Creativity and Conformity, The Science of Learning

Conformity and Learning

I have written a number of articles about conformity and this article will attempt to bring them all together. Why am I writing about conformity in higher education? Because of the cost of conformity to our society. The cost is high and the education system from the earliest pre-school through to the end of formal higher education. Education is all about conformity, it is the institution of conformity. Conformity has much to answer for in our society.

There are those who will argue that conformity is central to the functioning of our society. There are those from the business world who have said that conformity one of the most desirable characteristics of graduates because they are easier to fit into the business world. I have been told that the reason conformity is desirable is because it is the basis of law and order in our society. Most of the research into conformity in education portray it as a positive thing because of classroom management concerns. Conformity is embedded in our society and is a difficult concept for many to see as something that has become too powerful.

Efficiency in teaching, with a one to many model, and predictability in outcomes – every learner goes through the same process and comes out exactly the same at the other end – has been held up as the epitome of good practice, with the methods being honed to perfection through techniques such as Direct Instruction. It doesn’t matter what goes into the system, we all know exactly (or a close approximation) what will emerge at the end. Like any good factory system, checks and balances, quality control and quality assurance are built in to ensure consistency in the product. Whole sectors of education have been built on comparing the product (our students), and fortunes have been made measuring the outcomes (tests and assessments).

And we have conformity!

So what is wrong with this? In a world that places such a high value on social conformity, shouldn’t this form the foundation of one of our largest and most influential establishments? Without conformity, where would we be in the world? Without millions of conforming graduates entering society every year to form the grist of the modern commercial/industrial/military complex, how could we function? The educational establishment is doing exactly what it was designed to do – produce a predictable, compliant populace.

Conformity: What do we know?

We strive to fit in. We go to great lengths to align our thoughts and actions with those around us. Solomon Asch’s classic conformity study in 1951 needs reviewing here.

Asch asked experimental participants to specify which of three lines on the right was the same length as the reference line shown on the left.

Which line is the same length – a simple perceptual task that virtually any normally sighted individual can do quickly and with no errors. Each of the eight participants, in turn, stated out loud the letter associated with the match – in this case, “C”. However, Asch wasn’t looking into perceptual fluency, he was studying social conformity. Seven of the eight participants in the study were confederates in the experiment and were scripted as to which line they were to nominate as the line that matched the reference line. On the first two trials (of 18), everyone named the obvious match. On the next trial, the confederates all chose one of the other lines (a wrong match), with the manipulation of interest being, what would the only real participant do? Would the participant choose the obvious, correct line as a match, or would they go along with everyone else, and choose the same wrong line, along with everyone else. Overall, 75% of the experimental participants made an error at least once in this simple task, with five percent going along with the majority every time. Only 25% of the participants withstood the pressure to conform every time. Conformity is a powerful influence and is alive and well today.

How has conformity become the norm in education, and what methods are used to foster absolute conformity? Where do we start?

As I have mentioned previously, it is generally well accepted that education today owes its roots, at least in part, to Prussian military developments in the C17/C18 and the efficiency gains developed in manufacturing during the industrial revolution. As we think of how those have influenced education, we can understand how conformity has become the core value for the system.

Education is modeled on an assembly line system, with an “expert” processing learners through the various stages and subjects that form the educational experience. The specialization becomes more and more concentrated as the processing happens. To begin with, you have a few five years olds gathered together to learn from a caring and attentive specialist who guides them through the first year of their formal education – although how having 50 kindergarten children in one classroom can be justified in any world, is beyond me –except with our efficiency/business model of education today. However, I would like to think this is the exception rather than the rule. By the time an adult is finished an undergraduate degree at University, class sizes of 300, 400 or even more are not all that uncommon – with a single specialist transmitting information and calling it learning. The processing philosophy is well embedded and in order for it to work, everyone must know their place and play his or her role with as few hitches as possible. Conformity is expected and received.

The physical layout and structure of the experience enforce the need for conformity. Sitting in rows (or around tables – a massive break with conformity) in assigned places, facing the approved direction, not interacting socially with your peers, changing lessons at the sound of a bell, wearing approved school uniforms (or dress standards) in many jurisdictions, addressing the teachers in a standardised way – all are about conformity and have nothing to do with learning except in the twisted minds of those who truly believe that learning cannot take place except in completely controlled conditions.

