The myth of average — Part IX in a series on empowerment and potential


The myth of average — Part IX in a series on empowerment and potential

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell / Currey Ingram Academy

Research shows that reliance on the concept of average and actual statistical averages can be detrimental to learning.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell

Part IX in a Series on Empowerment and Potential

Humans find great joy in getting better at something. It is probably not an exaggeration to state that the evolution of our species depends on this characteristic being passed along from generation to generation. For example, our entire educational system, when working properly, should ultimately empower students and move them towards their potential. Drawing on a wide variety of resources and discussions with staff at Currey Ingram Academy, I am writing a series of Extra Credit articles for the 2015-2016 school year on the topics of empowerment and potential as they relate to education. The articles focus on how individuals and groups can take purposeful steps towards empowerment on the road to achieving their potential.

————————

The Myth of Average

Anyone who knows me quickly figures out I am a big fan of numbers and data. I use good data all the time to inform both my personal and professional life. I embrace how good data can lead to good decisions. I love a good statistic!

This, however, is a cautionary tale from a data lover: research shows that reliance on the concept of average and actual statistical averages can be detrimental to learning.

In The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness (HarperOne 2016), the Director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard, Todd Rose, explores the concept of “average” and how it has impacted our entire approach to education. Rose’s motivation for his life’s work stems from personal experience. He is a high school dropout who ultimately went to Harvard.

The essence of Rose’s argument might be explained via clothing. Clothes do not require precise sizes, nor do they need to be anything but a layer of fabric. For eons, most humans got by with non-descript, one-size-fits-all clothes that kept them warm. You do not have to be Coco Chanel, however, to know that wearing clothes is a much better experience when they fit and when they suit (no pun intended) your personality or your situation. Thus, thinking about clothing or clothing sizes as “average” is almost useless.

Although we have recognized the importance of individuality with clothing and other mass-produced goods, it seems we have not done such a good job individualizing education and learning. If it is easy to understand that no two people are exactly the same size, nor do they have exactly the same clothing preferences, then it should be easy to reason that no two people will learn the same.

Human beings are too complex – we are all an amalgamation of an infinite number of skills, qualities, traits – each of which could be compared with an average but when put together make none of us average. As Rose writes, “No one is average, however these unique patterns of behavior are lost in our schools and businesses which have been designed around the mythical average person.”

Three Principles of Individuality

Rose calls on us to recognize jaggedness, context and pathways — three principles of individuality that enhance our understanding.

Jaggedness

What are you good at? What do you prefer? What makes you laugh? What makes you cry? Are you good at algebra? Writing poetry?

The variety and degree of strengths and preferences embedded in all of us is as large as the number of people who have ever been on this planet. Thus, educating to the average is like giving everyone the same clothes. Those closer to the average will be a better fit. Those further away from the average will be uncomfortable.

Context

Very well-established in the psychology literature is that human beings are endowed with “traits.” For example, many of us have taken personality assessments that determine where we fall on certain traits like introversion/extroversion. While it’s likely that we all can be generally described as more or less extroverted, it’s also likely that traits such as this vary in every person depending on context.

My co-workers at Currey Ingram might find it hard to believe that every time I take a personality assessment that measures introversion/extroversion, I tend to be on the introverted side. But if you observe me during the school day, I act nothing like an introvert. My context requires extroversion for much of the day.

Similarly, as an educator who has taught and coached for many years, I have noticed that many students have different traits, depending on the classes and activities (i.e., contexts) they are engaged with. Given enough variety in context, the notion of stable traits soon loses its meaning.

Pathways

Rose writes that pathways have been built into our society that work against individuality. For example, educational institutions were normalized for the mythical “average” student during the industrial revolution for the express purpose of cultivating workers for a very uniform role in the work force. The structure remains.

The school year is the product of not what’s best for individual learners but what worked for an agrarian economy. The school week, the length of the school day, and how the school day is segmented are all modeled after what was thought to be the most efficient factory models.

What’s Next?

We need to think creatively about how students can travel down a path that better suits their skills, preferences and learning profiles. How can we “tweak” and “lubricate” the current system to account for the individuality of learners? Having dozens of students in the same classroom and teaching to the average is not the most effective way for human beings to learn.

A start might be for schools to implement individualized learning plans for all students, not just those with known learning disabilities. Here at Currey Ingram, quite a few of our students do not have diagnosed learning disabilities, yet all students have a plan. And this plan is not just a stale document that comes out at conference time. It is written by teachers after careful testing and observation; tracked by administrators, teachers and parents; and re-assessed three times a year. Age-appropriate elements of the plan follow the student year to year. And, it is flexible.

As an example, I can share a story about a fourth-grade boy here at Currey Ingram.

This child came to us with severe dyslexia in the first grade. We started him in an Orton-Gillingham-based curriculum designed for students who struggle. By year’s end, he was testing average in reading comprehension and decoding, but these scores still did not reflect his very superior IQ. We knew it was his dyslexia pulling his scores down.

So, we continued this curriculum through third grade. His scores steadily climbed, as did his confidence. By the end of third grade, his scores had soared to “high average” and “upper extreme” levels. So, for fourth grade, we changed his plan and moved him to a basal curriculum designed for strong readers.

After being in that new curriculum for one year, his test scores soared up into the very superior range — 145-155 standard scores, which are above the 99th percentile. All it took was excellent instruction, pre-testing, observation, communication among teachers and parents, planning, re-testing, and the flexibility to change the approach when the child’s needs changed.

This may seem too labor-intensive for all schools, but I think it can be done, as least on some scale. The rewards associated with maximizing the learning potential of all students would be worth every penny.


Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey.

