Preparing a next generation that understands the value of human diversity and can navigate complexity *

Jutta Treviranus
11 min readJul 16, 2019

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By Anonymous — Camille Flammarion, L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888), pp. 163, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=318054

Education provides a powerful lever to address not only the symptoms but the causes of current global crises. However, formal education has modeled a hierarchical, competitive and exclusionary culture. Our pedagogical practices squander and suppress the most valuable quality in students; namely their uniqueness and diversity. Our educational value structure gives privileged place to the formulaic, replicable competencies that can be replaced by machines. Students are implicitly prepared to punch down rather than lift up those that are more vulnerable. If formal education systems continue on the same path, we are preparing our students to be replaced by machines. We are teaching them to compete and exclude, thereby contributing to societal and environmental collapse. There is a nascent global movement to reverse this trend; to foster a more inclusive culture. International partnerships have been building design strategies that empower students and youth to understand and value diversity, including their own unique differences, and to collaboratively navigate the complexity ahead.

My worry

One of the things that has troubled me lately is that it appears that the plethora of data and information has so overwhelmed us that it has displaced wisdom. At the same time, with truth under attack, we have retreated to an impoverished truth that is uni-perspectival and flat. We have constrained truth to measurable, transferable and therefore scalable surface evidence.

This is happening at a time when we are handing our intelligence and most of our decisions over to machines.[1] These machines will automate and amplify this mechanized version of a measurable truth. This will mean that what has not been true in the measurable past will likely not be true in the future because there is no evidence that it has a probability of success and therefore it will not be chosen. Past biases, past barriers will determine future opportunities. If someone measurably like me has never succeeded in university, someone like me won’t be admitted. If someone measurably like me has never successfully held a competitive job, someone like me will never be picked to be interviewed for the competitive job. The pattern will hold for many other things like credit, insurance, and influence. There will be no leaps of faith. The most chilling example of this was a commitment, voiced by a school, to be purely evidence guided in determining what students would be exposed to and how they would be exposed to it, and to employ educational technology to assist in this commitment.

What counts as evidence is large homogeneous numbers that have statistical power. Implicitly captured in the word “evidence” is the elimination of variability and anomalies. “Hard evidence” is inherently hostile to diversity and complexity. With this commitment to dominant and favoured forms of evidence we are dooming our students to be captured by the past and to conform to a mythical conception of average, or else suffer.

A Collective Imaginary

In trying to come up with ways to escape this conundrum, I’ve been playing with imaginaries. I’ve been engaging people all over my travels through informal conversation — people of many ages, many walks of life, many political stripes — in imagining a complete school refresh. I’ve actively sought out people who have given up on education, or who feel betrayed by education, as well as people that have reached the pinnacle of the academies. When appropriate I’ve used an outdated computer term: I asked for people to imagine an education “reboot.” I asked people to clear the data cache, remove the preconceptions, remove the data-supported biases and probabilities and imagine a collective construction of an inclusive education. I asked people to base it on wisdom and intuition, that no response would be judged. They were to imagine a new form of education that would bring us joy, that would bring us meaning and purpose; and let us flourish; as individuals and as a collective society.

I used no survey, no standardized interview questions, or script. I tailored the question and the discussion to the people I approached and the amount of explanation that would be needed to understand that I wanted them to imagine “from scratch.” The only criterion or constraint I put on the possibilities is that both the individual and society as a whole should flourish. I let people imagine without interference and then I asked what they thought of aspects of other people’s imaginaries, linking them into a collective imaginary. In the discussions I was surprised at how much pain and hurt, caused by formal education, people felt compelled to share and how often the moments of joyful learning they recounted were not associated with school. However, no one questioned the critical role of commonly accessible education in a flourishing society.