These physical constraints imposed by education are not just one-time events, but make up a systematic process that ensures that any non-conformist tendencies are extinguished as soon as possible from every individual, and then the system increases the requirements for conformity in order to succeed for years and years to come. A successfully educated individual (basic undergraduate degree) will have been processed in this manner, for about 16 years. And, not just any 16 years, but some of the most important years for critical development in the human lifespan.

Behind the physical conformity with education comes the academic conformity. Why is it that if I were a mathematical genius (which I am not, but indulge me on this one), and could do complex algebraic manipulations in my head, would I not receive credit for what I could do unless I demonstrated that I could arrive at the correct conclusion in the approved manner (show your work my way!)? The entire concept of convergent thinking – everyone arriving at the correct answer in the correct manner – is about conformity. The measurement and classification system used in academia (grades) demands conformity. Answering set questions and taking standardized tests demand conformity. Virtually everything students learn demands conformity, because there is almost always a single right answer (or way to do something), and if you can’t arrive at the right answer using the right method, you are wrong.

Learners receive virtually all of their reinforcement through conformity. There is no praise for non-conformity. There are no positive models of non-conformity. Society, as a whole, looks in derision and scoffs at non-conformists. In a discussion about this one day, it was pointed out to me that you can obtain higher degree qualifications in almost any field imaginable, from physics to Hogwarts, but during our conversation, it became apparent that we were unaware of any program for studying free thinking… it is all about conformity.

So, if education can be thought of as society’s institution of conformity, is there anything wrong with this? Is there a price to pay? If there is a price, where has the cost been born, at an individual level, a societal level, or both? The cost of conformity at a societal level is high, but the cost borne by an individual is even higher.

I informally surveyed some clinical psychologists to gauge their opinions on the subject. Without mentioning the context, I asked them what the long-term impact of prolonged, enforced conformity would be on an individual’s mental health. I consistently heard phrases like damage to self-esteem, losing one’s sense of identity, and being unable to find oneself. In the longer term, prolonged enforced conformity would eventually lead to clinical anxiety issues along with chronic depression. In short, even potentially normal healthy individuals would have to adopt radical coping mechanisms to survive years of enforced conformity with their mental health fully intact. Individuals with a predisposition to mental health issues would almost certainly suffer the greatest.

I believe that 16 years of enforced conformity would qualify as prolonged. And that is education (early childhood through to a university degree) – not prison, the only other place in our society where we enforce conformity through the rule of law.

Although not a clinical psychologist, I do have a Ph.D. in psychology and have listened to and participated in discussions surrounding the tsunami of mental health challenges facing our society today. Almost everyone knows and deals with someone having a mental health challenge. Many of us have to learn to cope with the difficulties associated with someone close who suffers from a mental health problem, from anxiety to depression and beyond, every day.

There is much talk about the complexity of life today, and how individuals have to grasp at any coping mechanism available, just to get through. However, the idea that prolonged exposure to enforced conformity pushes people toward problematic mental health is both rational and logical. Most mental health care professionals would have to agree but framed within the context of our conformity-obsessed educational system, virtually all would recoil in horror at the thought. Education is good and wonderful, and to think that the system we have devised for us to learn in is damaging to the core is horrific and not worth considering. But, can we really ignore the real cost of conformity we are asking individuals to bear?

At the very least, in a state of prolonged conformity, we must submerge our sense of identity and self, and at worst risk chronic anxiety and depression – mental health afflictions rife in the world we live in.

Two quotes about the rise in the rates of mental illnesses are worth considering:

“We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago… the average age at which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5… Now the average age is between 14 and 15. (Martin Seligman, president APA, 1998)”

“The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from 1 in 184 Americans to 1 in 76. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades. (Marcia Angell, 2011)”

A report out today (August 30, 2017) tells us that the 16-24 age group has the most difficulty of any age group accessing mental health in Canada. In addition, the highest growth in mental health rates has been in the 10 – 24-year-old age group. There is no question that mental health in the school and university aged population is increasing at an exponential rate.

The most depressing outcome of increased mental health issues in our society is the suicide rate amongst our youth. Sally Curtin, a statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics, tells us, “…at all ages people are at risk for (suicide), and our youngest have some of the highest percent increases — girls between the ages of 10 and 14… the rate in that group jumped the most — tripling over 15 years (1999 – 2014).”

