Recently, I facilitated a focus group exploring the creation of a bus program to serve our local public schools. The town, in collaboration with the school district, is looking to pilot a program that would help mitigate traffic around the schools. While the primary program under consideration is a traditional school bus model, the town staff also was seeking feedback on programs that might utilize existing public transportation.
"What would people think about that?" I asked. "You mean students would ride with the general public?" someone asked for clarification. "Yes, the system would be open to anyone who was willing to pay the fare." "Seriously?" one person scoffed. "Come on. No one would be willing to let their child ride a bus that included the general public." Other focus group participants nodded their heads in agreement. "Would anyone be willing to let their child ride on public transportation?" No one raised their hand.
While not necessarily shocked by the response, I was struck by how different the responses might have been if we had been in a different setting. I suspect that if we had been in a major urban center with active public transportation networks - New York City, San Francisco, Boston - parents might have offered a much more measured response. Certainly parents might have been wary of young children riding a public bus, but middle school aged students and high school students? I'm suspect that many, if not most, parents would have expressed no concerns.
As schools, we continually espouse the importance of diversity and inclusivity. Historically, the argument has often centered on the importance of addressing social inequality and providing access to historically underrepresented groups. In more recent years, we have also come to understand that there is an academic argument for how creating a diverse environment benefits all students. Indeed, a growing body of research has emerged in the past few years arguing that diversity makes us smarter. An article by Katherine Phillips in Scientific American in September 2014, "How Diversity Makes Us Smarter," for example, described a series of studies that show that individuals respond differently to ideas when they come from diverse individuals. In one study, for example, university students were asked to discuss a social issue for 15 minutes. Researchers then wrote a dissenting opinion and had it delivered by a white or black member of the group. Phillips writes, "When a black person presented a dissenting perspective to a group of whites, the perspective was perceived as more novel and led to broader thinking and consideration of alternatives than when a white person introduced that same dissenting perspective. The lesson: when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us." Viewed collectively, the studies in Phillips article make a compelling case that "we need diversity -in teams, organizations and society as a whole-if we are to change, grow and innovate."
In a New York Times article titled, "Diversity Makes You Brighter," Sheen Levine and David Stark described studiesshowing that people in diverse groups make smarter decisions. They write, "When surrounded by people "like ourselves," we are easily influenced, more likely to fall for wrong ideas. Diversity prompts better, critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting toward miscalculation." In the end, they argue, "Ethnic diversity is like fresh air: It benefits everybody who experiences it."
It is this component of diversity - that it makes groups brighter and leads to better problem solving- that Joi Ito emphasizes in Whiplash. Indeed, he pushes it even a step further, arguing that having diverse people solve problems may be more effective than having a group of experts. His chapter reminded me of Tom Wujec's findings in the marshmallow challenge, where he notes that kindergartners routinely outperform business school students. While the business school students spend the entire time planning, the kindergartners immediately try things. When that fails, they try something new until they finally find some type of solution. Often, the business school students try one thing and, when it fails, they have run out of time.
Neither Wujec or Ito are suggesting that experts are never helpful for problem solving. They are, however, making a compelling point: the less diverse a group of people we engage in a problem solving activity, the more likely we are to find our solutions fit into a narrow band of possibilities. I suspect most people have heard the supposed Henry Ford quote, "If we had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."
It makes me think about some of the most persistent challenges we face in independent schools, and how we might be well-served to bring together radically diverse groups of individual to address them. For example, I have been part of several different efforts to reimagine the independent school business model. While several have been engaging and thought-provoking, none have generated, to my mind, particularly ground-breaking solutions. Perhaps we are just not engaging a diverse enough group of participants?
More recently, we have been focusing as a school on how we can increase the number of Latinx families at Hillbrook. Living in a state where more than 50 percent of school-aged children are Latinx, we realize this community is significantly underrepresented in our school population (around 5 percent). We are not alone in the quest, as the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) has made this one of the main pillars of their strategic plan. Clearly, the majority of CAIS schools have struggled to get this right. Who might we include in this conversation, both as a school and as an association, to really push our thinking?
As you think about your own school, I would challenge you to think - what problems are we currently facing? And, more importantly, who are we bringing to the table to identify and help you find solutions? Beware the group that when asked, "What do we need to get from point A to point B more quickly?" answers with confidence, "The fastest horse in the county."
These days it is difficult to find an independent or innovative school that doesn't tout the inherent value of Diversity (capital D). Diversity is central to our mission. We celebrate diversity of all kinds. Yet when Ito and Howe recommend Diversity Over Ability in Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future, it's likely that many of their readers aren't sure (a) what exactly "diversity" means, OR (b) whether diversity is truly the be-all-and-end-all of successful outcomes 12.
