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.