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.

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