The Challenging Problem of Educational Diversity

May. 28, 2017

Dan Inbar is Professor (emeritus) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also serves as the editor of Dapim - Journal of Educational Theory, Research, and Practice, published by the MOFET Institute.

Education assumes the existence of diversity. Management of diversity in education reflects the dilemma between one need and another, when both are necessary. The tension between the inherent tendency of organization to reduce diversity and the educational aspiration to actualize individual potential is considered here to be the heart of the educational challenge, and the analysis and discussion of its implications for the management of education is the main intention of this discussion.

Organization and Bureaucracy

Every organization has its space of normative behaviors, tending to prefer lower levels of uncertainties and investing time and resources to reduce uncertainty. One of the main methods of reducing the level of uncertainty is by reducing diversity. Hence, a great deal of effort and energy is devoted to planning, coordination, alignment, monitoring, evaluation, mutual adjustment, control, and supervision. Since organizations desire to work in relatively uniform conditions, diversity is perceived as a problem to be dealt with.

Opening schooling for all, making schooling compulsory, requires structural solutions. Over time structural solutions receive a dominant status, and they are perceived as the correct solutions to which education must adjust, although structure is more of a logistic solution to free education than an answer to the complexity of the educational process. There are even those who think that the structure itself plays a major role in the social and cultural reproductive function of societies.

Choice and Diversity

We recognize diversity among students, but consider the heterogeneous class as a problem rather than a challenge. The preservation of individual diversity and of social pluralism becomes an inspirational challenge of the future.
The legitimization of diversity implies the upsetting of the "right" student, the right program, the unified curriculum, the standardized compliant procedures, the correct teaching method.
The question is not what the right teaching method is, but rather, what a real learning process is. A teaching method should reflect learning processes rather than the other way around. But if we look around we are able to observe that schools are organized around the concept of teaching and not around the concept of learning. The division into classes according to age, the daily or weekly teaching schedule according to subject matter and discipline, are basically derived from teaching considerations rather than from learning necessities.

The bounded space of choice is a consequence of the assumptions that there is a certain amount and type of knowledge that is essential for everyone, and must therefore be taught, and that there are certain behavioral principles which are culturally derived—part of our social and political conceptions—that should be common to a certain social and cultural system.
This might be a convenient organizational entry, but it is a difficult educational exit.
The organization of schooling into groups of learners is based in practice on the assumption of the mean. The organization of learning around the constant triangle of class, teacher, and lesson forces us to rely on the "mean assumption." The way schools are organized is based on the assumption that on average it will fit all. From this viewpoint, schools are not different than other organizations, except for the fact that education is not aimed to educate toward the mean, but rather to develop student potential. This is one of the basic contradictions inherent in the challenge of managing diversity.

One of the dominant characteristics of this approach is the determination of the success and failure thresholds. The evaluation process so central to our school systems, likewise the process of grading is influenced directly or indirectly, sometimes explicitly, in other cases implicitly, by a comparative scale that tries to distinguish among students according to a certain mean.

Beyond supervision and control, the standardization of qualifications by monitoring the entrance of teachers to the education system is another indirect device for reducing diversity. Training processes do not only imply the development of needed qualifications and the importance of professionalism, but also the danger of standardization of qualifications as a pattern of behavior. The greater the organizational structuralization and the greater the hierarchy, the more emphasis will be put on controlling the training programs and entrance procedures. The question, therefore, of where and who should be responsible for training programs for teachers or school principals is essential. The more such programs are centralized, the greater the danger for the development of a narrow range of behavioral and thinking patterns.

It is not surprising that our training programs are also mostly oriented toward the elusive mean, with few training programs focusing on diversity; and if they do, diversity is perceived largely as a problem and not as a challenge. Furthermore, training institutes are themselves based on principles similar to those of ordinary schools. Teacher training programs and teachers, therefore, cannot be the sole source of redemption.

Can school leadership cope with a structure that contradicts the educational process? It is difficult but not absolute. There are many schools that align themselves with a normative structure, but there are those in which the school leadership and the staff are aware of the imminent contradiction in which schools operate. Thus, a special effort is made to manage diversity in such a way that different learning opportunities are open, focusing also on individual and independent learning. It is not an easy task. The challenge is not to yield to the unpleasant convenience but to move toward the important difficulties.

Do we know how to do this? The answer is no. Morally speaking it is even good that we don’t know. Full knowledge enables total control. It is possible to state that the ominous uncertainties of education are a “security fence” against absolutism and totalitarianism.

Updated: May. 28, 2017