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The Myth of Average

We May Be Missing An Important Part of the Story!
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A few weeks ago I was preparing to speak with a group of teachers about the importance of "report cards" as I was growing up and, specifically, how what the education system said about me had a tremendous impact on the identity that I developed as I moved through my schooling. As I was going through that manila envelope of chronologically-ordered reports and transcripts that my mother had handed me when I left home as a young adult (and one that I happen to come across at the most interesting times), I noticed something intriguing. At the bottom of each of my high school reports was a section of long division in my mom's own script—her ongoing attempt to determine and track my overall term average.

In fact, there were two questions that framed the lenses through which mom interpreted the very sparse data presented to her each term during my high school years: "How did my subject marks compare to the class median presented on the report?" and "What was my personal term average?" 

The first of these questions helped my parents make sense of my progress when compared to other kids in the class. The second question helped them understand my chances of getting into a quality university program. And this was a very well-accepted way making sense of the information. I know this because talk of averages made their way into family conversations, annual Christmas newsletters and many conversations about career aspirations. 

In his recently-released book, The End of Average: The Science of What Makes Us Different, L. Todd Rose takes on our culture's love affair with the idea of the average, exposing its historical roots, its shift in meaning over time and, most important, how it sucessfully masks discovery of individual uniqueness, talent and potential:

The central premise of this book is deceptively simple: No one is average. Not you. Not your kids, Not your coworkers, or your students, or your spouse. This isn't empty encouragement or hollow sloganeering. This is a scientific fact with enormous practical consequences that you cannot afford to ignore...

Historically, Rose points out, the Average Man (and later, Norma, The Average Woman) was a type of aggregated ideal—a model of perfection that, as it turns out, described absolutely NOBODY. It wasn't until later on that average came to mean something less ideal—something rather "bleh" and mediocre. Today, in terms of educational attainment, not many of us would settle for average

As we move forward in our discussion about 21st century schools, there is increased talk about creating learning environments that allow for more personalization and individualized learning. But, as Rose suggests, all of this talk will mean nothing unless we are prepared to deal with the reality that we are still very much steeped in our love affair with the idea of average. We see it in the way we continue to rank and sort students, schools, districts and, indeed, entire nations. It is a strong narrative that runs through most of our institutions of opportunity. And until we take time to challenge that narrative head-on, we're not going to be able to make any real progress in building schools that are actually attuned to the individuals that walk in and out of them each day: students, educators, administrators, and parents. 

Through his new book and his Centre for Individual Opportunity, L. Todd Rose has attempted to develop a strong counter-narrative that may just begin to push up against the fundamental beliefs and assumptions we have about the way many of our institutions are constituted and, more important, how people learn to see themselves through those institutions. 

Over the next few weeks, I would like to explore the three principles that Rose presents to help us develop a stronger capacity for developing institutional capacity for valuing, recognizing and nurturing individuality. For now, however, I would invite you to think about the places in your own personal and professional life where an average mindset are strong and what it might take to develop a different sort of perspective. 

In what areas of your life do you find average thinking strongest? In what contexts might this way of thinking be particularly helpful? What dimensions of our lives are being masked by our tendency to want to compare ourselves with the average? Where do you recognize the myth of the average at its strongest in your school system? 

For many of us, an important part of the story of who we are are and who we could become was created by the education system. In The End of Average, L. Todd Rose makes a good case for recognizing how our obsession with the idea of average might help to develop systems and institutions that expand and deepen that story—for us, for our children and for our communities.

I think that we need to pay attention.

Next...The Jaggedness Principle

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At first glance, the idea of

At first glance, the idea of average, so embedded, seems like "common sense." When I first saw Rose's talk on this, I was struck by how powerful (and negative) this concept has been in education. The entire notion of what skills one should possess by a particular age to "meet expectations" can be damaging though well meaning. I've also explored Rose's thoughts on average in this post: There is something rank in the state of education.

Thanks for the comments on

Thanks for the comments on this, as well as the reference to your own post. I don't think we're alone in our frustration around being forced to aggregate separate and discrete skills and dispositions into a "single mark". I recall being excited when our province began moving to a different form of assessment in the early '90's. It was a time when we started talking about rubrics that would allow us to look more deeply into student performance on particular tasks. I was excited to start talking about "levels" as opposed to "marks", only to find a couple of years later that a legend had been added to report cards that would allow parents to "map" the meaning of a level 3 onto what they understood as a "B" and a level 4 onto what they grew up with as an "A". 

As it turns out, we really hadn't come as far as we thought we had. 

This is a very important topic of discussion, and I think that I will land here with some further exploration over the next few weeks. I hope that we can get more discussion on this topic. There may be some who think that we should hold on to our current way of "averaging", and there may be some who agree with Rose that it's time for a new approach to our institutions of opportunity. 

All voices welcome!

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