College Preparatory School for Girls Grades 3-12

Head's Notes

Susanna A. Jones

Those readers who are parents recently received a communication from Holton's leadership regarding the School's participation in AIM, the National Association of Independent School's Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism. You may recall that one of the four school-wide goals resulting from our AIMS Accreditation process focused on diversity:

Become even more intentional around issues of diversity, including the definition of diversity at Holton, the level of diversity among faculty and staff, support for our diverse community of adults and students, and the inclusiveness of the curriculum.

Our participation in AIM represents an important step towards reaching this goal. As we said in the email, we will gain greater insight into diversity, equity and inclusion at Holton while we will also be able to benchmark ourselves against other independent schools. We look forward to broad participation from all constituencies including students, faculty and staff, alumnae, and Trustees in addition to parents.

Given that we are diving into this process, I thought I might reflect on why we are making diversity, equity and inclusion a priority. Let's begin by examining why focusing on diversity helps everyone, regardless of diversity status.

Scientific American recently republished an article from 2014 that examines the value of diversity. The author acknowledges that diversity can be difficult, that having diverse representation in a group can create tensions and negatively impact the group's work. Nonetheless, based on "decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers," the author argues that diversity leads to creativity, enhanced problem solving and innovation, and improved decision making. "Informational diversity" represents the key factor that diverse groups enjoy. When people from different backgrounds – race, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, ethnicity and even religion – come together to work on a project or a problem, they bring different life experiences and different perspectives. This means that a wider range of ideas comes to the table, providing a greater variety of options from which to choose. Someone might present a possibility that never occurred to another member of the group. That a group will come up with better solutions under these circumstances seems obvious.

The author, a professor at Columbia Business School, chooses a few sample studies to illustrate this point. For example, she and professors from Stanford and the University of Illinois had groups of three undergraduates from Illinois solve a murder mystery. Some groups consisted of all white students while others had two white and one black students. In the experiment, each group had some shared information and some information given only to one individual. The participants were required to share whatever information they had. The racially mixed groups "significantly outperformed" the all-white groups. The author explains that "Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective. This perspective, which stopped the all-white groups from effectively processing the information, is what hinders creativity and innovation."

In a related study, researchers had more than 350 students from three different universities discuss a current issue such as child labor or the death penalty in small groups. Participants received dissenting opinions from the researchers which they presented in their groups. When black students shared the minority opinion with a white group, "the perspective was perceived as more novel and led to broader thinking and consideration of alternatives than when a white person introduced that same dissenting perspective." The researchers concluded that when we hear an alternative opinion from someone different from us, we are more open to the idea than when we hear it from someone like us.

Different political affiliation produces a similar result. Students who took part in a study where they had to write an essay to persuade a person who disagreed with them of their position worked harder when they knew their partner belonged to a different political party than when they understood that they identified with the same party. If you were a Republican expected to persuade a Democrat, you prepared more diligently than if you were influencing a fellow Republican. As the author observes, "Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not."

Another researcher used mock trials to show that racially diverse juries "were better at considering case facts, made fewer errors recalling relevant information and displayed a greater openness to discussing the role of race in the case." The participants in this experiment, who were deliberating about a sexual assault case, did not know that the analyzing the effects of race on jury deliberations was the purpose of the exercise. Interestingly, in this situation, the black jurors did not contribute any new or different information. Their presence, however, made the white jurors "more diligent and open-minded."

Scientific research benefits from diversity as well. A review of the ethnicity of the authors of 1.5 million scientific papers published between 1985 and 2008 found that the more diverse the scientists' backgrounds, the more citations papers likely received. The more other researchers cite a paper, the more influential it obviously is. Diversity impacts the quality of scientific work.

Not surprisingly, research has shown that diversity confers similar advantages in educational settings. In fact, googling this topic produces countless articles attesting to this fact. A pamphlet created by The Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison provides a nice summary of this research, observing, "Cumulatively, these studies provide extensive evidence that diversity has a positive impact on all students, minority and majority."

They cite one longitudinal study examining 25,000 students at 217 four-year institutions that found that "institutional policies fostering diversity . . . had positive effects on students' cognitive development . . . and leadership abilities." With findings very similar to those cited in the Scientific American article, two other longitudinal studies, one of more than 11,000 students attending 184 colleges and universities and another of 1500 students at the University of Michigan, found that students who participated in classes and had informal contact "with racially and ethnically diverse peers . . . showed the greatest 'engagement in active thinking, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills.'" Similarly, the National Study of Student Learning has shown that "both in-class and out-of-class interactions and involvement with diverse peers foster[s] critical thinking."

This research tells us that knowing that our classmates come to a discussion from a range of perspectives makes us think more deeply. Think about what that means for a history or English class. Having a diversity of students in a classroom makes for a richer experience for everyone. All Holton students benefit from the fact that 23% of students receive financial aid, that students of color represent nearly 40% of the student body, that a wide range of religions and ethnic backgrounds are represented, and that at least one parent in many families was born abroad, not to mention the girls' own broad diversity of skills, talents, and passions. How fortunate they all are to go to school in such an environment.

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