The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness


I just finished this book, and I must say I found it most fascinating. Recommend that you read it if you have the time. If not I will share my highlights with you. The story about how they transformed the cockpit to fit all pilots, moving away from the assumption that there is an average size for a pilot was truly interesting. And the marshmallow study showing that the result is contextual and not dependent on trait perspective alone.

The book is written by Dr. Rose, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. If you want to read a review of the book you might want to read The New York TImes here.

But if we are not averagerians, then who are we? If we choose not to view individuals against a background of their peers, then surely the alternative is pure chaos.

Not at all, Dr. Rose says, and he sets forth a variety of alternate principles. Among them is the not-unfamiliar notion that all human characteristics are multidimensional, not only in specifics but also in time and context. Reducing this mass of data to a single simple variable (as in a “slow” toddler, an “aggressive” teenager, a “prediabetic,” a Harvard graduate) may well result in a set of flawed conclusions. Even human size is “jagged,” well beyond the ability of ready-made clothes in standard sizes to encompass.

In other words, big data may have landed us in the Age of Average, but really enormous data, with many observations of a single person’s biology and behavior taken over time and in different contexts, may yield a far better understanding of that individual than do group norms. The New York TImes

My chosen quotes:

Workforce

Perhaps one of your employees whose performance is suffering has been labeled as “difficult to work with” by her colleagues; but rather than fire her, you are able to identify the contexts that make her act out, helping her strengthen her relationships and drastically improve her performance, and allowing you to discover a hidden gem in your department.

Human potential is nowhere near as limited as the systems we have put in place assume. We just need the tools to understand each person as an individual, not as a data point on a bell curve.

People are happiest when they have control over everything that’s important to them.”

Generalization

Though today we don’t think an average person is perfection, we do presume that an average person is a prototypical representative of a group—a type. There is a powerful tendency in the human mind to simplify the way we think about people by imagining that all members of a group—such as “lawyers,” “the homeless,” or “Mexicans”—act according to a set of shared characteristics, and Quetelet’s research endowed this impulse with a scientific justification that quickly became a cornerstone of the social sciences.

Education:

contemporary pundits, politicians, and activists continually suggest that our educational system is broken, when in reality the opposite is true. Over the past century, we have perfected our educational system so that it runs like a well-oiled Taylorist machine, squeezing out every possible drop of efficiency in the service of the goal its architecture was originally designed to fulfill: efficiently ranking students in order to assign them to their proper place in society.

Thorndike recommended standardizing time for classes, homework, and tests based on how long it took the average student to complete a task as a way to efficiently rank students. Since he equated faster-than-average with smarter-than-average, he presumed the smart students would perform well when given an average allotment of time. On the other hand, since he presumed the dull-witted students would not perform much better no matter how much time you gave them, there was no point in offering more than an average allotment of time, especially since it would only hold back the bright students.23 Even today, we remain reluctant to grant students extra time to complete tests or assignments, believing that it is somehow unfair—that if they are not fast enough to finish these tasks in the allotted time, they should be appropriately penalized in the educational rankings. That we have created an educational system that is profoundly unfair, one that favors those students who happen to be fast, while penalizing students who are just as smart, yet learn at a slower pace. If we knew that speed and learning ability were not related, we would, I hope, go to great lengths to provide students with as much time as they needed to learn new material and complete their assignments and tests. We would evaluate students based on the quality of their outcomes, not the quickness of their pace. We would not rank students based on how they performed on a high-stakes test that must be finished in a fixed amount of time. The fundamental nature of educational opportunity in our society hinges on the question of how speed and ability are related—and it turns out that we have known the answer for the past thirty years thanks to the pioneering research of one of the most famous educational scholars of the twentieth century, Benjamin Bloom.

Bloom, then a professor at the University of Chicago, was convinced that schools mattered. He believed the reason many students struggled in school had nothing to do with differences in the capacity to learn, and everything to do with artificial constraints imposed on the education process, especially fixed-pace group instruction—when a curriculum planner determines the pace at which the whole class should be learning the material.26 Bloom argued that if you removed this constraint, student performance would improve. To test the first group—the “fixed-pace group”—was taught the material in the traditional manner: in a classroom during fixed periods of instruction. The second group—the “self-paced group”—was taught the same material and given the same total amount of instruction time, but they were provided with a tutor who allowed them to move through the material at their own pace, sometimes going fast, sometimes slow, taking as much or as little time as they needed to learn each new concept. When Bloom compared the performance of students in each group, the results were astounding. Students in the traditional classroom performed exactly like you would expect if you believed in the notion that faster equals smarter: by the end of the course, roughly 20 percent achieved mastery of the material (which Bloom defined as scoring 85 percent or higher. 

There was no such thing as a “fast” learner or a “slow” learner. These two insights—that speed does not equal ability, and that there are no universally fast or slow learners—had actually been recognized several decades before Bloom’s pioneering study, and have been replicated many times since, using different students and different content, but always producing similar results.30 Equating learning speed with learning ability is irrefutably wrong. Of course, the conclusion that logically follows from this is both obvious and terrible: by demanding that our students learn at one fixed pace, we are artificially impairing the ability of many to learn and succeed. What one person can learn, most people can learn if they are allowed to adjust their… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

But when you let every student work at their own pace . . . the same kids that you thought were slow six weeks ago, you now would think are gifted. And we’re seeing this over and over again. It makes you really wonder how much all of the labels a lot of us have benefited from were really just due to a coincidence of time.”

If every student learns at a different pace, and if individual students learn at different paces at different times and for different material, then the idea that we should expect every student to learn at a fixed pace is irredeemably flawed. Think about it: Were you really not good at math or science? Or was the classroom just not aligned with your learning pace?

Solution

Replace grades with a measure of competency. Instead of awarding grades for accumulating seat time in a course, completing all your homework on time, and acing your midterm, credentials would be given if, and only if, you demonstrate competency in the relevant skills, abilities, and knowledge needed for that particular credential. Although the nature of competency will differ from field to field, the competency-based evaluation will have three essential features. The first is rather obvious: it should be pass/incomplete—either you have demonstrated the competency or you have not. Second, competency evaluations must be institution-agnostic. This means you should be able to acquire the necessary competency for a credential in whatever way you like.

The third feature of competency-based evaluations of performance is that they should be professionally aligned. Obviously, that means professional organizations, as well as employers who will be hiring individuals with the credentials, should have some input into determining what constitutes competency for a particular profession-related credential. Of course, I am not saying employers should be the only ones to decide—that would be incredibly shortsighted—but I am saying they should have a genuine seat at the table. This will help ensure a tight, flexible, and real-time match between what students learn and what they will need to succeed in their jobs.

 

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4 comments

    1. Thank you for pointing that out to me. I included it in the post! 🙂

      The third feature of competency-based evaluations of performance is that they should be professionally aligned. Obviously, that means professional organizations, as well as employers who will be hiring individuals with the credentials, should have some input into determining what constitutes competency for a particular profession-related credential. Of course, I am not saying employers should be the only ones to decide—that would be incredibly shortsighted—but I am saying they should have a genuine seat at the table. This will help ensure a tight, flexible, and real-time match between what students learn and what they will need to succeed in their jobs.

      1. Ah yeah I remember that bit from the book also.

        Totally agree that standardised testing needs to be reduced or eventually removed And profession related assessments could help achieve this

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