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When the word “different” means “wrong”

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

One of the problems with the modern educational system is that it targets the majority. This means that, if students can fit in and follow the teachers’ teaching methods, then they are considered good students. However, if they cannot, then the educational system categorizes them as students who don’t like to learn or students with “problems”. The problem is that currently, the educational system is not diverse enough in the way the learning material is delivered to respond to different learners’ learning needs and styles. Einstein once said: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, you will always think it’s an idiot”. With the “one-size-fits-all” approach, there are many fish out there forced to climb trees, thus inhibiting their personal development.

Diversity in education is a hot topic, yet it is not truly included into education systems. With increasingly developed technologies available, the only major “innovation” that has happened in education is digitalizing existing teaching methods. This means that the “one-size-fits-all” educational methods have just been spread faster without taking into consideration the negative psychological effects that they have on learners.

What the “one-size-fits-all” education system does is to label all those who don’t fit in or can’t follow the teaching methods as students who are not good at learning or students with “special needs” or “problems”. Very little consideration is given to the physical environments in which learning happens and how these can be improved depending on the learning outcome that educators aim to achieve for learners. Little attention is given also to ways in which teaching methods could be adapted to different learning styles within the same setting. Accepting that different doesn’t mean wrong, that there is not only one way of learning and teaching respectively, and reflecting that in the classroom design and activities, is crucial for a truly inclusive, diverse and healthy education system to exist, where learners who learn differently are not labeled to have “special needs”.

The word “different” being perceived as “wrong”: this observation relies on the author’s growing up experience, as well as observations made in different environments in comparison. The first experience of different being perceived as wrong was during the author’s bachelor studies, during a discussion held at the author’s home between the author, born and raised in the Dobrogea territory, known for its ethnic diversity, and a university colleague from the Northern part of Romania. The discussion revolved around a traditional dish the author had cooked in the same way as she always did, but perceived to have been cooked in the wrong way by the Northern Romanian colleague. The same attitude was then observed by the author in many other situations and was assumed to be underlying many conflicts, in which people are not aware of how their growing up environment has created this bias of “What I know is what is right”.

This concept was also discussed by Mike Hulme in the sustainability area in his book “Why we disagree about climate change”. His argument is that due to different understandings of what climate change means within different cultural backgrounds, disagreements are imminent. It is easy to assume that the same principles apply to many other areas as well. This phenomenon is believed to be rooted in the cognitive dissonance theory. If people are used to behave in a certain way for a very long period, the assumption is that it becomes an involuntary bias to conclude that what they are doing is right. This might lead people to enter a defensive mode to protect the beliefs that follow their behaviors when others might present different opinions or ways of doing things.

Although there is little evidence in the literature to support this statement, the author believes that this is due to the angle from which research has been done previously, not the phenomenon itself. In other words, there are very few known locations in which being different is accepted as different, not wrong, and it is celebrated rather than being a cause of fight. Dobrogea is among the very few places where many ethnic groups live in harmony and diversity is celebrated through different festivals every year. What’s more, it is the only place in the Balkan Peninsula where this happens, compared to conflicts between other Balkan territories.


The above text is a reproduction of the text authored by Adina Deacu, founder of Tianmei's World Academy, published in the online magazine “The Bridge” and is part of a broader research report titled "Redefining where and how learning happens" presented in the 1st International Conference on Multicultural Education organized by the Center for Balkan Cooperation LOJA.

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