How does diversity make us smarter?

November 11, 2021

An article from Scientific America titled “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” states that “decades of research by organisational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.”

Although the focus should be on diversity of thinking regardless of social group, this article shows that when people from many walks of life come together and express their distinct perspectives, beneficial outcomes are enhanced. Without a diversity of thinking, creativity will be stifled, and projects will stop. You need to approach issues with a number of perspectives to be able to see the whole truth.

“We need diversity if we are to change, grow, and innovate.”
―Dr. Katherine W. Phillips

In psychology, there’s a theory of visual perception called gestalt (meaning “unified whole”), which refers to how people organise visual information into groups. Why do humans have a need to do this? It's because we strive to make sense of our world. One of the ways we do this, is through telling and listening to stories. Stories about our place in the world, why things are the way they are, and why we do some things. We continually construct stories about our interactions with our surroundings and others in our lives. Each of us live our own unique story. Each person’s story explains his or her unique place in the world.

Through different experiences and our stories, we are also able to engage in problem-solving whether it's by iterating an already existing invention, looking through solutions by taking into account those different from us, or even creating an invention that helps others as well.

Here are stories from individuals who recognised how important it is to include diversity of thought when it comes to problem-solving:

Solutions for those who matter - Rachel Walker Ph.D. RN

Rachel Walker is the first nurse to become an AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador ever since she and her colleague tackled the issues after Hurricane Maria. At the time, people in Puerto Rico had trouble getting access to IV fluids, which resulted in many lost lives. There was no reason for that to happen because it was just salt water. Rachel asked for help from her Puerto Rican colleagues to solve this particular issue.

Her colleagues said to her, “We may invent a lot of things, a lot of solutions. But if your solution doesn't work in a tent hospital, or when the power's been knocked out post-hurricane, then you haven't solved the problem. You've just solved it for some people.” From there, Rachel and her colleagues managed to fix the shortage of IV fluids and it is now used for future procedures in case of hurricanes or disasters happening anywhere in the world.

From Rachel’s story, we can learn that solutions aren’t supposed to cater to only one circumstance, but for the masses. Practicing diversity in our approach helps solve problems, like how Rachel and her team considered things from a different perspective.

To include for the better - Don McPherson

Don McPherson is the chief science officer, co-founder, and inventor for EnChroma, a company focused on helping people with colour-blindness. He chose to focus on the issue of colour blindness in children, and its role in learning. On the topic of diversity, he told Forbes,

“Back in 2008, everybody was developing an app for a phone. If you think about it, it's probably one of the most egalitarian things you can do. Who's inventing it? Is it a woman, a child, a person of colour? Do they live here? You have no idea. The more diversity you have of opinion, the closer you get to the correct answer. In other words, you can't have somebody who is a self-proclaimed expert who stifles discussion. In essence, that should be the model. It should be the model for businesses. It should be how government agencies work. It's a beautiful idea."

Dan has mentored and advised inventors from all over the world to encourage innovation regardless of who you are and include everyone when it comes to creating inventions and producing solutions. From Dan’s story, we can learn that diversity is crucial when it comes to solving a problem and creating inventions. Like Dan, we should also believe that anyone, anywhere can be an inventor.

Understanding what needs to be done - Vicky Colbert

The Escuela Nueva Method is a pedagogical model that has greatly expanded and improved education in rural Colombia and abroad. Vicky Colbert, the creator of Escuela Nueva, was inspired to create the model due to poor curriculum which resulted in high dropout rates, grade repetition among students, as well as low morale and a high turnover among teachers.

As a response to this problem, Vicky Colbert alongside other teachers developed the Escuela Nueva model to effectively improve the quality and relevance of primary education for rural populations in Colombia. The core of the Escuela Nueva model is a move away from conventional, teacher-centered teaching, towards actively encouraging collaboration between the school and the community.

Escuela Nueva has been developed and spread in close collaboration with the teachers themselves, changing their methods by training them in a new way. Teachers come together to share educational materials and share their experiences. Vicky pioneered the change needed in education within the Columbian community, and worked together not only with the school but with the community, to ensure students learn what is relevant to their community.

Let’s think...

We have gone through a worldwide pandemic and life as we know it, has changed forever. Things will never go back to the way it was before, nor should it. This phenomenon might not be such a bad thing. It has shed light on how things have been previously done and allowed us to now relook, rethink and reimagine how our world could be like.

Especially when it comes to education, now more than ever, we need to come together and contribute our perspectives and ideas to reimagine the future of education so that leaders of tomorrow can thrive in today’s world. With the examples we’ve read on how diversity can lead to smarter solutions, let's implement them reimagining learning today.

Join us in conversation as we explore this topic deeper in The HEART Course: Session T

Constant change calls for a society that can be adaptable to change and innovate new ways of shaping education with the future in mind. How would we design learning environments that help students thrive in tomorrow's world? Let’s explore this further in The HEART Course: Session T - Think Ahead and Out of The Box.

The HEART Course is a free online course which creates a space where educators are excited to connect over ideas in education and start conversations that bring change to their classroom, school, and community.

In five sessions H-E-A-R and T, you can WATCH discussions and best practices from global thought-leaders following five themes in education. There also conversation prompts to help your group of educators DISCUSS ideas after each video, and toolkits to APPLY what you have learned. Each session also has a growing curation of resources from over 30 education partners in Malaysia and beyond. Educators like yourself can CONNECT with these partners to bring students’ learning beyond the classroom!

Get started with The HEART Course here.

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Leaps of Knowledge: The HEART Series