In the past day I have been thinking about my recent posts on diversity in the work place and how it ties back to my earlier posts on labor force participation and on education performance. In particular, I realized my formulation of diversity as a mutual respect for equal intelligence and intention of good will didn’t quite work in relationships of unequal authority. In a relationship between mentor and student or between manager and employee, one side has authority over the other.
For unequal authority, the defining idea of diversity is to extend an acknowledgement of equal potential. The one in authority grants the other an equivalent potential to become a peer of the one in authority. The diversity project is to recognize the equality in everyone’s potential, but at any time different people are at different stages of development.
While I’m comfortable granting toward peers the benefit of acknowledging equality of intelligence and good intentions, I’m not comfortable extending that favor when there is unequal authority. Sometimes it becomes apparent that a coworker is not meeting the same standards. Usually this is subtle so there could be (and often is) a counter claim of bias contrary to the ideals of diversity. The point can be made more easily when we all agree there is a difference in authority.
Hierarchical relationships involve people of unequal authority such as mentor and student, or manager and employee. In such scenarios we grant that the person in higher authority has more latitude to judge the quality of work or ideas of the person of the lower authority.
Allow me to focus on the relationship between teacher and student and use primary school education as an example. I suggested earlier that our current school models based on standardized testing and depersonalizing the teacher-student relationship can be detrimental to the student. The reason is that there is a very powerful incentive for learning when the student can target a specific person (the teacher) as someone to gain approval in the form of the teacher’s acknowledgement of the student’s mastery of a subject to be equal to the teacher’s mastery at least in terms of the scope set out for the course. When we take away that human level acknowledgement, we remove a major motivation for learning.
Much of the recent trends of the past few decades has been to focus on uniform outcomes for the entire class through the use of standardized pace of learning and testing. The course material is made more narrow to align closely with the standards and tests and the outcomes are independent of the teacher’s individual assessment. This is a project of leveling everyone to get equal outcomes and as a result it is very much like the intentions of diversity in the workplace.
This project has been attempted now for several generations and with very little progress in removing the problems that bother us. There seems always to be some students who lag behind other students and some students who fail to advance at all. At the same time, it seems our attempts to level the class’s performance increases the unruliness of the students.
We address unruliness as an independent problem. We even claim to be experiencing some kind of organic epidemic of unruliness as if it is some kind of cancer. Our response is to turn to medicine through various diagnoses that can be treated with various psychological drugs.
This particular thought was prompted by a recent report (via instapundit) suggesting a new type of potentially treatable student disorder called sluggish cognitive tempo with symptoms such as excessive daydreaming.
If this were a real disorder with some effective treatment for it, then I’m pretty sure I would have been diagnosed even 45 years ago. The symptoms are of boredom. These symptoms include not paying attention, not turning in homework, not putting a name to a turned in assignment. I did those things, and a whole lot more, as a protest at the boring pace and restrictions even of that far back. The pace was slow because there was a need to see everyone in the class as equals. The performance of the entire class is the performance of the slowest or most reluctant learner. The result is redundant homework or reviewing material because of some exam grade distribution not being what it should be.
I don’t want to put too much emphasis on my personal experience because a lot has changed since. In particular, my experience was in a poor rural school district and before there were opportunities for faster paced learning for qualified gifted students (I probably wouldn’t qualify even it were available).
In my opinion, the basic ability of a person to contribute independently is pretty well formed by about the age of 10 years old. Although there is still some development in terms of development of responsibility and maturity, the basic independence of motivation available to 10 year old youth is not much different than that of adults. Some are more motivated than others. Some are not motivated at all.
The more motivated are held back because of the ideals of leveling. Everyone has to go along at the same pace. The result is boredom and rebellion by passive or active means. The rebellion presents symptoms. Symptoms can be treated.
It is possible to recognize the differences in motivation among peers. This is contentious because it could be confused with biases or prejudices. I think we can rely on authority to make a judgement about differences in motivation. In a classroom this authority is a teacher. However, from what I’ve been reading, it seems we don’t trust the teacher to be unbiased.
If we don’t trust anyone to make an assessment of motivation, then we must abandon the concept of differences in motivation. This levels the field and treats the more motivated as unhelpfully impatient or suffering some disorder.
In my mind, this picture parallels the situation in the workplace as well. The terminology is different but the underlying concept is the same. We don’t trust peers to be able to judge motivation among each other. Diversity doesn’t allow peers to segregated into exclusive groups of corresponding motivations. We also don’t entirely trust managers to make this judgment so we place limits on their separating out favorites except if there is a formal training commitment such as preparation for a specific promotion.
Adults have the advantage of more maturity and perhaps more tolerance for boredom than youth, but I think the same basic unease felt by the 10 year old is felt by the adult when his motivations are hampered in order to accommodate the less motivated.
I return to my ideal of acknowledging intelligence and good will of all peers. This is what we must do in order to work together as a team. However, I think I overlooked the problem of unequal motivation.
Given the reality and unavailability of unequal motivations, then the granting of equality of intelligence and good will needs to be in the context of the least motivated. Compromises or consensus accommodate the least motivated concept of intelligence and good will. Diversity is achieved.
So is Boredom.