Diversity trumps ability

While we are familiar with and to some extent believe in the idiom, “two heads are better than one,” we rarely put it to practice. Our long-held belief about efficiency is that “like-mindedness is time-, energy-, and cost-effective.” Hence we rarely seek second opinions or different perspectives on a given issue. Our decisions about educational policies and practices reflect limited, partial, and hasty sentiment of a poorly represented school constituency.

When faced with a challenge, a few select members of the school are appointed to address it, conveniently leaving out many others who may directly or indirectly affect and be affected by the action plans devised to handle the challenge. We feel that calling in many others to the discussion table causes more trouble. We have wrongly learned and fear that bringing many heads together (representing the different constituencies of the school) to handle an issue will further complicate it without a positive outcome.

Power of Diversity

Dr. Scott E. Page, a professor of complex systems, political science, and economics, and an advocate of systems thinking at the University of Michigan sheds new light about diversity. In his recently published book, “The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies,” he uses mathematically modeling and case studies to show how variety in staffing produces organizational strengths, rather than chaos and inefficiency. He argues that “like-mindedness” produces singularity of thoughts and actions that curbs creative problem-solving and minimizes opportunities for innovative thinking and planning.

Dr. Page suggests that significant productivity is achieved when a seemingly messy, creative organizational environment accommodates individuals from vastly different backgrounds and life experiences who possess different perceptions. We live in an unprecedented era and the challenges that we face as educators, students, and parents are very complicated in nature. As time has proven, it would be ineffective to continue to rely on a few select members of the school to solve school-related problems. These individuals have the same kind of training, shaped in the same mold, and think in almost identical ways – if any one member gets stuck, all of them get stuck – in the end, the problem remains unresolved.

Empirical evidence

In an experiment conducted by Dr. Page and his associates, repeated trials revealed that diverse groups of problem-solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems. The accompanying reason for this is that the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tend to think similarly. The findings of this experiment led Dr. Scott to conclude that “a group’s errors depend in equal parts on the ability of its members to predict outcomes and their diversity.”

Capitalizing on diversity

Diversity is an identifying mark of the 21st century. Diversity fills up every crevice of our social realities. Research in diversity and complex systems yield enough empirical evidence to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, and the most innovative companies are diverse. Breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people. This explains why interdisciplinary work is the biggest trend in scientific research (a good example is depicted in the movie, “Armageddon” where a team with diverse expertise tries to save the earth from a cataclysmic danger).

Implication for education

The value of a school could be significantly maximized if the diversity of its constituencies is effectively used. Progressive schools have realized this and are moving in the direction of making collaborative decisions about major educational policies and practices – students, parents, professionals from the community, teachers, and administrators put their heads together – elicit, listen to, and consider various perspectives – before deciding on the best action/solution.

What makes a school, a school?

Working in a relatively small and new school, I ask myself this question quite often: “What really makes a school, a school?”

Parents choose big and well-established schools because they trust in them. They trust big schools because almost always, big schools promise to be everything that a school, in its most traditional sense should be (in terms of physical structures, infrastructures, pedagogical approaches, view on students and how they learn, exam-centrism, etc.). Unfortunately, these do not service students for maximum and meaningful learning. Research over a period of 30 years or so in the area of learning and cognitive sciences reveal that the traditional school setup is the least conducive to learning.

What makes a school then?

A school is not necessarily a concept that connotes a systematically-run physical structure, governed by tenets proposed by a few educated “geniuses” anymore. Like so many things in this ever-evolving world, “schooling” has undergone tremendous changes. It goes beyond physical-structural limits and extends to all that the human mind could imagine doing. In other words, schooling is equated to living itself.

In my opinion, the following makes a school, a school, in this changing times:

  1. progressiveness – ability to constantly change and re-invent ways of doing things and how learning is viewed.
  2. data driven practices – decision-making that is anchored solidly in hard evidences rather than “we do this because so and so feels it is good and/or said so!”
  3. collaborative actions among teachers, students, parents, administrators, community, businesses, industries, etc. – the school is not perceived and run in isolation by any one of its constituencies – schooling is living life itself – and life is lived in connection with all of its community/societal components.
  4. shared decision-making – big schools are famous for the detachment within their systems – most decisions are made by top authorities and others are expected to “follow” the leader without questioning the appropriateness and effectiveness of decisions made – communication to the power of ten thousand among the various constituencies of the school is the key to success in progressive educational institutions!
  5. vision-driven (focus on the big picture) – big schools strive to keep status quo in-tact “if something is good and functional, we keep it” – this is common in well-established schools – but when asked where the school is headed, most staff and faculty will not be able to answer the question because they live, almost completely, in the “now and here” – the “future” does not guide the present, the past does. While the past and present is important, progressive schools focus on the “future” and the big picture, which is PROVIDING MEANINGFUL LEARNING EXPERIENCES TO STUDENTS.