In a study of suicide rates among young people aged 15 to 19, “…suicide is one of the leading causes of death among young persons of both sexes.” Cutler and Glaeser tell us that, “Between 1950 and 1990, youth-suicide rates tripled”.

In Canada, amongst teenagers, suicide is the second leading cause of death. In today’s report, in one of Canada’s provinces, the suicide attempt rate is 18/1000 of those with mental health disorders, with experts saying that it is really much higher than that because those statistics are gathered from hospital admittances following an attempt.

Although the causes of depression and suicide are complex and multifaceted, this increase is horrific to think about. Factors that I believe may have increased the problems come from education with the obsession with conformity and would include the increased standardization and the closing of exit points.

Standardization in education has increased exponentially and has resulted in the same increase in the drive toward conformity. Direct instruction – the epitome of standardization and conformity – is gaining traction. PISA rankings are becoming an obsession across the globe. Educational outcome competitiveness has become the only game in town. Multinational corporate support for learning (read: extreme conformity) is unprecedented. The push for conformity is relentless, and the direct costs will continue to spiral – however, little children often now sit at tables rather than in rows (in some schools), so it should all even itself out.

The exit points from education that used to be a normal part are pretty well closed. It is virtually impossible for an anyone to functionally survive in our current society without at least a high school education, and the pressure to gain a post-secondary degree is many times higher than it was a half-century ago. In my father’s generation, a man (most of the workers then were men) could get a job at the local hardware store and provide for a family, being able to purchase a house, get a new car every couple of years, and live happily ever after. This doesn’t happen today. Our children and youth have no choice but to remain in education. Our society demands it regardless of the hidden cost.

What about those who emerge with their mental health relatively intact? Is there any cost to be borne by them of prolonged, enforced conformity? There are associated costs for them (and the rest of us) as well.

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops (Stephen Jay Gould).” I believe Gould’s quote could be adapted here to say “…in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died unable to escape the confinement of their education.”

There is no creativity in a place of conformity. The loss of individual creativity and genius through our mass education system, with conformity being the central tenant, is unimaginable.

We pretend that creativity is valued in our society, but it is virtually impossible to measure. It is virtually impossible to control. It is virtually impossible to evaluate. The loss of creativity is one of the greatest single threats arising from our system of mass education from early childhood education through to higher education.

We live in a world of extensive complexity, and the societal problems we are facing are unprecedented. In the past, we have relied on human ingenuity to address many of the societal problems we faced, however, the direct loss of creative genius as a result of institutional conformity is taking away the most important resource we have. Complex problems have never been solved by conforming individuals or groups.

The creative genius that laid the foundation for our current technologically brilliant world is largely gone. If we look at the incredible inventions that our current technology is based on, a sobering realization emerges:

  • Jet Airline – 1930 invented, 1941 flown
  • Birth Control – 1950
  • LED – 1962
  • UAV – 1917
  • Integrated Circuits – 1959
  • High Yield Rice (IRR-IR8) – 1966
  • Smoke Detectors – 1902
  • Digital Music – 1937
  • Cell or Mobile Phone (originally called radio phones) – 1946
  • IVF – 1978
  • Smart Phone – 1992
  • MRI Scanner – 1977
  • GPS – 1978
  • Pacemaker – 1950
  • Bypass Surgery – 1967
  • DNA Sequencing – 1955
  • Electric Car – 1828
  • Fiber Optics – 1880
  • Internet – 1969
  • HTTP – 1989

The sobering realization is that only six of these inventions have occurred in the last 50 years. And of those six, only two have occurred in the last 40 years. There have been brilliant engineering innovations that have taken these inventions to the technological heights we enjoy today, but the inventions themselves are decades old.

Conformity – by its very nature – relies on reapplying solutions from the past, but with more careful control and greater intensity. What we really need is the unleashing of the creative genius that makes us human. Not the direction we have been taking as we have succeeded in quashing it, almost to extinction.

Creativity is not difficult to foster in learners, but the cost is a loss of conformity. With all of the benefits of empowering learners, listed here again from a previous article, it seems like such an obvious direction to take. Individuals who have a sense of empowerment in their own learning process enjoy: “enhanced conceptual learning, greater perceived academic and social competence, a higher sense of self-worth and self-esteem, greater creativity, a preference for challenging tasks, a more positive emotional tone, increased school attendance, and higher grades” (Jones 2009). Almost exactly the opposite characteristics the clinical psychologists listed when considering the problems associated with long-term conformity. What are the long-term effects of working in an empowered educational environment? What kind of person would emerge from a learning environment where conformity was replaced by empowerment? What would happen to us if our graduates emerged from higher education with higher order thinking skills (including advanced creativity) – something not possible in our conformist institutions?

