It’s time to start talking about cognitive diversity in education

To increase student engagement and better prepare graduates for the realities of work, universities must re-think how they use and promote teamwork to reflect real-world value. Sondre Kvam, entrepreneur and graduate of NTNU, argues that teaching awareness and practical application of cognitive diversity might be the key.

The lone inventor singlehandedly creating dozens of world-altering patents no longer exists. Tesla the entrepreneur has been replaced by Tesla the enterprise because modern challenges in science, society and daily life have wide scopes, incomprehensible to any single person. In order to grapple with the ever-increasing complexity, the diverse team has replaced the sole genius. In education, teamwork is often emphasised for another reason, namely practising communication and social skills for future employment. While this is important – a happy workplace is a productive workplace after all – it is also a missed opportunity to embrace the remarkable effects of diverse thinking on problem solving and innovation. Instead, the explicit goal should be to teach students to take advantage of cognitive diversity. This goal is engaging, inherently highlights the value and challenges of teamwork in the real world, and still allows students to hone their communication and social skills.

Cognitive diversity in a group means that each individual adds a unique perspective – that they think differently from each other. It is the driver behind phrases like “I would never have thought of that” and “I disagree because we also need to account for this, that and the other”, as well as “are we talking about the same thing?” In his book, Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed argues that groups with high cognitive diversity utilise their broader collective perspective to access a wider solution space for a given problem. This, in turn, leads to better decision making. Therefore, it is important for students to understand that their differences are valuable in themselves, and they need to learn how to capture that value by tackling complex real-world problems. If we did not have to account for costs or privacy, I would argue for mapping opinions and running psychological tests to assign groups specifically tailored for cognitive diversity. Randomised groups are the next best thing.

Now, some might be sceptical about embracing randomness. It is true that not every field is relevant to every challenge. Most likely, a realtor will not be much help in predicting the weather, but judging which perspectives are valuable to a given problem is often outside human capabilities. Disciplines influence each other in surprising ways all the time. There was the birdwatcher among the engineers who shaped a train after a kingfisher’s beak to reduce air resistance. Another example is the medical emergency technician and bicycle enthusiast who filled an IV-bag with water to create the first CamelBak. There are even entire fields built on the cross-pollination of knowledge, such as behavioural economics and human-centred design. Supporting random, seemingly odd constellations of students to work on problems outside their field of study is not a waste of resources, but an investment in R&D. For instance, the entire first semester at the NTNU School of Entrepreneurship is used to teach enrolled students to look for business opportunities within – what is to them – random fields chosen by the faculty. Every two weeks they are reassigned to new random groups, then they reset and start again. After six months, the program consistently churns out dozens of brilliant startups.

Outside the realm of entrepreneurship, many students seem unaware of the importance of cognitive diversity. NTNU actually has a mandatory subject where students are graded by their ability to utilise and overcome their differences. After completing the subject, most students find it valuable, but beforehand it is widely known as an unnecessary hurdle in their education. Why? As the subject is named “Experts in Teamwork”, I believe the wording is the main problem. Goals along the lines of “creating innovative solutions to really hard problems, by harnessing the power of being different” sound much more interesting than “learning to work in teams”. Years and years of working in groups leave most students thinking they are already great team players. In reality, most people still have much to learn about teamwork, but we are blinded after choosing our own groups over and over. Humans naturally seek psychological safety, so given the choice, we flock to like-minded people, who like to work in the same way as we do, on the same schedule and with similar ambitions. This makes cooperating easy and frictionless, and many students are left associating “easy and frictionless” with “good” and “conflict and friction” with “bad”. Cognitive diversity, which by definition implies conflict and friction, becomes “bad”. This undermines the goal of learning to use friction to create understanding and new ideas, and constructive conflict to find balance.

After running a design consultancy, I have seen these issues time and time again. The industry boom of Design Sprints is partially due to facilitators knowing how to create the right level of friction and conflict to drive a group forward. Every sprint – and every workshop really – is an exercise of exploiting the differences between people to map out problems, create varied ideas and make well-rounded collective decisions. If employees were educated on creating and maintaining such work atmospheres, they would be less reliant on outside help. To make matters worse, communicating well is even harder in distributed teams, making it even more difficult to capture the value of cognitive diversity. Posture, facial expressions, gaze, tone of voice and the general sense of presence are all weakened when working through Teams and Zoom. As a result, we miss queues of excitement, confusion and frustration that help us adjust our pace, know when to elaborate or halt to iron out our differences. That is why we are building Cohere, a virtual reality application that brings back the sense of togetherness necessary for collaboration in remote work.

Looking towards the future, teaching the value of cognitive diversity might also prepare us for the rapid societal changes ahead. The dangers of over specialisation have been discussed for more than a century, but time and time again we have seen old jobs replaced by new ones. Yuval Al Harari, the author of Homo Deus, states that we are starting to see jobs disappear without creating new ones. More and more complex tasks are being left to machines and, as a result, he believes humans will have to re-educate themselves multiple times throughout their lifetimes. But maybe the future of work does not require re-education as much as re-assembly. As the difficulty and complexity of our societal and technological challenges increase, new constellations of perspectives might keep humans in the game of creation for a little while longer.

The author participated in the workshop on young entrepreneurship co-organised by EUA and the European Commission on 9 June 2021. In this event, young entrepreneurs from EUA member universities shared their insights on how to shape European research and innovation policy to accelerate the green transition.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Sondre Kvam

Sondre Kvam is CEO of Cohere XR, a VR-technology startup working to improve remote collaboration. He is also Chairman and co-founder of Umble, a design consultancy helping startups. He wrote his Master’s thesis on “Creating a Sense of Togetherness in Virtual Reality” after studying Industrial Design at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). He has a special interest in applied design and psychology in collaboration, education and entrepreneurship.


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