Ever Feel Just ‘Average’? Think Again, Says Todd Rose

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Ever Feel Just ‘Average’? Think Again, Says Todd Rose

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Jun 12, 2017

Ever Feel Just ‘Average’? Think Again, Says Todd Rose

This article is part of the collection: Thought Leaders Discuss The College (And Classroom) Of the Future.

No one would call Todd Rose, Harvard professor and best-selling author, “average.” Then again, he wouldn’t call anyone average, either.

Rose, age 42, is a developmental psychologist who studies development, intelligence and learning and teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also directs the Mind, Brain and Education program and helps run a nonprofit. What vaulted Rose into the public spotlight, however, was his 2015 book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness.

Remember that infamous “bell” curve, where a select few are measured “above” the grade and others “below,” is a myth. Rose points out that something seemingly as simple as an “average” body is hardly simple. Rather than compare achievement or intelligence to a single number, Rose writes that a multidimensional perspective can set us all up for success.

EdSurge sat down with Rose at the ASU+GSV Summit, as part of our Thought Leader Interview series on the future of education. Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation—or watch the full interview.

EdSurge: We all use the measure of ‘averages’—but you hate the concept. What you mean when you talk about the ‘end of average’?

Rose: Basically for the last 150 years—particularly after the Industrial Revolution—we came to think that you could understand people by using group averages. We still do this today in the way we conduct research, the way we think about kids in schools, and the way we hire employees. It's only been in the past couple of decades that we’ve realized that the use of group averages often represents absolutely nobody. At best, it represents a small group.

That would be the bad part of the story. The good part of the story is that we've actually learned how to get past that and how to harness people's individuality to develop much better insights about people.

So everybody is a special snowflake?

You know, it's probably true in the final analysis that we're all snowflakes. But that's a pretty bad foundation to build a science or education system on.

Here's the good news. There are some basic patterns of individuality that help define who we are that you can use to know people well enough to build skeletal systems. So while it's true that we're all individuals in the final analysis, there are some important basic patterns that lead up to that.

We focus in our science on three patterns: The first is what we call the ‘jaggedness principle.’ In other words, if you don't reduce people to a simplistic, one dimensional measure, but look at them as a whole person, [you see that] people have multiple dimensions and those dimensions don't really correlate with each other like we think.

Take body size. Just because you're tall, doesn't mean you're heavy, right? And it doesn't mean you have really broad shoulders. We tend to think that all those size dimensions are correlated-- and they not. What you have instead is what we call a ‘jagged profile.’ Every single person will be on the high end on some things, the middle on others and the low end on other dimensions. This is true about body size, it's true about character and intelligence, it’s true about any attribute of human beings. At the end of the day, you cannot reduce a person to a single dimension.

You said three patterns. What are the other two?

The second is the ‘context principle,’ which simply stated is that it's meaningless to talk about behavior, performance or learning independent of the immediate environment in which you're learning, behaving and performing. The situation really matters. Anyone who's in education should know that--it's their job, by definition. If you didn't believe that the situation mattered, why would you go into education, right?

The third one is called the ‘pathways principle.’ It suggests that for any outcome you care about, there are always multiple pathways to success. Where people differ is in the pace and sequence with which they will accomplish things. This was a big surprise for me. It took me a while to come to terms with this idea of differing paces and abilities.

In our society, we tend to think there's a really tight relationship between ‘fast’ and ‘smart.’ [When someone says ‘He got that idea quickly!’ we infer that the person is intelligent. But] when you look at individual level, there's no relationship between pace and ability. A kid who takes a little longer to master something is just as likely to master it as someone who zips right through it.

Why do you think we have that misperception?

I can name the person: It was Edward Thorndike, the father of educational psychology, who basically was the first to standardize most of our education system. [Wikipedia notes that a 2002 Review of General Psychology survey ranked Thorndike as the ninth most cited psychologist of the 20th century.]

I'm guessing you're not a fan of his.

Not really. There are a couple of bad guys in the history of our field and he's one of them. But that's my personal opinion. His view of intelligence said intelligence was [a function of] how fast your brain formed connections and he believed that genetics determined that speed. So he believed there were fast memory formation people and slower ones. His compromise [in education] was around how much time should we give people to take standardized tests.

But now imagine if that [theory] is not true. In that case, we have basically picked winners and losers in our education system based on arbitrary time constraints.

You’ve said creating ‘equal opportunities’ requires finding a strong fit between an individual, their capabilities and their educational environments. Why has that been so hard for schools?

That's right. If ‘average’ truly represented ‘most’ people, then standardizing experience on average and then giving that to everyone would be about the fairest way to scale something. That's been the guiding mantra of fairness in our system.