The educational value of daydreaming

It is impossible to imagine a situation where a teacher instructs students in her class to keep away school work, take some time off, and let their minds wander around – thinking about anything, everything, or nothing. The reality is quite the contrary. Teachers and school administrators often experience panic attacks when students get extra free time in their hands. Adults usually view this as a potential threat to their comfortable daily routine. Most adults believe that students become trouble-makers when allowed too much time for themselves, hence the conceptualization of the popular adage, “An empty mind is the devil’s workshop.”

Because of this belief, schools insist on tightly filling in every time slot and space that student may have to “wander around” in their minds. A typical school schedule is packed with subjects, activities, meetings, and supervised play. A careful examination of school schedule and calendar would reveal that there is little or no room for students to play the role of lighthearted-children (being who they really are) whose minds are the wellspring of creative ideas when provided with sufficient time and opportunity to engage in the natural process and act of wonderment, a quality that most individuals lose by the end of schooling.

Understanding daydreaming

The definition given by Oxford dictionary for the word daydreaming is, “pleasant thoughts that make you forget about the present.” This traditional characterization of the term limits our understanding about significant scientific facts about daydreaming. These facts have convinced scholars to view daydreaming differently.

According to Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, an individual’s mind is uninhibited when he or she daydreams allowing the brain to make new associations and connections – physically at neurological level and conceptually at the level of ideas creation). In other words, when people daydream and engage in abstract-make-believe thinking and imaginative wandering, there is a great potential that the act may give birth to creative ideas.

Schooler further explains that “if our minds do not wander, we would be greatly obstructed by whatever we are doing right now.” This implies the pre-occupation with mundane activities and the accompanying inability to stretch one’s creativity to the limits. Schooler’s research show that people who engage in more daydreaming score higher on experimental measures of creativity, which require people to make a set of unusual connections.

Daydreaming also yields numerous social benefits. The “what if” scenarios that we project in our minds help us to anticipate and prepare for the future and allow us to plan the course of our social-emotional actions. This is particularly important in making sound ethical and moral choices – a quality that differentiates humans from animals.

Myths about daydreaming

The following beliefs about daydreaming are not scientific and may further hinder us from harnessing its value to boosts creativity among students:
1. Daydreaming is the leading cause of traffic accidents
2. Daydreaming is a sign of laziness
3. Daydreamers lack discipline
4. Daydreamers don’t think
5. Daydreaming is a sign of procrastination
6. Daydreamers are counter-productive
7. Daydreamers are underperformers

The milkmaid

The old but much remembered Aesop fable about the milkmaid who tossed her head, dropped the pail, and spilled the milk when she attempted to animate her daydream brings to us the moral lesson: “Do not count your chickens before they are hatched.” However, experience tells us that without such creative insights, innovation and problem-solving are impossible. Quantum Physics calls this the Law of Attraction – we draw to ourselves what we think about.

Daydreaming that results in a creative action idea surfaces when the brain makes natural connections among mental frameworks that are seemingly unrelated. Schooler’s work reveals this phenomenon to be true about daydreaming. He further adds that “daydreams involve more relaxed style of thinking, with people more willing to contemplate ideas that seem silly or far fetched.”

Implication for teaching

Deliberately providing sufficient “empty time” to engage students in daydreaming that boosts creativity is useful. In addition, students could share their daydreams through free drawing, open-ended writing, unguided reading, unprompted choreography, etc. Allocating a special period everyday for such an experience is definitely a practice in schools that are progressive and desire to produce individuals who can creatively handle the challenges of the new millennia.

Teaching moral values

According to Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, 20th century psychologists who are famous for cognitive and moral development theories, acquisition, assimilation, and application of moral values take place alongside the development in cognition. In other words, as an individual matures intellectually, he or she becomes more capable of moral reasoning, implying that one’s quality of thinking, rather than his or her chronological age is a better predictor of moral reasoning and related capabilities.

Qualitative changes that take place in one’s sense of moral values are contingent upon his or her development in cognitive functions. In this sense, understanding cognitive functioning would enhance our understanding and improve our approach to helping students to develop as morally responsible individuals.

Traditional approach

Like everyone else, I studied in a system where moral values were taught once in a week (50-minute period) in a class called “moral education.” Although I looked forward to the classes mainly because the textbooks contained interesting stories of heroes who display excellent qualities, I felt that everyone in the class would have liked to have more of moral education classes. Because of time limits and other reasons, the subject was considered to be less important and failing in it wasn’t a big deal.

