The Myth of the Average Student: Part I

Posted by James Rainey - 13 July, 2017

chin-2.jpgQ. Why did the statistician drown while he was crossing the river?
A. Because it was only three feet deep on average.

As our School embarks on our 2020 Vision strategic plan, we have all been thinking a lot about the benefits and challenges of individualized learning. Yet even as we think about the exceptionality of each student, I find that I am drawn back to the concept of the average student. As Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, points out in his work to debunk the very idea, there is no average student. That person simply does not exist.

I explored these ideas with the faculty and staff at our January 2017 in-service. I led with a "Do as I Say exercise": "Raise your right arm and place your hand on your shin."

Most people will copy what they see you do. My audience was comprised of good listeners. They ignored my own hand on my head.

When we think about how our own brains function—the extent to which our thoughts follow certain automatic paths and biases, how we process information, and the speed at which we process information—we realize how difficult school can be, not just for "the average child," but for everyone.

As Todd Rose says of curriculum and instruction, “We set those sequences and we set those times based on what we know about learning on average.” And, he adds, “Students vary on dimensions of learning, and every single one of them has a jagged learning profile.”


The average hurts everyone, even our best and brightest.

I asked faculty to reflect on and discuss this. I did not do so because I think we at Randolph are infected with this disease that Rose is diagnosing to the extent that most schools are, but that being said, we can improve the way we address individual students and individual needs. It is a challenge in any school environment to do so, and it does get to questions of design, like that cockpit seat, which is a simple analogy. Ours is probably a more complex problem to solve, but these are the directions to which we are committed.

Probably the most valuable lesson I take from Todd Rose is how deeply embedded the idea of average is in our culture. Think how often we use that word. I use it all the time. The average student. Rose challenges our use of language.

Here is a snippet of mathematician Andrew Wyles, famous for proving Fermat’s last theorem in 1993. He finds that children tend to enjoy mathematics before they have had some adverse experience.

Wyles makes reference to Good Will Hunting, a film he regrets because it reinforces the stereotype that you’re either a born math genius or you’re not. He talks about the struggle and embracing the struggle and how you can apply that learning experience to other areas. If you want to watch good films about teaching, our faculty and staff have compiled this list, and this Pinterest board.

2017-01-03 09.02.57.jpgI asked the assembled teachers to perform another listening- and-doing task. This time, the instructions were on screen, so they were consistent for everyone.

"Fold the paper in half. Rip off a corner. Fold the paper in half. Rip off a corner. Do it three times. Now open it back up and look at everyone else’s." At a minimum, these instructions would make for a really bad computer program.

Faculty and staff revealed their torn papers, each different, even while following the same simple set of seemingly unambiguous instructions. I asked them to reflect on how this could be a metaphor for their engagement with students. How much do we take into account, and how comfortable are we, with variability of interpretation of assignments? To what extent do we encourage students to understand their own variability in approaching their work? Is the point of schoolwork to be thoughtful or fast? Or both?

Todd Rose talks about intelligence and speed (“There’s just not that relationship between pace and ability.”) He’s identifying an assumption that I, for one, have always made, and he’s working hard to debunk it.

"Average students," "processing speed equals intelligence" — what other assumptions are we walking around with?

This is the first of two posts, which consider how deeply ingrained the idea of average is and how it skews our perception of reality and impacts our work with children.

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Topics: Featured, average student, cognitive growth


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