But when you realize that that mythical ‘average’ person doesn't exist, then [that basis for] equality of access really doesn't work.

Instead, what you really want is closer to what we would call ‘equity.’ [That means] giving each person the thing that they need to accomplish the same kind of goals, the shared goals. What I want to see is a commitment to fit.

It's unbelievable how hard it is to get that [idea across] in education. At best, we need to give you a label of a disability for you to have any kind of accommodations outside of the ‘norm.’

In this world, would there be such a thing as failure?

I don't care how you compare to the kid sitting next to you on a one-dimensional assessment after some arbitrary amount of time. Who’s that good for? Who benefits? It certainly doesn’t benefit the kid, nor the parent—not even the employer.

What I want to know is this: Does the kid actually understand the material? Have they mastered this stuff? If it takes them a little longer, so what? What you would see in this environment are differences in what kids master, the breadth of their mastery and different interests they have.

Imagining taking little kids who have a passion for something into school for the first time and giving them decent environments.It’s hard to imagine that those kids would not care or that you’d have a lot of failures.

Sadly, we're so far away from that right now. In this scenario, though, is there a role for competition amongst kids in school?

Yeah, absolutely. I'm certainly not a fan of the idea that competition is uniformly bad. What is bad, though, is when competition becomes the defining characteristic of education—because people are motivated by different things. There are times to collaborate and there are times to compete. It's good to learn how to compete in a good way and it's good to learn how to fail.

Why did you start the Center for Individual Opportunity?

I started this non-profit with my co-founder, Parisa Rouhani, to get these ideas out of science—even out of the education bubble—and figure out how to start talking to the public. I worry than when people think about ‘personalized learning,’ they think, ‘oh, this is another fad.’ And that's a huge mistake.

There's something profound stirring in our society. It touches everything, from the way we play, to deep subjects like how we're going to save your life if you get cancer. Everything is rejecting our old standardization approaches, and seeking more personalization. That’s the theme of the age we live in and education is not going to escape that broad trend.

So what we want to reach the public and have this conversation—to help them make sense of what's going on around them in the world and [help them] see what they themselves are capable of. What their kids, their colleagues are capable of. If we don't break those old assumptions of ‘average,’ and deviation from average, we're [won’t get] sustainable change in education.

What's an example of what you or the Center are doing?

We've been funded to build a campaign, to do what we call "earn a movement." People talk about movements all the time. I think movements are hard to come by. You can't make people have a movement, right? So we need to do the things that earn our way to a movement, where a big, broader public is creating a demand for a change in our understanding.

That’s interesting. Give me an example of something that ‘earns’ a movement.

We know germs cause diseases now. But that wasn't what we thought for thousands of years. That belief really didn't start to change until we figured out [that you had to] give the public a new way of thinking and—more importantly—new behaviors that would have an actual effect on their health and wellness. [To convince people that germs existed] priests played a big role. They would go to towns and say, ‘It's okay to believe in germs.’ And then say, ‘Oh, by the way, put iodine on your wounds." Then people could actually see the difference.

So you have to figure out who the influencers are and help them chart simple, actionable paths?

We have to give them the tools and the communications support they need to show people [how to make a difference]—then give people things they can do that clearly show the benefit of this new way of thinking.

How are you going do that for personalized learning?

I think you have to show people [the power of personalized learning] through really, really powerful storytelling. For starters, we have to name the age that we're living in: We are living in the age of personalization. Then I'm going show you a hundred examples of the things around you that are going in that direction.

And we’ll use that as an invitation to start thinking about yourself, your own potential. We’ll tell them hundreds of stories of people who have discovered this different view of themselves and that [this new understanding] was the way they became great. We’ll build tools for them to explore their own individuality and make those tools open source.

If you can get to a place where people start to see the value of their own jaggedness—that [such differences] are not something to be ashamed of or hide, but that these are what make you great—then we can connect that to the question of what an education system based on this idea would look like.

You know, this idea of personalization—that everyone can succeed because of their jaggedness—is personal for you, too. Would you share a bit of your own story?

The science speaks for itself—it doesn't need any personal background to be true.

But in my case, I was kicked out of high school. I had a 0.9 GPA my senior year. For most of my life, school really didn't work. I know what it feels like, at least in my context, when you don't fit into the current system. Like the kid who is always feeling … worthless.

And I also know what it means to find your fit—to actually find your potential and your calling in life. It leaves me with this sense that from the so-called bottom to the top of our academic system, there's an enormous amount of talent and potential and contributions waiting to tapped. Once we realize that and we start betting on everyone—instead of our privileged few—I think we can have a kind of society that we want to live in.

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