Why Does Education Shun Variance, The Source Of All Learning?

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Publication date:

September 24, 2021

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With typhoon In-Fa approaching Shanghai, my wife and I ran out this morning to do some last minute shopping before the city shut down. As the eye of the storm was predicted to hit the outskirts of the city, everyone was expecting a major pounding with heavy rain and strong wind gusts. On the way home, we took shelter in Pain Chaud, our favorite French bakery, and decided to have a quick breakfast before heading home for an extended lockdown.

On a normal Sunday morning, Pain Chaud is packed. But with the looming closure of the city and people being told to keep off the streets, the place was nearly empty. Fortunately, the bakers had been at it at the crack of dawn, and the counter was well stocked with fresh breads and the usual delicacies. The mouth-watering display did not show any sign of the monster storm coming up the coast.

Sitting down by a window to keep an eye on the weather, we watched the rain coming down and wind gusts whipping up the trees that line  the streets in our neighborhood. Looking at the trees, my wife started talking about the dangers of power lines coming down. As she was warning me, I pointed out the many cables and wires that were strung across the intersection in front of us. The wind gusts made the mesh of wires more visible, and the swinging scoobies  of black wires were quite a spectacle.

My wife had never paid much attention to them as it was part of the picture she grew up with. For her, the many wires strung along the streets and across the intersections were normal and expected; i.e., hidden in plain sight. That was not the case for me. Where I grew up, cables and wires were laid into the ground. My wife did not notice them but I did because the sight of them was so different from what I was used to and expected to see.

When I first moved into our neighborhood, the oddity of seeing the  wires captivated me and had raised many questions in my mind. Why was this the case? Why did they not put all these wires into the ground? How did they keep all these wires apart? As I pointed out the strings of wires and explained to my wife the oddity of the sight to me, she began to wonder as well, and think about the disasters they could lead to in the current weather. She began to formulate questions that would never have popped into her mind had she not been made aware of what was in plain view outside of our window.

Something that is different from what we know or expect peaks our curiosity. More importantly, it puts inquisitive minds onto a path of exploration, discovery, and learning. That is what drives young children to play with those who are older. They instinctively know that they can learn from them and will seek them out to do so; that is until formal education conditions them to do otherwise and confines them to same-age cohorts.

Variance is the base of learning, just like it is the base of human evolution (genetic variation drives natural selection). As the interaction with my wife exemplifies, variance is a great source of learning because the contrast it implies peaks our curiosity and  raises questions in our minds. In seeking answers to these questions, we learn. Variance also enriches that learning in that it makes us reflect on our own beliefs,  broadens our horizons, and ultimately makes us wiser. Hence, it is that much more surprising to realize that formal education largely shuns variance.

As soon as we start our formal schooling, we are forced to think, play, and work in same-aged cohorts. This conditioning cuts down on variance in exposure and short-circuits natural learning processes. The other kids in the class are very much like us and, therefore, we are taught to learn by looking at and listening to others like us. We are made to believe that the best way to learn is to sit in echo chambers and look into mirrors. This is very much the opposite of what the natural learning processes tell us to do and the sense of discovery we are all instinctively born with. By cutting down on exposure to variance and not leveraging it in the learning process, education goes against nature and compromises learning.

To be fair, variance is not completely absent in formal education. We do promote inclusiveness and diversity but they are seldom if ever capitalized on in the learning process. They provide for good photo ops and enable us to tick off a box on the list of moral obligations. Unfortunately, we are ignoring the source of learning and missing an opportunity to leverage it in the learning process. How did this come about?

As I write in my bestselling book, Rough Diamonds. Rethinking How We Educate Future Generations ( https://geni.us/RoughDiamonds), the reason is very simple: convenience. The current educational model prioritizes efficient delivery over effective learning. Teaching is a lot easier when there is little to no variance across the students sitting in the class. As teachers and faculty have to pitch their delivery at a certain level, a class with fat tails becomes a hit-and-miss game in terms of teaching effectiveness. Small variance makes it easier to identify the level to pitch at and insures that no student either gets bored because of a lack of challenge, or is left behind because the material taught is way over his/her head. In sum, formal education shuns variance because it undermines teaching effectiveness. However, that singular focus on delivery limits student learning.

Consider, for example, a top business school. It will use a rigorous process to decide on who to admit into its MBA program. That process is the cookie-cutter that cuts down on variance in the admitted cohort. The objective is typically to create a class with a high mean but a small variance around the student profile desired by the school. That profile, however, is rarely if ever motivated by what would promote valuable and effective learning.

The small variance in the cohort insures that both faculty and students get the best of the delivery model. After all, good students bring out the best in faculty and vice versa. However,  the small variance also cuts down on valuable learning opportunities. Consider the following question: what can you learn about building, managing, and leading teams when all your classmates are A-team caliber, something that rarely if ever is the case in the real world? More often than not, the challenge is not to lead an A team but to turn a B team into an A team. Hence, homogeneity in cohort prevents you from learning how to make variance – part and parcel of reality – work. Ironically, one of the leading business schools actually identifies itself with the motto “strength in diversity”. Then again, business schools rarely practice what we preach.

The problem is that we have become so enslaved to the delivery model of education that we neither see nor question its deficiencies. If we dare to take a step back, it becomes clear that what benefits teaching does not necessarily benefit learning, and vice versa. With lifelong learning looming large on the horizon, the momentum will shift decisively from delivery to learning and that will question the continued validity of the model we are holding on to. The future of education is on the learning side and not on the delivery side. When creating new paradigms for lifelong learning, we should remember the natural learning instincts we are all born with, nurture those, and capitalize on them.

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