Because my scholarship involves diversity and inclusion; or put another way, increasing diversity while also creating and maintaining social cohesion; I don’t look for the average or the mean, or impose parameters, I’m more interested in the edge and the points of intersection that arise. I also recognize that, on any point, people can’t be captured in a single x/y coordinate, we are each of us a jagged scatterplot of needs and characteristics. Because any topic is multi-perspectival and there are many ways of knowing, a hypothesis that I’ve played with is that truth can be found at the intersection of difference. Associated to this is a phenomenon that I have observed repeatedly, if we make room for and respect our differences, we will find a deeper commonality. I’ve been trying to plumb these common truths in my co-construction of an imaginary. This is not rigorous, I have not measured, there is no hard evidence.

Below, I have tried to find terms such as “the knowledge commons” to relay a common idea that was expressed in many different ways. The following are the salient points (that I can fit into a short blog) at which people from very different perspectives have intersected in my conversations about the collective imaginary:

Learning would be life-long. There would be no end to learning, no terminal degree, no point of completion. Learning would stretch from the minute we become sentient to the instant we die. Many people spoke of the profound lessons that they learned by keeping company with people that were dying. Many others spoke about the most important and lasting lessons they learned before formal education began. People who had disengaged from formal education spoke about the difficulty of re-entering education later in life.

Learning would not be segmented into age-linked stages or grades. A large variety of people relayed the trauma of being sorted into grades and streams and being marched at an imposed speed through a prescribed path (at too slow and too fast a pace). Fundamental skills of literacy and numeracy would be mastered at a personalized pace and path.

It would be inter-generational. The old have much to teach the young and vice versa. Many people spoke of the social aspects of learning, the deep connections they had with people that they learned with or learned from. Often these described deep connections were with people that were outside the affinity group or social group, people that would otherwise be seen as strangers or “the other.” Learning would involve removal from our insular context, positioning ourselves in new cultures and new geographies.

Learning would not be divided into separate disciplines. People often bemoaned the need to choose, the choices they made and the opportunities they missed and how they benefited from and needed the insights of disciplines that they did not study.

One of the most important lessons would be how to learn, how to think critically. A skill I stress in my program is how to give, receive, and value constructive criticism. When I asked people what they thought of this they talked about how hard that would be, but also how worthwhile it would be to learn.

Often, otherwise divergent people included integrated, active, project and problem-based learning in the “real world”, especially the outdoors, in their conception of an imaginary. People wanted learning with meaning and relevance, that called forth resourcefulness and sparked innovation. Associated with this was abandoning “disposable assignments,” or school work whose only purpose is to show evidence of rote learning. School work or scholarly work would contribute to and build on the common knowledge store.

We would mark, celebrate and value accomplishments and contributions to the knowledge commons. These celebrations would not be confined to mastering existing knowledge and skills but also to discovering new knowledge, remixing knowledge, augmenting knowledge and creating new takes on collective knowledge. These would include all forms of knowing. We would not privilege “STEM” and the forms of knowing that can be replaced by machines. You would not need to qualify to create knowledge. Many people spoke of contributions by people without academic credentials that were discounted at society’s peril. Deviation and alternatives would be encouraged for their exploratory qualities.

We would reverse the demonization of failure and mistakes. Failures are some of our best teachers. Having failed should never be deterministic. Using failure and mistakes to predict our future is one of the worst mistakes of our current systems of education. It shows a complete misunderstanding of learning. People from all walks of life relayed how they overcame the stigma of failure and the sting of punitive judgements. We would remove the current dampers and detractors of inherent curiosity and wonder. People could recount moments when wonder and curiosity was “stamped out of” them by education.

Knowledge would belong to the commons for all to benefit from. There would be no paywall or lock on knowledge, especially research and knowledge that was paid for by the commons. But people would be compensated and attributed fairly by the commons for their labour on behalf of the knowledge commons. People made a point of stressing the immeasurable value and influence of good teachers and the need to compensate and recognize educators (it should be said that I did identify myself as a professor).

We would use machines to free us from drudgery and redundant tasks, to give human intelligence a lift. We would not deploy machines to determine our choices. We would retain self-determination and self-knowledge.

Everyone would be both a teacher and a student. Often the best way to learn is to teach and the bartering of knowledge builds social cohesion. We would compete with ourselves rather than with others. We would learn to work as a team, to collaborate and orchestrate our diverse strengths and competencies.

