Designing for difference is impacting the way we organise and govern our societies and prepare for the future. In New Zealand, we have just engaged in our first Superdiversity Stocktake (PDF, 5.6 MB), where the implications of New Zealand’s ethnic superdiversity are being considered for business, government and citizens. The motivation is to ensure, as a country, we are fit for the future as we transition to a superdiverse society.

Implications for education

In education, this “difference” imperative is also becoming a catalyst for change:

  • findings in cognitive neuroscience are confirming that there is significant variability in how we each learn (OECD 2010).
  • international reports focus on the need for schools to develop acute sensitivity to individual learners differences and to use that knowledge as a driver for the design of physical and blended learning environments and flexible teaching approaches (OECD 2012, 2015).

In learning settings across the sector, discussions about what “all learners” means are increasingly commonplace. Many of us are also questioning how we can effectively and sustainably respond.

We are also collectively taking stock of what we carry:

  • we have been schooled in a “teach to the majority” approach, with a built-in expectation that specialists will take responsibility for the special learners.
  • we recognise the language of the education system has reinforced the idea of “othering” at an structural and organisational level and that it has shaped our practice
  • we see labels that separate learners inadvertently lower expectations of participation, contribution and achievement.

As a profession we recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach is actually one-size-fits no-one. As our understanding of learner variability grows, we can see that we need approaches to designing learning environments that are focussed on designing for that learner variability from the outset: environments that are flexible and richly embedded with built-in with supports and options.

Questions to consider

  • What one size-fits all approaches are hidden in the way you do things? e.g “every teacher must blog”, girls wear skirts, a print newsletter, an online survey, everyone must use a laptop to write. What flexible alternatives could you offer?
  • How will you build student, community and staff understanding of the value of diversity?
  • What are you doing to support teachers to build their understanding and skills to meet the diversity all students bring to learning?
  • How is sensitivity to student diversity guiding the design of new buildings?

The concept of digital convergence refers to the merging of previously discrete and separately used technologies, as well as the almost ‘invisible’ integration and use of technologies as a part of our everyday life. Key drivers here are the ubiquitous reach and presence of the internet, and our ability to access it via an increasingly broad range of devices. In addition, the ‘intelligence’ of both the devices we use and the services they connect to presents opportunities for us to engage with our surroundings in ways not previously imagined.

This can be recognised in the almost everyday acceptance of things like Google Maps which presents you with not only a map of where you are, but locates you within it based on the geolocation of the device you are using - and then highlights facilities and events close to you based on a profile of your needs and preferences built up over time. The rapid advancement of the ‘Internet of Things” is another example of this.  Here  everyday items are connected to the Internet  - from fridges and microwaves in our homes, to cameras and traffic controls linked to sensors in roads in our streets. The data that is feed to and from these things helps build a web of information that is available to us, and frequently fed to us on an individual basis, depending on our needs at the time.

The concept of digital convergence will bring both challenges and opportunities to those working in education. On the one hand, the proliferation of individually owned devices, be they smart phones or watches for example, means that students can  now access information at any time they wish - whether that be something that supports their learning, or something that may be a distraction to their learning. This will inevitably change  the balance of power in regular classrooms where teachers have traditionally been the ones who have ‘controlled’ the flow of knowledge and what is learned. Another significant impact for educators may be in the development of personalised learning pathways, not the pre-determined sorts of ‘adaptive’ software we’ve seen in the past, but more intuitive and responsive to the mix of the learners current location, level of progress, availability of support etc. upon which a highly tailored set of outcomes and feedback may be established and monitored.

Across the globe we are seeing the rise of new models of what it means to be a modern, networked organisation - and at its heart is a shift from hierarchical structures to networks. A networked organisation is one that understands two key ideas: that each person within that organisation can make a personal contribution to the evolution of the organisation. Secondly, that the organisation itself is part of a global set of connections, groups and individuals, able to communicate with anyone and make visible its work.

The driving influences of this trend include a growing understanding that single, top-down systems cannot cater for diversity as well as greater appreciation for what motivates people to learn. We are familiar by now with the discourse around learner-driven, personalised structures. The evolution of digital and mobile technologies that privilege sharing, worldwide connectivity and personal knowledge creation also drive the idea of organisations as networks, rather than hierarchies.

For educators, the challenge is to reimagine what learning at student, whole school and national/system levels might look like if they are designed around the individual. Schools are considering how can they can have greater transparency for their work with their communities and with other schools. Curriculum and pedagogy, learning environments and whole school strategy can begin to look quite different if learners are in the driving seat and if each member of the community is seen as part of a networked eco-system.

In New Zealand, we can see this trend emerging in new views on curriculum design and reimagined schooling environments that aim to cater to diverse contexts for learning. The concept of staff as a network is seen in the shared leadership across the staff at schools like Hobsonville Point Sec School and the design of collaborative spaces such as those at Roxborough Area School. The emergence of grassroots driven PD, such as #edchat and #cenz14  reflects the demand of the individual to drive their own learning, rather than have it mandated. Schools under IES and networks like Manaiakalani are exploring what it means to be networked community learning hubs.