The End of Average

Posted on: Thu, 03/08/2018 - 09:00

At the National Conference on Education, keynote speaker Todd Rose offered a compelling discussion on the fallacy behind measuring people against the “average person.”

Todd Rose shared multiple examples from research going back to 1940 that our notion of an “average person” is indeed a misconception. The U.S. military encountered this dilemma in trying to design a cockpit for the “average” pilot in the 1940s when it was noted that on 10 indicators of size, there were no pilots who met the “average” measure on every indicator.  A similar example from the 1940s included an example of a doctor commissioning a statue of the average woman, known as Norma.  Norma became a media sensation when a contest was held to identify the woman who was most like Norma. (A media sensation in the 1940s consisted of newspapers and magazines—one can only imagine how “Norma” would fare in social media today!)  The winner shared only 3 of the 10 indicators possessed by Norma!  Unfortunately, the power of “average” as exemplified by Norma led doctors to encourage women to diet or exercise in order to conform with Norma’s measures—the notion of a remediation plan begins!

In the 21st century, this belief in average continues.  Dr. Rose gave an example of recent work with brain scanning.  The methodology used frequently is to take scans of many people’s brains and then to create the “average” brain based on the multiple data points collected.  Unfortunately, not one of the scans of the people in the study matched the “average” scan.  This pattern was evident in so many studies that it led Dr. Rose to author a book (The End of Average) and to offer an alternative “science of individuality” for practitioners, including those in education to consider.

As the testing debate continues throughout the United States, this message of the fallacy of “average” provides yet another reason for policy makers and educators to reconsider our constant reliance on test scores to make assumptions about students, schools, and school systems.  The “science of individuality” also provides a compelling case for personalizing learning and offering multiple pathways for students to demonstrate their skills and knowledge.

I can’t wait to read Dr. Rose’s book!  I anticipate it will support many of the practices that FCPS is implementing to honor the individuality of every student!

Have you encountered difficulties being measured against “the average”? Tell me about it on Twitter @FCPSMDSuper. And whether or not you agree with this post, if you enjoyed it, please feel free to share it on Facebook or Twitter.