To Teach Effectively, Get Out of the Bubble

You may have noticed that our current educational paradigm shuns variance. And it makes sense — it’s much easier to teach cookie-cutter groups than groups that are very different from each other. Unfortunately, this is a move away from learning and from building intelligence into the system. It results in us ending up stuck in a traditional educational bubble and reflects in the educational facilities in which the teaching happens.

What we find if we stay in this bubble is that it doesn’t adequately prepare students for the real world, and this will become more apparent with each passing year. Our world is changing incredibly quickly, with new technological advancements and innovation coming all the time. 

On their own, educators don’t have all the tools and resources necessary to shift the paradigm: to start embracing variance and set their students on the path of lifelong learning. However, the good news is that, with the right tools and learning spaces, formal education can stop following a cookie-cutter approach and, instead, prepare their students for the world of the future.

Why is Variance Shunned in Formal Education?

Before we dive into how to promote variance, it’s worth talking just a bit more about why variance is so important (and why formal education is so resistant to it). Before being conditioned differently by schooling, small children rarely play with others of the same age. When they have the choice, kids generally prefer to play with older children because they instinctively know they can learn from older kids. Young kids know that variance is a source of learning and a benefit to them.

With the right tools, learning spaces, and support, there’s no reason variance need be inconvenient.

Note also that when we look for role models, we never really look for somebody who is the mirror image of us. We look for somebody different but somebody whom we admire, can learn from, and get inspired by. We look for meaningful variance. As these examples show, on an innate level, our thinking is about exploring variance: no variance, no thought; no thought, no learning. So why does formal education largely shun variance and not leverage it in the learning process? 

I can only come up with one answer: convenience. The pedagogical model we have adopted does not like variance, even though it would be to the benefit of all students. In that model, variance is a headache and not an opportunity. Teachers do not like variance in the classroom as it makes traditional teaching difficult. The comfort zone of most teachers is a narrow variance around the mean. Hence, it seems that we have traded variance for convenience. However, with the right tools, learning spaces, and support, there’s no reason variance need be inconvenient.

Variance in Content

To help students prepare for the real world, with all of its changes and challenges, educators must provide variance in the content students are exposed to. Wondering what that might look like? For starters, students must be exposed to different content and materials in their learning processes. Additionally, we should move away from stereotypes and stereotypical representations within content. Why? Because what stimulates learning and critical thinking is exposing students to viewpoints that oppose their own.

Content should be built to be conveyed around the variance represented in the class. This will bring the learning to the students’ immediate environment and make it more powerful and robust. To make it even more effective, educators should have access to a mix of materials, and mix the content in each of them. 

Variance in Process

Supporting variance in education requires more than just creating variance in content. To prepare students for the real world, there must also be variance in how that content is delivered. This means mixing delivery methods to inspire learning. In other words, in addition to traditional “teaching,” educators should also use tools that allow gamified learning, experiential learning, and so on. The physical setting where the teaching occurs must support and enable all these types of learning, as well.

In fact, the classic classroom will be far less dominant in the future. We need to move to more flexible and varying physical settings where individual learning, pod learning, and classroom learning can mutually support and reinforce each other. In other words, we need approaches that support flexible co-learning ecosystems.

The standard classroom should no longer be the core and only setting where learning takes place.

Variance in Habitat

And that brings us to the final piece of the puzzle: rethinking the learning habitat. The standard classroom should no longer be the core and only setting where learning takes place. Instead, we need flexible and intelligently created learning pods where students and educators can meet in more relaxed settings. These new types of physical meeting places will also have to be intelligent (i.e., sense who is in them and how to best support those people). 

These spaces should also take into account that people are generally more creative when they stand and can walk around. Classic classrooms do not enable that, but the classrooms of the future must. These types of changes are what will enable and drive truly interactive engagement and learning.

Moving Forward Successfully

To be fair, variance is not totally absent in traditional education. Many educational institutions support diversity in gender, race, etc., and they should. Diversity is variance, but it is seldom motivated by the learning opportunity it provides. We need to bring positive variance into the pedagogical process and leverage it fully. 

For inspiration, we can look to the incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces that sprout up around our universities. None have standard classrooms, but there is more and faster learning going in many of them than in our universities. These places can serve as role models of what education could evolve into. 

And evolve we must, if we are to prepare our students for the future. We know that fostering variance is vital to doing this, so now all that remains is for educational tools, learning spaces, and educators themselves to shift into the lifelong learning paradigm that’s looming large on the horizon.

For more advice about the importance of variance and how we can shift the current educational model into one that teaches students critical thinking, you can find Rough Diamonds on Amazon.

Dr. Wilfried R. Vanhonacker

Dr. Wilfried R. Vanhonacker is an accomplished scholar, academic entrepreneur, and pedagogical innovator. He played a key role in the establishment of leading business schools in China (CEIBS) and Russia (MSM SKOLKOVO). He was the Founding Director of INSEAD’s PhD program in France and built the marketing department of the HKUST Business School of Hong Kong into a noted academic research department. He holds a PhD in management (marketing science) from Purdue University and a licentiate in econometrics from UFSIA. He divides his time between Shanghai and the French countryside.