learn can impact our dichotomous thinking. In our current context of sociopolitical division, injustice, Covid-19 and environmental uncertainty, we crave the sense of certainty, status-quo order, simplicity and comfort supported by binary and dichotomous thinking (Drinko, 2021Johansen, 2020).

But however comforting or foundational binary thinking may be, it limits students’ ability to think critically, reinforces otherism and excludes students who do not identify with binary systems (e.g., male/female; gay/straight, able-bodied/disabled) (Kang, Lessard, Heston & Nordmarken, 2021).  Binary thinking limits possibility and problem-solving; it marginalizes, ignores and “others” people who are not part of a binary construct, and it can create an us/them and right/wrong framework from which we see the world. We need to teach students (and ourselves) to think, learn and act beyond the binary. “Beyond the binary” education can help all students belong, hold multiple perspectives, witness others’ experiences and find new solutions.

Take a SIP of this: teaching and learning beyond the binary

If you have five minutes:

  • Add your pronouns to your signature or instructor introduction. Read about why pronouns matter.
  • Try incorporating “yes, and” versus “yes, but” into your student responses and communication. Stating “yes, and” gives space for multiple perspectives being right and still redirects a student to a different answer. “Yes, but” closes off other perspectives, making wrong or not quite right the options presented by the student.
  • Write a statement for your syllabus that encourages critical, deliberate, full-spectrum thinking and what that may look like in your class or how it would benefit your students. An example of this may include: “In this course, I encourage you (students) to explore all possible options in response to questions and problems presented. As the instructor, I will challenge you to see a new or different point of view to widen your perspective and strengthen your argument. There are always more than two sides to a problem, argument and solution. As you move into __________, being able to see multiple perspectives will make you a more effective leader, innovator and problem-solver.”
  • Provide links in your syllabus for how students may add pronouns and their name to Canvas, Microsoft and other front-facing communication platforms. Many students have changed their names, but it may not be reflected in their official records for a number of reasons. Talk with your students about their options and use the name and pronouns they request.
  • Default to using “they/them” pronouns if you do not know a student’s or colleague’s preferred pronouns.

If you have 30 minutes:

  • Incorporate play, making mistakes, multiple paths and taking risks into your class. Incorporating play and encouraging risks helps students operationalize what it means to think outside the binary of right/wrong.
  • When having debates in class or showing gaps in literature, encourage students to discuss at least three points of view.
  • Review your content for hetero- and cis-normative images, examples, case studies and other material that reinforce the binary in gender and sexuality. This content may be helpful and intentional, so share this with your students. At other times, it may be outdated or limiting; again, share this with your students and change or remove it.
  • Review your syllabus and content for words such as “alternative,” “traditional,” “normal,” “other” and/or “abnormal.” Why are you using these words, and is there a better way to integrate new and contemporary material instead of in opposition or addition to old material?
  • Talk with students about discomfort in learning new things but especially learning new ways of learning and thinking and that we “naturally move toward categorical (binary) thinking,” so pushing beyond that can be difficult and uncomfortable.

If you have an hour or more:

  • Read about “queering” your curriculum: “Queering” your curriculum combines queer theory and critical pedagogy and challenges educators to disrupt hetero- and cis-normativity in addition to other dichotomous concepts and societal norms.
  • Create and use case studies with multiple viewpoints and acceptable solutions so students can experience other ways of thinking and solutions. Make sure they share the different resolutions.
  • Discuss research methods and stats in your discipline and the tendency to stay in the binary. What are the ways of knowing and research in your discipline that go beyond the binary?
  • Talk with an academic advisor or another faculty member about how your department supports students who are LGBTQ, especially trans and gender-diverse, in their career search or in professional development. This article discusses challenges and ideas.

Still thirsty? Take a SIP of this:

References and resources

Adam, R., & Chigeza, P. (2015). Beyond the Binary: Dexterous Teaching and Knowing in Mathematics Education. Mathematics Teacher Education and Development, 16, 108-125.

Allen, L. (2015) Queer pedagogy and the limits of thought: teaching sexualities at university. Higher Education Research & Development, 34:4, 763-775.

Drinko, Clay (2021). Play Your Way Sane.

Fraser, J., and Lamble, S., (2018). Queer Desires and Critical Pedagogies in Higher Education: Reflections on the Transformative Potential of Non-Normative Learning Desires in the Classroom. Journal of Feminist Scholarship,7:61-77.

Johansen, Bob (2020). Full Spectrum Thinking: How to Escape Boxes in a Post-Categorical Future.  Berrett-Koehler Publishers Oakland CA

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow.

Kang, M., Lessard, D., Heston, L., and Nordmarken, S. (2021) Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies. University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. BY: Attribution

Kramer, H., Goldfarb, D., Tashjian, S., and Hansen Lagattuta, K. (2021). Dichotomous thinking about social groups: Learning about one group can activate opposite beliefs about another group, Cognitive Psychology, 129,

Kumashiro, K. K. (2002). Troubling education: Queer activism and antioppressive pedagogy. Routledge Falmer.

Kung, S. (Nov, 2020). Adapting Data Science for Nonbinary Inclusivity. Towards Data Science: A Medium publication sharing concepts, ideas, and codes.

Linville, D. (2017). Queering Education: Pedagogy, Curriculum, Policy. Occasional Paper Series, 37. Bank Street College of Education.

Visit the Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher-education classroom.

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