The Science of Learning: Conformity

Creativity and conformity are polar opposites in learning. If you are conforming, you are not creating, and if you are being creative, you are not conforming.

Education is all about conformity. Even the parts that are about creativity (visual arts, performing arts etc) are constrained and learners are taught to conform to particular methods and styles during their creativity.

The foundations of our current educational system were founded on the emerging power of conformity that catapulted Prussian military efficiency onto the forefront of the European stage and was followed up by the unparalleled economic dominance provided by the conformity introduced during the industrial revolution. Think of the benefits unleashed by having a standard size nut and bolt to use in building things? Both of these influences – the Prussian military efficiency and the industrial revolution – are readily acknowledged as being at the heart of our modern educational system.

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 as 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!

My grandson, Cai, went to preschool as a fireball of excitement and joy, and his teacher announced to my daughter, on her second parent-teacher visit, that Cai was finally learning one of the most important aspects of education – conformity. No apology, this was a monumental achievement! Here was a live-wire of a four-year-old learning the importance of conforming in the classroom so that he would fit into the factory model of education we practice.

So what, you might ask, 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.

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