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The Myth of the Average Student

Todd Rose of the Harvard Graduate School of Education argues in The End of Average that the longstanding practice of drawing conclusions about individuals using statistical averages is flawed and damaging, especially in education. There is no such thing as an average student, according to Rose. Yet many of our schools, operate on a premise that often ignores the complexity and potential of individual students. We talked with Rose about why the “average student” premise is flawed.

Why have we been so addicted to averages?

Todd Rose: One, it’s perceived simplicity. If you could really understand a student’s potential in one-dimensional terms, like a test score, we should do that! It’s way easier, but it’s just not true. Also, averages are really useful in understanding groups, even today. But over time, averages went from being a useful but fictional way of thinking about society to being the fundamental way to think about who you are.

Everything about the education system is structured around average and rank—from the physical design of a classroom to the way a curriculum is structured to the way we assess students. The system shouldn’t be about constantly comparing you to other people.

What would an education system that moves away from focusing on averages look like?

TR: It’s about having more flexibility in design so we’re not just locking kids out because of their individuality unnecessarily. When schools aren’t responsive to them as individuals, the students don’t know who they are and the teacher has the wrong lens to think about the kids, and we’re all constrained by these narrow metrics of success.

We need to be more competency-based. I don’t care how you compare with the student next to you. I want to know whether you are mastering the things you need to master. Grades, for example, are too one-dimensional. You cannot collapse what a student knows or is capable of knowing or doing into a letter.

Many people tend to confuse standards and standardization. It’s good to have common standards even in a more personalized learning environment, but how we measure them has to be responsive to individuality. There are a lot of good efforts in portfolio-based assessments that provide a better way than standardized tests in understanding what kids are capable of doing.

When you think of technology and “personalized” learning, it’s easy to conjure up a nightmare scenario of a student alone in a room being instructed essentially through a computer. It’s a real concern—the loss of a common learning experience and face-to-face interaction with teachers and students. Will what you’re advocating put us on this slippery slope?

TR: We’re keenly aware that the second you talk about individuality, some might think of “individualism.” What I’m interested in is a system of education that meets kids where they are as individuals and has a goal of developing them to their fullest potential. The principals of individuality that I lay out in the book, almost paradoxically, show us that by really understanding individuality and supporting it, we bring that one person closer to the group. It’s freeing up more time for the high-value relationships between the teacher and the student and that student with other students. You can best facilitate those deep social interactions by having a system that understands each person as an individual and is responsive to that. 

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