Diversity is a modern day Rorschach. The inkblot looks like gender to me, race to you, socio-economic status to your colleague and sexual orientation to your department chair. Wethink of diversity in terms of various identities. However, when Ito and Howe recommend diversity over ability, "the claim is not that identity differences produce benefits directly but rather that they do so through the diverse cognitive tools that the various identities foster." The idea is that your life experience--- which is profoundly impacted by your identities--- contributes to how you see and interpret the world. Experience determines what ends up in each person's toolbox of capacities.
More tools, different tools, better toolbox, right? That depends.
Thirty years ago one of my professors in graduate school invited me to join him on a consulting job. The client, a huge global advertising company, wanted help training middle managers to lead their teams more effectively. There were 60 participants from around the world, representing multiple nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, languages, races, genders and ages. We randomly assigned people to small groups, gave them a 20 question multiple choice quiz on principles of leadership, and videotaped them working on their task.
When the groups convened, participants quickly recognized the quiz as one they had completed individually the night before and had handed in at the beginning of the day's session. The familiarity of the task elicited laughter and an easing of anxiety. Several groups finished the task in just 10 minutes, though others complained that 30 minutes allotted was not enough time. Regardless of how quickly or slowly they worked, most groups were dominated by 2 or 3 participants (typically white, American or European, English-speaking men) while other members were ignored or remained silent.
What did these managers learn from this experience? That their group score on the quiz was lower than the highest score by an individual member of the group. Translation: there were members in the group who had the correct answers but the group failed to access this knowledge. In reviewing the videotapes participants saw that those who appeared to have the right information quickly dominated the process while others were marginalized. And the "others" were typically women, people of color, those for whom English was a second language.
Ito and Howe assert that the diversity of a group (or team, or class, or community) is essential for creative problem-solving and achievement. Yet the mindset that expertise and competence are best for solving problems is hard to shake. In those groups of middle managers, the central actors were quite confident in their answers and were sure that they had led the group to "success." They wielded a hammer comfortably, saw the problem as a nail, and believed their dominance was a by- product of their superior ability. They also believed that if someone else had a better tool (Screwdriver? Measuring tape? Level?), that person should speak up and step in. (Does this sound like a department meeting, perhaps??)
Maslow and Kaplan's "law of instrument" cautions against the overreliance on a single tool. If you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But in these manager groups, there were plenty of other tools/experiences at the table. Lack of diversity wasn't the issue; the toolbox was well stocked. So what happened?
In her article Active Inclusion: The eighth mindset of design thinking, Emi Kolawole asserts that in order to work effectively, teams "...must be more than diverse and radical. They must be inclusive." (emphasis mine) Many independent schools have tried/are trying to achieve equality by giving everyone a spot on the project team and should most certainly keep working towards this goal. Kolawole, however, maintains that membership on the team is not enough. Everyone on the team must also be actively involved in planning for and executing the project. Harnessing the knowledge and experience of every "one" in the group leads to the desired cognitive diversity of the "whole."
Recognizing that creating a diverse community is not the same as creating an inclusive community has led some schools to replace the Director of Diversity position with the Director of Equity and Inclusion. Yet confusion and bias remain. If you ask every member of your school why diversity matters, many will point to values, ethics and justice, which are certainly important cornerstones for any community. However, not enough people understand or believe that diversity + inclusivity = the most effective approach to the challenges we face in schooling (and the world) today.
In addition we do not appreciate that having access to the most effective approach is a privilege. Robust endowments, pedagogical freedom, access to all kinds of resources...those are independent school privileges, yes? Consider this. The diversity of our school communities positions us to do the very best kind of work in Education: innovative, adaptive, creative, inspired. Plenty of schools lack a toolbox full of such options. What prevents independent schools from making the most of the privilege that comes with creating intentionally diverse communities?
Affirmative action naysayers fear that filling "diversity quotas" weakens the capacity of the whole rather than strengthens it. When every problem is a nail, don't you just need a lot of hammers? Not only do we need a variety of tools for our educational endeavors, but we also need to bear disruption and uncertainty as we learn how to work with new and unfamiliar tools. "A human-centered team must constantly be engaged in the act of inviting, empathizing, discovering, learning from and teaching other members in the group."4 When this happens, our expectations and assumptions about who people are and how the world works are challenged. And being challenged in this way leaves people on the team feeling uncertain, vulnerable.
Leave it to the L + D psychologist to land on vulnerability! Remember that trust- fall exercise you had to do at some retreat or orientation? You closed your eyes, fell backwards, stiff as a board, and prayed that your group members caught you?
When we are actively inclusive in our diverse work teams and communities, we become vulnerable; we have to trust others to do their part. And we have to believe there is more than one way to approach a challenge. Sure, everyone in the group can link arms and catch you that way. But one team member knows just how big a pile of leaves will do the trick equally well. Or this one has a sturdy tarp on hand.
