‘There’s No Such Thing as Average’: Todd Rose on Brain Science and the Limitations of Standards

By
Mary Jo Madda

There’s no such thing as “average.”

That a lesson professor Todd Rose’s shared with educators and education entrepreneurs in his keynote at iNACOL in San Antonio, Texas on October 26.

Rose, who currently heads the Mind, Brain and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and cofounded the Center for Individual Opportunity, became well-acquainted with the concept of “average”—average score, average body size, average ability—after conducting research for his recent book, “The End of Average.”

But how did “average” come to be a common construct, and why is it a potentially destructive concept, especially in the world of education? According to Rose, there are two big reasons: First, there’s no such thing as an average person, and second, it’s inhibiting educators from creating “a principled way to think about individuality.”

Why there’s no such thing as an average person

Up until 2002, Rose reports that brain scientists believed that in brain imaging—the use of various techniques to directly or indirectly image brain structure—there was such a thing as an “average brain.”

But Michael Miller, a UC Santa Barbara professor, began to study how the human brain retrieves memory and realized there was no single brain that looked like this mythical average. “We each have unique ways that our brains retrieve information and create memory,” Rose reported.

This has not just played out in neuroscience, but in every advancement and every field, he adds. In education, this is particularly harmful to students because it affects pacing guides, textbooks and how states measure who achieves—and who fails.

“Our current industrial model is rooted on the belief that there is an average student,” Rose said. “In most states, textbooks are expected to be age-appropriate, but it just means designed for what the ‘average’ kid knows and can do.”

Yet Rose believes there is hope if we can implement the concept of personalization more actively in schools and other learning environments. “If we want to get a place that nurture kids, instead of batch processes them, average systems don’t work,” he said. Instead, “we need deep rooted understanding of individuality.”

The three elements that differentiate students—and really, anyone

According to Rose, there are three patterns of individuality that everyone should consider when creating learning experiences for students.

The first, jaggedness, refers to any human characteristic that we care about, and can’t be reduced to a single data point or score. When it comes to identifying one’s jaggedness, there are usually a number of different data points that separate each individual student from the next. Take IQ: While two students could test as having the same IQ, the specific elements of what make up that IQ—knowledge of vocabulary, reading comprehension, quantitative skills—can, and always is, different.

"Jaggedness" as it applies to IQ. (Mary Jo Madda)

Next, there’s context. “It’s meaningless to talk about behavior, learning and development if it’s independent of understanding the child’s environment,” Rose explained. He added that oftentimes, adults will ignore context because it can seem “messy and hard,” but in reality, context offers insights into patterns or conditions outside of a child’s control. “If we look at the context, we realize that we don’t always need to send kids to remediation,” Rose says.

The third concept, pathways, embodies the idea that every human being differs in what pace and sequence will lead to outcomes—an idea that’s particularly pertinent to the world of education where seemingly every set of state standards and textbooks follow one set, “average” pace. Average-based systems, Rose says, have forced educators, parents, even students to think about learning and development in ladder-like structures—and that is harmful.

“There isn’t a relationship between pace and ability. We have a huge problem when we have a system that’s standardized on an average pace,” Rose explained, while displaying an example of how one student in a test case performed: 1) in a timed environment versus 2) at his/her own pace. In the display, the student performs lowest out of the group when timed, and highest when taken at his/her own pace.

How to introduce personalized instruction at scale

Rose isn’t worried about acquiring more research or data to back up his case, saying that there’s actually “a mathematical theorem that proves you can’t use averages for human beings.”

His bigger concerns relate to the fact that the concept of average is a deeply held assumption—and that oftentimes, “being right isn’t good enough” when it comes to challenging assumptions. “Just look at the example of Norma,” Rose says, calling attention to a controversial 1943 statue created by a man of science—obstetrician-gynecologist Robert Latou Dickinson—as an example of the “average female form.”

Backing up an idea with knowledge or data never guarantees acceptance. So in order to support competency-based learning and move schools away from likes of seat time, standards, and yes, averages, it’s up to educators to help spread the news.

“It’s the one important barrier that’s holding us back, that idea of average,” Rose says. “It’s that very mindset, that continued belief in the myth of average.”

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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