In addition, the manner in which the subject matter was delivered was far from being effective. Teachers either read or lectured the stories and asked us what lesson(s) we could generate from them. Somehow, we were expected to become passionate about certain moral values by learning them in an inert manner. Unfortunately, we missed out on seeing how moral values permeate every aspect of life. We were not allowed the opportunities to explore moral principles as they relate to other subjects taught in the school. The importance placed on the subject was evidently discouraging.

Brain-friendly values classes

If meaningful connections of facts and ideas are important to effectively learn subjects like science, social studies, and math, the same applies to learning and assimilating moral values. To make values education meaningful, it should not be isolated from the rest of the subjects and the overall experiences at school and life. Ideally, moral values should be the inspirational force behind every teaching and learning that transpires in the school. Values education should not be considered as a non-core (or elective) subject scheduled once in a week. Rather, it should be integrated systematically to reflect real-life application and meaning across the board.

Simple strategies

Moral reasoning is momentously enhanced by providing opportunities to learn and transfer moral values within appropriate real-life contexts. The following strategies could be used to teach moral values in any subject through an integrative model:

  1. Presentation of moral dilemma followed by discussion/dialogue about possible solutions, consequences for different decisions and accompanying actions, and reflection about real-life application (e.g. Discussion about ethics in scientific research)
  2. Debate about moral issues – debates help students to prepare for morally challenging situations before they actual encounter them, hence preparing them to be ready with unyielding moral decisions – this prevents individuals from giving in to the pressures of the moment, the reason responsible for most white collar crimes by highly educated professionals (e.g. “Should we continue manufacturing luxury cars?” – in the context of our moral responsibility to preserve energy for future generations)

While utilizing these strategies, a teacher should ensure that:

1.  students’ behaviors are separated from ‘who they are’  preventing the teacher and students from becoming judgmental about each other’s moral decisions

2.  an unconditionally accepting classroom environment is created to facilitate genuine and open discussion/dialogue

3.  he or she shares personal experiences to encourage students to do the same and increase authenticity in learning moral values

Combating loneliness

Although the 21st century man is supposed to be living in a small, flat world, where distance and time are no barriers to forging relationships and engaging in meaningful conversations with people around the world, a huge number of individuals still feel lonely and left out. Why is it that advancement in communication technology has not assisted in enhancement of human relationships? Why is it that instead of bringing people together, global development has taken them further apart?

The loneliness plague

We fully understand that “no man is an island” and that humans are social beings. However, statistics indicate that loneliness is rampant in our society today among all levels of the social ladder, especially among school-goers. Loneliness is a feeling that one gets in the absence of meaningful interactions. It is usually accompanied by boredom and aimlessness. Subsequently, a lonely individual feels discouraged to carry out his everyday tasks and routines because of the loss of meaning. Eventually, the lonely individual blames himself for his weakness. He finds that others respond to his loneliness with irritation and a lack of empathy, and is further led into isolation, sometimes chronically so.

Possible cause

Living in a fast-paced world where quality equals efficiency, humans have invented myriad of ways to shorten operations to maximize production. By doing so, we have deprived ourselves of many the opportunities to socialize and acculturate with other humans. For example, in the agrarian society, harvesting was a great get-together time where the whole village comes out to help members of the farming families. Once completed, there were celebrations, sharing, talking, singing, dancing, story telling, etc.  in short, there were lots of meaningful interactions among people. Loneliness would have been an alien term for people in such a society. The opposite is true of our society today.

Loneliness in school

Schools are also characterized as fast-paced,  a typical working day starts with a ring of a bell, followed by a tight schedule of teaching and learning of one subject after another (surprisingly, there has never been a period allocated for socializing), short breaks in between classes that are also stressful as children are closely monitored and supervised for wrongdoings, and finally the day ends with a ring of a bell again.

Both teachers and students do not have sufficient time to loosen up and relate to each other as regular humans. They are pre-occupied with playing distinct, highly rigid roles and are constantly anxious about playing their roles well, in order to avoid punishment or other painful outcomes. Unfortunately, schools have always placed greater value on productivity rather than human relationships. This has ushered chronic cases of loneliness into schools. It is not surprising that many students feel isolated and under-perform because they don’t find life particularly meaningful to them. Loneliness is also the major cause of suicide among students, worldwide.

Student advisory

Many progressive schools especially in the United States combat loneliness by providing sustainable emotional support to students through student advisory programs. These schools set aside each week for students to meet one-on-one and/or in small groups with advisors (volunteer teachers, who act as a mentors) to focus on character and civic development, as well as discuss their personal and academic goals. Students are given sufficient opportunities to talk about day-to-day issues, define their values, develop trusting relationship with adult advocates, sharpen communication skills, participate in service-learning projects, and explore what it takes to be one’s best and bring out the best in others, in any circumstance. Deliberately providing meaningful interactions is the best cure for loneliness in school.