The chapter after "Diversity over Ability" in Whiplash is "Resilience over Strength." I'd like to humbly suggest a slight modification. As individuals and groups we need resilience in the face of mistakes, defeats, and setbacks, all of which leave us feeling vulnerable. It is our ability to tolerate and work with vulnerability that sends us back to the toolbox to try again. "Resilience (Vulnerability) over Strength" allows us to make the most of the privilege of our diversity.
Whether by watching too many cooking channel challenges or just sheer obsession with great food, I can't help but think about this month's topic using a cooking metaphor. At L+D, we often get asked, "What makes your organization different? So, here it is...the recipe for one of our secret sauces, however, unlike most grandma-guarded secrets, this one needs to be shared.
As many of you know, at L+D, we have taken this year to focus on the book, Whiplash by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe. Each month, we focus on a different chapter, and we make connections to our work in schools. This month, I want to build on what Ito and Howe discuss in their chapter outlining how diversity often outshines ability. If you have read the book, they do a nice job of showing how the field of crowdsourcing has changed the way certain complex problems are solved, and they show evidence that certain problems are better tackled by the crowd instead of the trained professionals with fancy letters after their names. For example, they tell the story of InnoCentive, a company that outsources their problems to the internet, and allows the power of crowdsourcing and the growing movement of citizen science to go to work. Their findings show that about 85% of their problems get solved, impressive given the complexity of the problems. But further, of those solutions, about 40% of them come from untrained individuals who would never be invited to the problem-solving-table if not for companies like this that are embracing this concept.
More relatable for those of us who are food people, we all know the difference between five stars on Yelp with 2 reviews and 5 stars on Yelp with 2000 reviews. Much like IBM's Watson, the simple power of adding to the diversity and computing/people power via the internet leads to all sorts of problems that can be solved better and more quickly. This is exciting in and of itself and has huge implications for schools. The ivory tower era is dead, and it is time that we open up our school problems to more people from different backgrounds. I am not trying to take away from the gravity of this finding, but I see one glaring issue that L+D spends a good portion of its time addressing, and this issue happens to be present in every school we have worked in partnership with.
That issue is that Ito and Howe's concept of crowdsourcing is built on the foundation that these citizen scientists or genius plumbers working out of their basement labs on behalf of mankind never have to meet each other and collaborate. As long as they can help solve the problem without having any human interaction beyond posting their solutions to an online board, this model works. If they did meet, I often think a little bit about how that meeting might go. My guess is that they would struggle in the same way that you see your students, faculty, staff or board struggle when they bump into people that think differently than them. This asynchronous collaboration has a place in our schools, and I hope we consider how we can leverage it more. But what about those of us collaborating with a growingly diverse group of thinkers in schools together, in person?
We know, both from science and from common sense that we are better equipped to solve problems with diverse groups of people leveraging different skills, opinions, and levels of experience. We also know that as you introduce diversity into any community, and you ask people to interact, before you get incredible results based on that diversity, you get assumption, misunderstanding, tension and sometimes even hostility. Sometimes this conflict goes unaddressed to the point that groups fracture, initiatives die, or worse, people start to dislike working in teams and instead form small groups of like-minded individuals that are capable of getting things done. This sad efficiency model kills innovation, and those great ideas, borne of radical collaboration, are left dormant and not nurtured because we lack the skills to manage the tension needed for them to germinate.
In 2018, we still break teachers and students into groups without giving them any scaffolding for how to work well together. We don't grade collaboration, we don't teach it enough, and we, as educators are not very good at it. Over the last fifteen years in schools, I have seen more collaboration, and there is definitely consensus around Ito and Howe's point, however, we still see teachers that look alike, think alike and with similar skills doing the most collaboration, and this isn't really what Ito and Howe are talking about.
The secret sauce at L+D is teaching people how to collaborate. Educators in 2018 should be able to tell you or demonstrate:
Here are the top three things school leaders can do right away:
If there is one message we hope you hear from this month’s Recharge it is this: in 2018 diversity is not just a “nice to have” quality for schools, but rather it is an essential condition for any school preparing students to thrive in a global economy and rapidly accelerating world. The social, political, and environmental challenges of the future will require diverse teams of problem solvers who can leverage the skills, talents and perspectives within their groups in order to develop impactful solutions. While diversity is partly about who has a seat at the table, it is increasingly about how each individual at the table is valued, given an authentic voice and how their motivations, values and perspectives are incorporated into the conversation. The diversity conversation is no longer about numbers or achieving critical mass - its about harnessing the diversity that already exists in your community and leveraging it. And the ability to work collaborative with people of different backgrounds, cultures and values is increasingly essential, highly effective, and ultimately, more joyful.