To expand the range of competencies we need as a society, we would help each individual build out their own, unique competencies and find optimal challenge to continue to grow. Through this we would respect multiple ways of knowing. Many people listed the current gaps in experiential forms of social and cultural knowledge. “We don’t know how to get along. We don’t know how to communicate with each other. We’ve lost touch with our creative side.”

My greatest personal insight was that, despite the fractured state of our current society and the polarization of opinions and world-views, there are many points of intersection and deeply held common truths about education and learning.

Escaping Our Past

Imagining does not make it so. Barring creative destruction or catastrophic events, change is incremental, old habits die hard and many of the things, that we all know are not good for us, are more tenacious than we expect. But it is good to occasionally set our sights in a common direction.

Yuval Harari[2] argues that the primary purpose of historical knowledge is to be liberated from our past. “We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable, and immutable.” We assume that the “cold hand of the past” is a natural and inescapable part of who we are, not an accident of history. Strangely we often recoil from joy because we don’t think we deserve it or because we think it will leave us defenseless and untethered. Sometimes it is good to untether our imagination, recalibrate our compass free from the magnetic pull of assumed inevitability and look to and beyond the far horizon.

Inclusive Design and Learning

In our toolkit of inclusive design, we have an exercise called the “grandparent-toddler” conversation in which, like a toddler, we repeatedly ask forms of “why?” to broaden our focus to the causes rather than the symptoms of our challenges and to expose the essential elements of a conundrum.[3] We find that another means of removing unnecessary mental constraints, fears and blind spots is to design with individuals at the margins of our human scatterplot, and to find approaches for the edge scenarios they face. This is where innovation and the impetus and courage for change can be found. If we stretch our current designs to be more inclusive, we open up possibilities for our future selves. By making room for the widest range of perspectives we can scan the full horizon to both find new opportunities and become aware of emerging threats. The inclusive design framework we apply at the Inclusive Design Research Centre has three dimensions [4]: 1. Recognize, respect, and design for human uniqueness and variability. 2. Use inclusive, open & transparent processes, and co-design with people who have a diversity of perspectives, including people that can’t use or have difficulty using the current designs. 3. Realize that you are designing in a complex adaptive system.

A critical part of inclusive research and scholarship is to address the bias and gaps in our knowledge resources and our ways of knowing. In part this means finding ways to represent people and groups that are unrepresented and underrepresented in the knowledge commons. A respectful and generative way of doing this is to provide a means to tell your story, to give voice to people whose voices have been drowned out, ignored or devalued. For the storytellers this acts as a form of self-discovery and means to find or rebuild identity[5], a way to co-create community, and a way to chart the path forward. In our project, The Social Justice Repair Kit,[6] we are working with youth to co-design storytelling tools. Many of the youth helping us are youth who have disengaged from formal education and youth with learning differences. We see this as a small step to rectify educational injustice and re-engage the storytellers in learning. We also see it as an important function of youth movements and youth social safety nets.

Conclusion

Everyone I spoke to in my informal conversations held that education is a human right, no matter what end of the political spectrum they came from or what level of education they had achieved. While most felt that education has failed people at the margins, they stressed the essential role of education “to get us out of this mess.” Perhaps we can use the intersections of our deeper common truths to build a system of education and a knowledge commons that will let us flourish individually and as a global society.

**Please note this work is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License** This was previously published in the Open Education Forum

[1] O’Neil, C. (2017). Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. Broadway Books.

[2] Harari, Y. N. (2016). Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow. Random House.

[3] https://guide.inclusivedesign.ca/activities/ToddlerGrandparentConversation.html

[4] https://medium.com/@jutta.trevira/the-three-dimensions-of-inclusive-design-part-one-103cad1ffdc2

[5] McLean, K. C., Breen, A. V., & Fournier, M. A. (2010). Constructing the Self in Early, Middle, and Late Adolescent Boys: Narrative Identity, Individuation, and Well‐Being. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 20(1), 166–187.

[6] https://sojustrepairit.org

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Jutta Treviranus

Director, Inclusive Design Research Centre, OCAD University