Why Science Says the Average Student Doesn’t Exist (And What This Means for Student Ownership)

For years, we have set up a tiered system of differentiation to go beyond the one-size-fits-all model. But what if there’s another way? How can we redesign the systems so that student ownership becomes a reality? 

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The Problem with Average

The notion of average is relatively new. It actually emerged, as a concept, in the 1830’s. It started when Adolphe Quetelet, an astronomer, and mathematician, used averages to determine the speed of the movement of planets. Quetelet became obsessed with averages and coined the term “the average man.”

As society shifted toward modernization, urbanization, and industrialization, they embraced this idea of average. It helped normalize messy data. It helped identify trends and standardize processes. Our current small, medium, and large clothing sizes are a throwback to this idea that began with the need to create averages in order to standardize military uniforms.

We live in a world obsessed with averages. We speak of average families, average incomes, and average prices. We still use Quetelet’s concept of the “average man” in things like BMI indexes. We tend to take for granted that averages are accurate.

As Todd Rose explains in The End of Average:

“Most of us know intuitively that a score on a personality test, a rank on a standardized assessment, a grade point average, or a rating on a performance review doesn’t reflect your, or your child’s, or your students’, or your employees’ abilities. Yet the concept of average as a yardstick for measuring individuals has been so thoroughly ingrained in our minds that we rarely question it seriously.”

Social science researchers are beginning to discover the flaws in how we use averages to make decisions around design. There’s a great story that illustrates this idea.

Ownership Works When People Can Adjust the Systems

In World War II, the U.S. faced a high mortality rate in their pilots. They assumed it was an issue of training or of a failure to adjust to faster planes. They continued to explore every possible solution based upon the assumption that there was something inherently wrong with the pilots. However, every tweak they made failed to make a dent in this problem.

Eventually, they assessed all of their pilots and concluded that not a one was “average.” Out of over 4,000 pilots, they couldn’t find a single man who fit the definition of average. Actually, few, if any, of the pilots, were even close in measurement to the “average man.” “Average” was an illusion meant to make large, messy data seem simpler. It was a human invention that society had accepted as a scientific and mathematical truth.

This revelation shocked the military.

It turned out that the problem wasn’t with the pilots, the aircraft, or even the training they had received. The real issue is that they were trying to fit diverse body types into a one-size-fits-all cockpit.

They had to find a new approach. Would they design custom-made cockpits? If so, how would they afford that? What would that mean for pilots who retired or died? Did the plane suddenly become useless?

There were other ideas. Perhaps they would have to choose only the pilots whose body types fit perfectly into one type of cockpit. Again, this was unrealistic, because they needed the most qualified pilots to fight in the war.

Finally, they landed on a solution.

Make things adjustable.

That was it.

Make the helmet straps adjustable. Make the pedals adjustable. Make the seats adjustable. Suddenly, the mortality rates plummeted as they embraced this idea of flexible design and quit assuming that people needed to conform to a mythical idea of average.

Instead of trying to fit people into the system, they designed flexibility into their systems. It worked. To this day, pilots still have the freedom to adjust their cockpit to fit their individual needs.

The original system was built on the concept of average. Averages aren’t useless. However, they are often used to design systems and structures that are applied to all people (which was the case with the pilots). Worse still, people use averages to try to assess the knowledge, skills, and abilities of individuals. This happens all the time in schools. 

Again, here’s how Todd Rose describes it:

“It is not that the average is never useful. Averages have their place. If you’re comparing two different groups of people, like comparing the performance of Chilean pilots with French pilots—as opposed to comparing two individuals from each of those groups—then the average can be useful. But the moment you need a pilot, or a plumber, or a doctor, the moment you need to teach this child or decide whether to hire that employee—the moment you need to make a decision about any individual—the average is useless.”

This is a critical point for educators. Too often, we take the same one-size-fits-all approach to education that the military used with the cockpits and then we wonder why it’s not working. Is it bad training? Is it a flaw in the content? We aren’t designing flexible systems.

There Is No Average Student (But How Do We Make Personalization a Reality?)

Schools are immersed in a system of averaging. Traditionally, we average out the scores on all assignments in order to produce a grade. We use the bell curve to average out student performance and set a curve. We use standardized tests to judge students, teachers, and entire schools. We use averages to decide who needs intervention. It is a critical part of everything from RTI to PLCs to any other acronym program that’s popular in K-12 education.

But the concept of average is often more subtle. We use averages when we view research; often failing to pay attention to the nuanced differences in context from classroom to classroom. We use this idea of the “average student” when we make curricular decisions. What should the average student know? How long would it take the average student to learn this? How much work should the average student do on this project?

We often view things through the lens of the average student. The problem is none of our students are average. None of them. There is no such thing as an average student — just as there are no average pilots. However, when we aim for average, we find that the instruction isn’t fitting anyone. Take something as simple as timing. You give students 15 minutes for a task. Some kids are moving ahead. Others are behind. In this moment, “average” isn’t working for anyone. Students are bored, angry, frustrated, and disengaged.

Empowering Students with Adjustable Systems

At first, the military assumed that their pilots were incompetent or poorly trained. However, when they shifted away from fitting the pilots into their design and started adapting their design to fit the individual pilots, everything changed.

I love this concept of flexible design. It’s the idea that you create systems that are adjustable for the user. You could have a short, medium, and tall version of a seat in a car. Or you could make the seat adjustable and let the driver customize it to fit his or her needs. The first idea depends on averaging and differentiating. It is what we do in schools when we group students and then use tracking for differentiation. But this second idea is different. It keeps things flexible and allows the user to make the decision about differentiation.

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What if our lessons, projects, units, and assignments were adjustable? What if our rules, procedures, and structures were flexible? What if students felt the permission to modify things on their own?

As we design our classroom systems, it can help to ask, “How can this be more adjustable? What can students do in order to modify this to meet their own needs?”

Here are a few examples:

  • Getting rid of specific numbers on assignments (3 pages, 5 paragraphs, etc.) and shift toward requiring quality work instead
  • Allowing modifications on assignments
  • Creating loosely structured projects where students have more autonomy in what they are creating and how they are making it
  • De-emphasizing standardized test scores and avoiding bell curves or other systems where averages are used to judge students
  • Letting students select which particular strategies that work best for their own learning
  • Changing the pace up so that certain students can finish earlier and have enrichment and others who are behind can have more time to work and not have to feel as though they are constantly “catching up”

This approach can feel nerve-wracking, both for the students and for the teacher. It’s why it can help to move incrementally toward more student choice and flexible design. This approach requires a deep sense of trust from the teacher. It can be hard to say, “Go ahead and modify this to fit your needs.” But it’s worth it when students feel empowered and begin to own their learning in a way that had never been imaginable before.

This is why I love design thinking. It’s a flexible framework that allows students to own the entire process — from awareness through inquiry and into research, ideation, prototyping, and modifying. It’s essentially a shift into flexible design, where students are in the driver’s seat.

 

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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