In our year-long exploration of Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future by Joi Ito and Jeffrey Howe, we have reached the seventh principle - Diversity Over Ability. (Click here
to heck out all our newsletters to read about the other six principles.)
The articles in this month’s newsletter reflect on how this theme of diversity plays out in the author’s schools and organizations and in their experiences leading diversity work. The authors share how, in their experiences, the richness of diversity enables breakthrough thinking and better ideas. I loved these articles so much and struggled with what I could contribute to the dialogue. So I am adding “three things” to the conversation which I hope will “Yes And” these authors who have teed up this topic so thoughtfully. So here are three thoughts about to move your school community beyond conversations of critical mass and more towards conversations (and actions) around critical impact.
1) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Anyone who thinks group life of any kind is easy and should be free of conflict should look no further than their own family gatherings to know even homogenous groups are fraught with tension and discomfort. Group life is “messy” as our collaborator Ryan Burke often reminds us. Add to the mix a diverse set of cultures - which might mean different core values and ethics. As caring communities, we too often look for ways to bring comfort and ease into conversations that are not simple or easy. When you are dealing with divergent cultural values, motivations and perspectives, there is bound to be friction and tension, which may never be resolved but rather understood and respected. Sometimes the temptation is to resort to our own corners and our “affinity groups” because that is where we can feel safe and comfortable. Adopting a posture of curiosity and wonder about our peers and colleagues is much more helpful in moving us closer to equitable communities where everyone feels like they have equal membership and authentic voice. It’s okay to get messy and not get it right all the time. In our cultures of “being right” we miss out on how sometimes being wrong or always just being curious gets us further and makes us better.
2) Beware the diverse school with a monoculture. We often share our diversity statistics on our websites in a well-intentioned effort to welcome and attract even more families of diverse backgrounds. “We have 41% students of color.” “Our families come from 12 different zip codes.” “25% of our families receive financial aid.” But sometimes that data only tells a very small part of the story. I routinely see schools that have achieve a very high level of racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity but still display a “monoculture” where it feels much more like the dominant culture has invited other cultures over as dinner guests. There are insiders and outsiders and this can play out in very subtle ways and can be made even more invisible when minority cultures use code switching and covering in order to fit into that mainstream or dominant culture. Doing a holistic “culture audit” can be a place to start identifying ways to transform your school from a mono-cultural community to a truly multicultural community. What do you audit? Space (Are your classrooms and spaces reflective of one culture? What hangs on the walls in public spaces?) Time (How do you use time in your school to consider students and faculty who come from far away? Is there regular time in your daily or weekly schedule dedicated to conversations about race, identity, sexuality?) Curriculum and Pedagogy (How are many cultures represented in the curriculum? Whose stories are being told? Who are the heroes that students are learning about? Are they represented in these stories?) Community events (Who comes to events? What time are these events being held? What’s the theme of the event? How much does it cost to attend?) It’s no fun to be a “partial” member of a community or to have to cover in order to pass for the mainstream culture. It’s so much better for everyone and so much richer when everyone brings their “uncovered” selves to the dinner party that is more of a potluck than a hosted event.
3) Strive for “pluralism” not “diversity.” My colleague, friend and collaborator Christian Talbot, the founder of Basecamp (and definitely sign up for his newsletter), believes we may be striving for the wrong goal in our communities when we use the word “diversity.” Instead, he suggests that striving for pluralism in our communities will ultimate result in greater equity and a collective culture rather than a monoculture. E Pluribus Unum literally translates to “out of many, one” and offers a more integrative approach to building a unified community from many different cultures. There are schools that are grounded in pluralism like Pluralistic School One (PS1) in Los Angeles and this philosophy is deeply ingrained in the design of every aspect of the school. But for the rest of us who have been using the term diversity and have actually made some progress on the numbers, shifting the narrative from diverse to pluralistic, might be a more accurate representation for what we are really trying to accomplish as a community.
Once again, if one of the primary goals of school is to prepare our students to be contributing members of society, then we need to be providing opportunities for students to be part of hard conversations, to get curious about cultures other than their own, and to work collaboratively with people who have different stories, values, and perspectives than they do. If we want our democracy to survive, we need future leaders and citizens who value pluralism - a founding principal of this country. While diversity is a lovely thing to have in a community, it’s what you do with it that actually matters.
PS - Despite rain and snow around the country, we have actually reached spring which means summer is around the corner! We're offering Wonder Women!, a chance for women leaders to actively discover and experiment with their own signature leadership presence. And registration is open for the November 2018 Santa Fe Seminar, which provides an introspective and supportive space for school leaders to examine their own practice and plot a course for experimentation in their lives and careers.