Adding diversity to the educational experience is an acknowledgment that people perceive and interpret things differently. Gender, race and ethnicity, combined with cultural experiences, have been proven through studies over and over again to be an enormous influence on people’s perspectives. People use different representations to interpret events, situations, relationships and objects, which means that introducing diverse perspectives in high schools and undergraduate college educational systems is an imperative, if the educational experience is to be complete. Diversity learning is as important to education as learning history or math because it enables students to broaden their personal perspectives while also learning how to successfully and fully participate in an increasingly diverse domestic community and an increasingly globalized work environment.
Schools failing to include diversity in their education programs leave an enormous gap in the educational experience that can certainly make it exceedingly difficult for students to function in the real world. The question is: What exactly does diversity teach that contributes to educational excellence? It is intuitively understood that educational diversity enables students to broaden perspectives. However, how do students specifically benefit from the addition of diversity to their learning experience?
First, it should be understood that diversity is an expansive term that embraces individuals who have differences of race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, age, disabilities and sexual orientation. Some schools also add religious affiliation, political affiliation, color, gender identity and socioeconomic status. It should also be understood that diversity is to be consistently applied. A classroom of all white students born is as educationally stifling as a classroom of all African-American students. People interacting exclusively with others who have similar backgrounds and race reaffirm their limiting perspectives because there is no thought-provoking interjection from those outside the group. As a result, critical thinking skills are not fully developed because “thinking outside the box” is not promoted.
New Perspectives at the Intersection of Social Interaction and Coursework
There are two primary ways diversity is introduced in education: social interaction and pedagogical coursework. The social aspects of cognitive development refer to the influences of the types of exposures on the thinking process. Diversity socialization can occur in student interactions, interaction in student clubs or workgroups, attendance at awareness workshops and interaction at athletic and social functions. Coursework includes textbooks, individual homework assignments and group work. Researchers studying the impact of diversity experiences on student cognitive processes have pointed out that students are more likely to use complex thinking processes when presented with information that challenges their comfort zone. In other words, social and coursework intersect. A homogenous group will have greater difficulty reaffirming their comfortable modes of thinking when there are others presenting new information or new experiences that challenge old ways of thinking. Sometimes, people will simply refuse to listen, but the increasing diversity in the United States is making that more difficult as classrooms become microcosms of the larger makeup of society.
Critical thinking and problem solving are two of the most important concepts taught in schools. Beginning with personal perspectives, students construct new solutions. Without diversity, there is little to spark innovative thinking, which actually makes problem solving much more difficult. As researcher Scott Page wrote, “How hard a problem is to solve depends on the perspective used to code it.” He goes on to say that, for any problem, the more perspectives involved, the greater the chance of identifying the best solution.1 The reason is simple: a variety of perspectives give people more options for solution paths. Diverse students begin at different starting points, in the classroom and through social interaction, begin to mingle differences to come up with a solution that would not have come to light otherwise.
Diversity Enhances Social Intelligence
Social intelligence (SI) is the ability to manage relationships in a way that promotes cooperation. Often referred to as “people skills”, the researchers have generally agreed that social intelligence is not a subset of emotional intelligence, but is a concept that fully stands alone in a cluster of intelligences. Social intelligence refers to the level of knowledge people, in this case students, possess about strategies that can be used in social interactions to achieve cooperation and objectives. Low social intelligence usually results in people feeling inadequate when interacting with others, as having no influence on social exchanges and being unable to connect with people. Students with low social intelligence are more likely to be bullied and to avoid the exchanges that make them feel inadequate, thus perpetuating the lack of people skills.
Certainly the interaction among diverse groups is one of the more complex relationships high school and college students experience because of the pre-conceived perspectives brought to exchanges that were learned in the home, earlier school years, or through participation in social groups. Like any learning, social intelligence grows through exposure to a larger variety of social interaction styles, diverse responses and social dynamics. High school students exposed to diverse learning and social opportunities are more likely to improve their social intelligence, as the variety of exchanges alters pre-conceived notions and gives them the foundation for new perspectives and thought processes.
How do you explain people exposed to diverse situations who maintain low social intelligence? Increasing SI relies on the ability of the student to correctly (emphasis) assess the impact of their behaviors and responses on others. That is why diversity in the schools is so critical because it offers opportunities for monitored exchanges in the classroom and at school activities. Teachers and counselors can help students increase social intelligence by helping them understand how their responses and behaviors influence interpersonal relationships. The greater the number and quality of diverse exchanges, the more likely social intelligence will form in a nourishing or positive manner.
