The end of average (Uncollege)

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-12-43-32-pmBetter than average

There is a chance that for decades we have developed a lot of things in our culture – from shoes to schools –  with an incorrect basic assumption: that they should be designed around averages. And if you aren’t “average”, you probably have paid the price.

That’s message from Todd Rose and the folks at the Center for Individual Opportunity, who believe that we would be better off if we considered the individual and each person’s specific capacity rather than established expectations based on average standards.

The disciples of this theory are hoping to influence our schools, colleges and our workplaces to develop approaches that “ban the use of average.”

Rose, the author of the new book “The End of Average” is the head of Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program and its Individual Mastery Project. His popular TED talk begins with a story about how designers of Air Force jets in the early 1950’s mistakenly used average body type specifications in the cockpits of the aircraft. The jets were not performing well, and they found that pilot bodies did not fit into the cockpit they designed – in fact, of the 4,000 pilots studied, none fit the dimensions.

“There was no such thing as an average pilot,” Rose says, noting that the Air Force then developed technology to fit individuals like the adjustable seats we take for granted in our cars today.

And Rose applies that to education. He notes that often students have a specific interest in an area, but are weak in others and can’t thrive in a system where expectations are that everyone is the same. A high number of gifted students with non-average profile get bored and drop out (he estimates 50,000 a year) and others never get to explore sa passion fully or reach their potential.

“We are losing our brightest minds,” he says. “We blame the students. We blame the teachers. We even blame the parents.  But I think back to the Air Force example. And I can’t help but wonder how much of this problem is just bad design.” He says despite having a very diverse country, we still “design education for the average student.”

He believes colleges will undergo dramatic changes. “This work on individuality applies to the whole life cycle,” he says.

Rose, whose son took a gap year and benefited greatly from it, says we don’t give young people enough time or the resources to “find themselves,” then hold up college as the only –  and best – options.

“We should be focusing on credentials and competency, but we aren’t, he says. It’s all going to change, though. As soon as Google stops caring about a diploma, it’s over.”

Rose thinks technology is the key – and gives an example of a student in a classroom he observed who was talented in science but had difficulty reading and was struggling. When the class began using a program that allowed students to learn online, he became the star of the class, he says.

“We gave him the learning equivalent of an adjustable seat and in return we got a glimpse of his talent,” he says. “Isn’t that what it’s all about.

What if the cure for cancer was in his mind. Who knows, but we became dangerously close to losing his talent before he left elementary school”.

Rose says schools have the technology or are gaining it quickly, but more resources should go toward applications that will allow students to learn and explore in the way they are most comfortable, a process he’d like to see designed and driven by the students themselves.


Jim Paterson is a writer living in Lewes, DE.


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