Taylor Cox (1993) has conducted diversity experiments in a number of controlled studies with small groups. What he identified has also begun to be revealed in the business setting: There is greater creativity in working groups with diverse perspectives and diverse people. In a sense, the presence of diverse people and perspectives is important for its organizational rationale. There is less “groupthink”— meaning that everyone does not conform to one view or approach—but it also represents a level of complexity. How does one manage this level of difference in attempting to solve a work problem? To what extent are we actually preparing students to handle difference and possibly conflict in the work environment, or in construction of problems that affect populations? Must they learn these skills on the job or do they have opportunities during college to expand the cognitive development to manage differences that they are likely to encounter in the postgraduate years?
In our current research project we have identified a series of cognitive outcomes that are defined as “active thinking” skills. It is not just logical deduction that is necessary to handle more complex and messy social problems but, rather, complex thinking skills. We are exploring a variety of tests and ways of measuring this. The disposition to think critically is one of these skills and is composed of attributes that include openness to new ideas and inquisitiveness. It would seem that these dispositions are particularly important for scientists to possess.
There are also social cognitive skills that go along with more complex thinking in a diverse society. These include, for example, perspective-taking skills, or the ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective, willingness to discuss and solve complex social problems with others, and social awareness. These are the characteristics that begin to address civic or democratic skills—all of which we are beginning to identify among undergraduates in our studies. That is, we are beginning to explore the extent to which we are preparing students to have a commitment to the public good in their work and in their daily lives that will help our pluralistic democracy thrive. Actually, in higher education there is a broad movement in terms of civic engagement, promoting service learning, and connecting or reconnecting with communities who are in need of the resource talent produced by colleges and universities. We believe that many institutions have the mechanisms in place to increase undergraduate engagement in these activities that will result in a distinguished citizen, one who can participate in a diverse democracy.
Cognitive psychologists have been studying individuals in terms of thinking and learning for many years. Several of these psychologists have begun to conclude that most of our thinking is mindless. The important point that they are discovering—and they are doing it in a variety of ways—is that we rely on scripts, routines, and automated thinking. We are actually cognitive misers.
So many of our day-to-day interactions with individuals and work (for example, driving to work, students shuffling into large classrooms, or lecturing from “yellowed notes” to students) all consist of rather automatic thinking and behavior. In many ways, in higher education we cannot take for granted that individuals are actively thinking. If we begin with this premise, then we have a better sense of what we need to do in classrooms and in the workplace to inspire more active thinking and learning.
Ellen Langer (1978), a cognitive psychologist, found that encountering new and unfamiliar situations, people, and perspectives causes us to abandon routines and think actively. Changing routines or abandoning old scripts that do not work in new situations helps us to achieve this. When you think about the transition to college, some of the routines and habits that students followed in high school no longer serve them well. They have to adjust to new expectations, people, environments, living arrangements,