Exposure to diversity should begin before college. Researchers investigated the impact of diversity on the high school students who went on to college. The results were revealing. White and minority students who interact with each other in high school are more likely to continue acting in that manner during college, indicating that diverse engagement is a learned behavior.2 Social intelligence can be learned, in other words. That makes it even more critical to encourage diversity in school instruction, learning and socialization.
Diversity Teaches Problem Solving
Accepting that diversity can teach students new perspectives and increase social intelligence, it is easy to see how it also increases global competence. Global in this sense refers to both local and worldwide competence because students learn to view interactions on a much broader basis than how it affects their immediate personal situations. In addition, the world has “come home” to local communities as diverse populations increase. Through diversity in education, students learn to think beyond themselves and look at situations using multiple perspectives.
Many local and global problems that exist could be better solved if addressed by people who have developed higher levels of social intelligence as a result of their increased exposure to diversity in education. Diversity increases student problem solving competencies by first raising awareness that the world in which they live is complex, interconnected, multi-cultural and greatly flattened. Second, diversity increases the capacity to effectively communicate multi-perspective ideas across diverse groups of people. Thirdly, diversity teaches students how to weigh other factors like culture, religion, ideologies and geography, and how to bridge differences, while developing solutions. This is true locally as well as globally as the U.S. diverse populations rapidly expand, thus effectively bringing the world home. One of the reasons local officials government have difficulty addressing issues and solving problems related to diversity in their communities is due to low social intelligence and a dearth of perspectives.
In addition, diversity in the schools teaches students to view themselves as participants in a community simply because they must interact with diverse peoples and not just talk about interacting. They must learn to communicate effectively, in order to succeed in school. Students must participate in diverse groups and listen to feedback. Ideas must be translated into effective communication and appropriate actions that others must be able to understand, if they are to be effective. That is what effective problem solving requires in a diverse and globalized world. Teaching diversity strictly through coursework is no longer enough because it limits the students’ experiences. Coursework needs to be coupled with real interactions to build global problem solving competence.
Problem solving competence in a flattened world needs future leaders able to approach issues while believing there is no absolute right answer. Instead, they learn to weigh many different perspectives and search for solutions that are based on a variety of diverse sources. This does not imply that there will always be consensus. However, the end solution is intellectually and emotionally defensible. This is a far cry from the approach taken by traditional leaders, caught by surprise at how quickly globalization occurred (accelerated by technology), who believe passing laws forcing people to “get along” is the best possible approach to problem solving.
Diversity Removes Educational Barrier
Diversity does much more than simply provide new perspectives. It raises cultural sensitivity and enhances communication between groups and individuals. Groups lacking diversity do not provide opportunities for racial or cultural exchanges, thus limiting the educational experience. In that regard, lack of diversity is a real barrier to education because the student’s cultural awareness and racial understanding must necessarily come from limited textbooks, as opposed to real world interactions. In fact, students and faculty benefit from a diverse study body. Diverse schools are more committed to multiculturalism, and thus provide students more opportunities for interaction. The faculty in diverse schools is more likely to include diversity issues in their research and instruction, and to use coursework with broader perspectives to promote lively discussion.
The schools are tasked with the job of teaching and training students to excel in the workplace and society. The rapidly growing minority populations and globalization are having a profound impact on the U.S. and global workplace. Teaching diversity in the schools is no longer an option; it is an imperative, if a school is to achieve excellence. The simple fact is that students ill prepared to work in a diverse workplace will have trouble succeeding. Diversity brings innovative thinking, creativity, problem solving, the ability to function in different environments, and excellence on all levels. Considering the larger picture, helping children and young adults interact and become comfortable with people who have diverse opinions, perspectives, cultural backgrounds and approaches will strengthen the educational system, adding excellence and versatility, and the country’s ability to compete on a global basis, as students become the next generation of skilled workers, entrepreneurs and government leaders.
Contributed by Rakesh Malhotra, Founder of Five Global Values (www.fiveglobalvalues.com) and Author of “Adventures of Tornado Kid, Whirling Back Home Towards Timeless Values”. Passionately determined to uncover the mystery of human behavior. His fascination with the influence of core values on human behavior stems from a career which has seen rise from an entry-level sales job to that of a seasoned CEO. Having worked, lived, or traveled to more than 40 countries, he has been able to study performance and human behavior across all cultures
1 Page, Scott E. (2007). The Difference – How the Powre of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Unviversity Press.
2 Hall, Wendell D. and Alberto F. Cabrera and Jeffrey F. Milem. (2011). A Tale of Two Groups: Differences Between Minority Students and Non-Minority Students in their Predispositions to and Engagement with Diverse Peers at a Predominantly White Institution. Research in Higher Education , 52, 420-439.