Another dot in the blogosphere?

When to (not) use broad strokes

Posted on: February 27, 2015

It is human nature to attempt to simplify complex concepts or phenomena. That is how our minds work, there is only so much we can remember, and it is more efficient.

However, such over-simplification, or broad strokes as I like to call them, can be problematic. Over-simplifications, generalizations, and convenient categorization ultimately lead to undesirable traits like racism (you are all like that), insularism (we are like this), and popularism (everyone seems to think like X).

The paragraph above is itself an over-simplification of many complex concepts. From an educational point of view, it can serve as a provocative hook to start a journey or a reference point for critique, revision, or reinforcement.

But a recent set of #edsg conversations* led me to reflect on how it might be better to close with broad strokes instead of beginning with them.

On Tuesday, a wide-ranging conversation on #edsg* included how ex-teachers became tuition teachers or started tuition centres, and the apparent divide between local and international school teachers.

In both conversations, I tweeted caution: Do not apply broad strokes to either scenario.

Tuition centres are not borne of nor filled with ex-teachers no matter how they seem to be. What actually frightens me is the number of centres led by individuals or groups who have no teaching qualifications. Equally frightening is the thinking that tuition has only one flavour and does more harm than good.

The conversation on local and international teachers hinted at an “us” and “them” mentality. This is understandable if the two groups do not have regular and open conversations. But this is unforgivable if the two meet and do not realize how they are more alike than different.

I have these perspectives simply because I have interacted with and listened to people from the entire spectrum in the tuition and schooling continuums. I do not rely solely on my or public perceptions.

Perceptions are deceptive. They are influenced not by what we see, but by how we want to see things. Used uncritically and non-reflectively, starting with a broad stroke can potentially narrow perspectives and learning possibilities.

There is simplification to create concepts and over-simplication that paints unnecessarily broad strokes. The former embraces detail and richness and the takeaway is an attempt to crystallize something that can be reconstituted later as the situation requires. The latter is uncritical and even lazy thinking. This could be a product of schooling (spoon-feeding, teach-to-the-test, model answers, curriculum-centred teaching).

Broad strokes might be better painted at the end of a long learning journey or serve as sign posts (markers) of learning during a journey. These are attempts to reflect and to take away important lessons.

*If you were part of that conversation and read my reflection, try to consume and think deeply about it with the spirit that it was intended, not the perspective you may have. Mine is one of critical reflection and a need to nurture critical thinkers and doers.

2 Responses to "When to (not) use broad strokes"

Thanks for this blog. I was just discussing with a friend that used broad strokes to describe perceived gender and racial issues. I was telling her how the unnecessary generalizations limits us from moving forward. She seems to be confused precisely by thinking the generalizations create concepts to simplify the problem. Which they do, just concepts that limit rather than propel us to move forward. Your blog draws a clear difference as to when generalizations are useful as when they are not.


I’m glad you found my reflection helpful even though I wrote it a while ago. Perhaps some good principles are timeless!


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