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Posted by Michael Milone on Apr 6, 2016
And neither are your students
Pause for a moment before you continue reading. Think about your friends, your family, your students. Think about yourself. Is anyone average? Of course not. All of us are typical in some ways and not-so-typical in others.
Moreover, this typicality is situational. My wife has spent much of her adult life being the shortest (but cutest) person in the room. My family is relatively tall, and so are our friends. When we visited Hong Kong, she was ecstatic because she was taller than most of the women we encountered. When she went shopping, they had lots of things in her size. (I should add that, despite her shopping disability, my wife has accomplished much in her life, and our house is packed with awards she has won as the CEO of a specialty hospital.)
With these two thoughts in mind—no one is average, and comparisons are situational—consider this question: Why is “average” in the statistical sense such a dominant theme in education? Why do so many people, especially policy makers and politicians, insist on ranking students, schools, teachers, and pretty much everything else on a single number, usually the average? The answer, of course, is because it is easy, and because in the past, looking at averages was a reasonable way to approach some challenges.
Let me add here that overdependence on a statistical average to categorize students is an example of the fixed mindset. When a student falls below average on anything, especially a state-mandated accountability test, many people consider it a life sentence. This is simply not the case, and those of us who are firm believers in the growth mindset recognize that students’ abilities are malleable and can be developed when they are given appropriate learning opportunities.
In his most excellent new book, The End of Average, Todd Rose explores this tendency in a way that is enlightening and understandable. He provides a number of examples to support his argument that averagarianism (I probably don’t have to define that word for you) is not very useful when making decisions about individuals, especially in education.
Don’t freak out because you think that the statistical construct “average” is no longer useful in any context. Rose doesn’t say that, and neither do I. If I’m traveling to an unfamiliar place, I often check the average high and low temperatures for a given date so I know how to dress. (I don’t check the average temperature based on everywhere because that wouldn't be useful, would it?)
Rose makes the same point in an interview and book. His logic is compelling. “It’s not that you can’t use statistics; it’s just that you don’t use group statistics when considering the individual. If I want to know something about my daily spending habits, one straightforward way would be to collect records of what I spend every day. To take an average for myself would be perfectly fine.”
If you are not sure about this logic, here’s an example that’s more personal. Would you buy a pair of shoes because they fit the average person? (My wife pointed out to me that this is a truly disturbing suggestion, and she is trying to unthink it.)
Averagarianism has led to another construct in education that many of us find troubling, including Todd Rose: normal pathways. This is “the idea that there is one right way to grow, learn, or attain our goals.” There was a time when limited resources made a single education pathway acceptable, but this “factory model” has outlived its usefulness. We may still have to group students together for certain efficiencies, but there really is no reason why we can’t provide pathways that match the needs and goals of individual students so they can learn at a pace that is appropriate for them. Not everybody has to arrive at the same knowledge destination at the same time, as long as they get there.
The idea that there are many paths to achieving the same goal is sometimes called equifinality. Todd Rose was a presenter at the Aspen Institute, and here’s what he had to say about the new science of individuality. “There is never just one pathway ever, ever, ever. In fact it’s the only law that we have in this new science; it’s called equifinality. For any outcome there is always more than one pathway.” (Note to self: How did you miss this presentation last year? It was at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen. What could possibly have been more important? Amy Cuddy did the power pose!)
There is no doubt that we have the technology tools needed to move away from the factory model of education. Moreover, the same tools give teachers the opportunity to make learning personal for their students and help them find their path to knowledge. Our students shouldn’t be limited by an antiquated ranking system, and they deserve the opportunity to reach their potential. We can make this happen.
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