Of all the problems with learning and education, I believe that conformity has the most serious implications for both individuals and society as a whole, and for many in education, conformity is seen as a positive thing to encourage and nourish – for the betterment of society, of course.

Could we really transform the institution of conformity that we currently have in place with an institution of empowerment and enlightenment? If we decide to, we can do anything. I have faith in us and believe that if we really consider these problems, we will find the will to change – regardless of the personal cost we may have to bear.

Is there an alternative to conformity in a system of mass education? This is a big question.

Certainly not under the current mindset. Before something can be done about conformity, it needs to be recognized as a problem. First, we have to believe that there is a solution and that we can contribute to finding that solution. The second step is to start talking about it. Start talking about the consequences of conformity and standardization at every level of education in a real, grown-up manner. We can do this – I know we can!

Fostering an empowering atmosphere in every classroom would be a good step. The problem with this exposes one of the less desirable motivations for entering teaching in the first place. When colleagues state (as they have) that they don’t care what the evidence says about learning, they chose the profession for what it does for them, we can begin to see to the core of one of the problems. Too many instructors teach because it allows them to be in control. We give them a great deal of authority, and they like it. As long as instructors are entering the field so they can be in control of a group of individuals, empowerment won’t happen.

As long as every higher education institution has a research focus as a primary objective, teaching will be a second-class activity that is a necessary part of the job that has to be done in order to keep the cash coming in. I’m not just talking about the biggest players. I was working at a two-year college (welding, automotives, general certificate of education) that gave the instructors’ release time if they did some research. Having spent decades as a key member of the management team building a premiere research institution, I know and understand the time, resources and commitment it takes to do premium research. Giving college teachers at a second (or maybe third) rate college release time to do research sends two messages – research, even research that is a bad joke – is far more important than teaching and sends a clear message that teaching is not really valued by the institution. Where are the world’s premier teaching institutions with a foundation built on the science of learning and stands as a model for teaching to aspire to?

Loosening the grip of the comparison mindset would help. With an obsession for measurement and accountability, we will continue to search for simple, cost-effective solutions to complex problems. Conformity and the factory model of education have shown itself capable of providing some real (good or bad, depending on what you believe) solutions for our complex society. People leave the system more alike than when they go in. They are, largely compliant and are good at following orders. They make for great widgets in the modern society we have created. This has been accomplished through ever tightening the accountability chain and making every education experience identical (except, you can take the occasional optional class as long as you sit down, shut up and face the front). When the PISA rankings come out, you would think that falling a place or two in the mathematical rankings for eleven-year-old children spells the end of our civilization. When the world (or national) rankings of higher education institutions come out, management (at least) look at the results and ask themselves what they can do to creep up a notch or to. This has to stop.

The obsession with comparisons isn’t just at an institutional level. Comparisons and rankings of individuals are as much to blame. Grades lie at the heart of much of what is wrong with education today and are central in pushing the conformity agenda. Grading is so embedded in our system that most of us can’t imagine an educational system without it. Grading enforces conformity. Grading destroys thinking. Why can’t we imagine something different?

What might alternatives to a conformist system look like? I don’t think Socrates gave his students grades. I don’t think Bacon gave his students grades. I don’t think real learning, in the past, involved rows of seats filled with sleeping students. In primary and secondary school, bells, uniforms, standardized testing, authorized texts, and on and on… These are our additions in order to scale up the process of learning, and they have destroyed everything we set out to accomplish – create a thinking population.

In higher education, we could begin to teach people the way that they learn instead of teaching the way we want to teach. A good first step would be to really recognize teaching as a worthwhile activity. There has got to be workable alternatives to what we are doing now.

I’m not really sure what the alternatives might look like, but we have to try. We need to begin to seriously engage in the conversation and stop telling ourselves that there is nothing we can do or that there is nothing really wrong with the present higher education system that a little tinkering won’t fix. We are destroying our young people by simply carrying on as is. We are crippling our society by wasting the potential locked up in our millions of graduates could do. We have to engage in this endeavor and figure something out – because no one else is going to.

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