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Paul Grobstein's picture

Diversity: the individual and the social

Thanks to Danielle for picking up some of the questions that had been on my mind going into our last conversation. And to Rebecca for mention of the "schematic model" of the evolution of thinking about brain and education. And to everyone for thoughts both during the last three conversations and in this and the previous forums following them. There are indeed interesting and important issues at the intersection of "broken brains?", "diversity and productivity", and "brain and education". Our conversations have very much helped me better understand these and, more importantly, to think about them in ways I hadn't before. Needless to say, this is at least in part a function of the diversity among us, so I hope others share at least some of my sense of satisfaction in a shared product.

What particularly intrigued me from our last conversation was the idea that diversity may be an essential grist for a productive community, one which generates new ideas both individually and collectively, but that that grist alone is insufficient, something more is needed.

This is, I think, particularly clear in the educational context. Natsu mentions a need "to encourage students to change their attitude towards problem solving so that they are not so focused on reaching the right answer." Danielle similarly thinks students need to be "allowed and encouraged to explore their individuality and develop their own opinions and visions about the world. But as several people pointed out during our discussion, important as those things are, even that is probably not enough. People can be "individuals" and allow others to be without in fact having experiences of a sort that would genuinely alter their perspective from respecting diversity to valuing it/making use of it, and the latter is what is needed to generate genuinely interactive (see Thinking About Segregation and Integration) and productive diverse communities.

This suggests that what is additionally needed is some kind of experience with collective tasks, tasks where the benefits of diversity are clear, where people actually experience the advantages both to others and to themselves of diversity. A few years ago, some colleagues and I wrote a paper on "Emergent Pedagogy" and I remember arguing against the proposition that classroom achievement should be assessed both individually and collectively. Fortunately I was out-argued and the time and the paper does indeed include that concept. It now makes even more sense to me than it did at the time. If education is focused solely on individual achievement it fails to provide the kinds of experience that valuably help individuals appreciate the degree to which their own achievement is limited in lieu of meaningful exchange with others who have different perspectives.

We are indeed "biological creatures" but we are biological creatures whose potential is greatly enhanced by social/cultural contexts that are made possible by our distinctive biology. Perhaps what is needed in education (and in social/cultural institutions more generally?) is less concern for how to make individuals better than one another (as judged by some external standard) and more explicit attention to how individuals can both draw from and contribute to communities that maximize the potential of all individuals?

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