Currey Ingram Academy is a private K-12 day school for bright students with learning differences and unique learning styles. For more information, click here.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell

Part IX in a Series on Empowerment and Potential

Humans find great joy in getting better at something. It is probably not an exaggeration to state that the evolution of our species depends on this characteristic being passed along from generation to generation. For example, our entire educational system, when working properly, should ultimately empower students and move them towards their potential. Drawing on a wide variety of resources and discussions with staff at Currey Ingram Academy, I am writing a series of Extra Credit articles for the 2015-2016 school year on the topics of empowerment and potential as they relate to education. The articles focus on how individuals and groups can take purposeful steps towards empowerment on the road to achieving their potential.

————————

The Myth of Average

Anyone who knows me quickly figures out I am a big fan of numbers and data. I use good data all the time to inform both my personal and professional life. I embrace how good data can lead to good decisions. I love a good statistic!

This, however, is a cautionary tale from a data lover: research shows that reliance on the concept of average and actual statistical averages can be detrimental to learning.

In The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness (HarperOne 2016), the Director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard, Todd Rose, explores the concept of “average” and how it has impacted our entire approach to education. Rose’s motivation for his life’s work stems from personal experience. He is a high school dropout who ultimately went to Harvard.

The essence of Rose’s argument might be explained via clothing. Clothes do not require precise sizes, nor do they need to be anything but a layer of fabric. For eons, most humans got by with non-descript, one-size-fits-all clothes that kept them warm. You do not have to be Coco Chanel, however, to know that wearing clothes is a much better experience when they fit and when they suit (no pun intended) your personality or your situation. Thus, thinking about clothing or clothing sizes as “average” is almost useless.

Although we have recognized the importance of individuality with clothing and other mass-produced goods, it seems we have not done such a good job individualizing education and learning. If it is easy to understand that no two people are exactly the same size, nor do they have exactly the same clothing preferences, then it should be easy to reason that no two people will learn the same.

Human beings are too complex – we are all an amalgamation of an infinite number of skills, qualities, traits – each of which could be compared with an average but when put together make none of us average. As Rose writes, “No one is average, however these unique patterns of behavior are lost in our schools and businesses which have been designed around the mythical average person.”

Three Principles of Individuality

Rose calls on us to recognize jaggedness, context and pathways — three principles of individuality that enhance our understanding.

Jaggedness

What are you good at? What do you prefer? What makes you laugh? What makes you cry? Are you good at algebra? Writing poetry?

The variety and degree of strengths and preferences embedded in all of us is as large as the number of people who have ever been on this planet. Thus, educating to the average is like giving everyone the same clothes. Those closer to the average will be a better fit. Those further away from the average will be uncomfortable.

Context

Very well-established in the psychology literature is that human beings are endowed with “traits.” For example, many of us have taken personality assessments that determine where we fall on certain traits like introversion/extroversion. While it’s likely that we all can be generally described as more or less extroverted, it’s also likely that traits such as this vary in every person depending on context.

My co-workers at Currey Ingram might find it hard to believe that every time I take a personality assessment that measures introversion/extroversion, I tend to be on the introverted side. But if you observe me during the school day, I act nothing like an introvert. My context requires extroversion for much of the day.

Similarly, as an educator who has taught and coached for many years, I have noticed that many students have different traits, depending on the classes and activities (i.e., contexts) they are engaged with. Given enough variety in context, the notion of stable traits soon loses its meaning.

Pathways

Rose writes that pathways have been built into our society that work against individuality. For example, educational institutions were normalized for the mythical “average” student during the industrial revolution for the express purpose of cultivating workers for a very uniform role in the work force. The structure remains.

The school year is the product of not what’s best for individual learners but what worked for an agrarian economy. The school week, the length of the school day, and how the school day is segmented are all modeled after what was thought to be the most efficient factory models.

What’s Next?

We need to think creatively about how students can travel down a path that better suits their skills, preferences and learning profiles. How can we “tweak” and “lubricate” the current system to account for the individuality of learners? Having dozens of students in the same classroom and teaching to the average is not the most effective way for human beings to learn.

A start might be for schools to implement individualized learning plans for all students, not just those with known learning disabilities. Here at Currey Ingram, quite a few of our students do not have diagnosed learning disabilities, yet all students have a plan. And this plan is not just a stale document that comes out at conference time. It is written by teachers after careful testing and observation; tracked by administrators, teachers and parents; and re-assessed three times a year. Age-appropriate elements of the plan follow the student year to year. And, it is flexible.

As an example, I can share a story about a fourth-grade boy here at Currey Ingram.

This child came to us with severe dyslexia in the first grade. We started him in an Orton-Gillingham-based curriculum designed for students who struggle. By year’s end, he was testing average in reading comprehension and decoding, but these scores still did not reflect his very superior IQ. We knew it was his dyslexia pulling his scores down.

So, we continued this curriculum through third grade. His scores steadily climbed, as did his confidence. By the end of third grade, his scores had soared to “high average” and “upper extreme” levels. So, for fourth grade, we changed his plan and moved him to a basal curriculum designed for strong readers.

After being in that new curriculum for one year, his test scores soared up into the very superior range — 145-155 standard scores, which are above the 99th percentile. All it took was excellent instruction, pre-testing, observation, communication among teachers and parents, planning, re-testing, and the flexibility to change the approach when the child’s needs changed.

This may seem too labor-intensive for all schools, but I think it can be done, as least on some scale. The rewards associated with maximizing the learning potential of all students would be worth every penny.


Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey.

Currey Ingram Academy is a private K-12 day school for bright students with learning differences and unique learning styles. For more information, click here.

About The Author

Kelly Gilfillan is the owner-publisher of Home Page Media Group which has been publishing hyperlocal news since 2009.

Related posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *