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."