The Myth of the Average Student: Part II

Posted by James Rainey - 31 July, 2017

extendedarms.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. It was a long presentation, which I have broken into two posts. You can read Part I here.

Mr. Liese Upper School Pictures - 3837298.jpgAt Randolph, we are committed to the idea of individualization of instruction and learning. We see our students — and we hope that our students see themselves — through a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. 

But preconceived ideas about intelligence and the world in general can distort our perception. For example: write down your best estimate of the percentage of the population of the United States that is 65 or older. Now write down your best estimate of the percentage of the State of Florida that is 65 or older.

Stereotypes and received information tend to exaggerate or inflate the true incidence of demographic phenomena. The national share of the population that is 65 or older is 13%. It is 17% in the Sunshine State. More than the national rate, yes, but not significantly more. Most of our teachers guessed far higher percentages, as I expect most Americans would in general. Stereotypes shape our assumptions powerfully.

I was talking to another head of school recently about the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Vance has been touted as a prophet or a spokesperson for American white working-class values since the publication of this book.

My instructions to the faculty: Write down your best estimate of the percentage of the population of the United States that lives in poverty (15%). Now write down your best estimate of the percentage of the State of Kentucky that lives in poverty (19%). Now write down your best estimate of the percentage of the State of West Virginia that lives in poverty (18%).

As with our assumptions about senior citizens in Florida, so with our assumptions about poverty rates in Kentucky and West Virginia. In both cases we tend to exaggerate on the basis of stereotypes..

Take the continent of Africa. What percentage of the population do you think was killed in war, annually, from 1965-2000? Or affected by famine each year? What percentage of boys aged 10-17 were child soldiers in the year 1999? What percentage of the population were refugees or displaced persons as of 2005? What percent died from AIDS in 2007? (Answers: killed in war, 0.01%; affected by famine, 0.29%; child soldiers in 1999, 0.19%; refugees or displaced persons in 2005, 0.53%; died from AIDS in 2007, 0.20%, respectively.)

Mr Liese Upper School Pictures - 3836882.jpgOne implied corollary is that 99.99% of Africans did not die each year on average because of war in Africa during that very long period of time. This confronts us with our misunderstanding of the scale of turmoil in Africa and our tendency to exaggerate it as we imagine the problems that continent faces. 

In a recent article titled “Stereotypes Are Poisoning American Politics,” the author criticizes J.D. Vance for circular reasoning: “Defining Appalachians as those who are poor, uneducated, and violent, we find that Appalachian culture causes poverty, lack of education, and violence…. Pseudo-analysis of groups reinforces stereotypes. In the case of Appalachia, these have a long history – Deliverance and all that. Recent fires in the Smoky Mountains aroused suspicions about the ‘moonshine stills of the poor, ignorant hillbillies.’ This takes the badly defined group fully into the realm of caricature.” The trait that you have defines the trait that you have. “[Even] training in economics offers little protection against this kind of circular reasoning. Sir Paul Collier, a distinguished scholar, devoted his widely praised book on The Bottom Billion to another group defined by outcome and not much else…. ‘Nigerians radically, deeply, do not trust each other’ [writes Collier] and ‘Nigerian immigrants to other societies tend to be untrusting and opportunistic.’ Survey data show Nigeria to be close to the world median on measures of trust – or about as trusting as France.”

And from the same article: “Group stereotypes typically have a kernel of truth, reflecting some trait which is over-represented – but the likelihood of the trait’s occurring is then greatly exaggerated…. Muslims are over-represented among the tiny number of terrorists worldwide, which leads many to wildly overestimate how likely Muslims are terrorists or jihadist fighters. (More than 99.99 percent aren’t.) We also stereotype terrorists as mainly attacking Americans or Western Europeans, whereas Western Europe and the U.S. actually accounted for less than 3 percent of deaths from terrorism worldwide between 2001 and 2015.” 

I shared this video on Racists Anonymous with the faculty and staff. Consider the extent to which received prejudices – from your childhood, from media depictions, and from other life experiences (mis?)inform your perception of human differences. Reflect on the challenge of seeing each child in your care first as an individual person and only secondly, if at all, as a member of a group.

It can be so hard to see past the prejudices that blind us, but it is something we always strive to see more clearly.

2X0A3345w.jpgThe first half of this presentation focused on individualization of instruction and learning; the second examines personalization and identity. These are both important areas for us to consider as we move forward as a school.

Okay, last round of questions: What percentage of anthropology and sociology professors do you think are registered Republicans? Economics professors? English? Political Science?

Economics professors are the most conservative, but they only represent 25% of the total; political science, 15%; anthropology/sociology, 4%; English, 2%. I suspect that the guesses of our faculty and staff were closer here than in the other categories. They were for me. The perception of this imbalance of political leanings in the American professoriat is real.

In this article, “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance,” Nicholas Kristof writes:

“The scarcity of conservatives seems driven in part by discrimination. One peer-reviewed study found that one-third of social psychologists admitted that if choosing between two equally qualified job candidates, they would be inclined to discriminate against the more conservative candidate.”

And: “Universities are unlike other institutions in that they absolutely require that people challenge each other so that the truth can emerge from limited, biased, flawed individuals. If they lose intellectual diversity, or if they develop norms of ‘safety’ that trump challenge, they die.” 

It’s a reminder to all of us who work in education of the importance of objectivity and the removal of philosophical or personal bias from our work with children.

In “My Unhappy Life as a Climate Heretic,” the author, Roger Pielke Jr., agrees that climate change is real, but he does not agree that it is to blame for recent extreme weather, and because he takes that one exception to the majority view, he has had a very hard time being published, being interviewed, or otherwise having his voice heard. Yet this is someone who has dedicated his professional life to the study of global warming. His is a political reality that is difficult to escape.

Pielke writes, “I believe climate change is real and that human emissions of greenhouse gases risk justifying action, but there is scant evidence to indicate that hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or drought have become more frequent or intense in the U.S. or globally. In fact, we are in an era of good fortune when it comes to extreme weather. This is a topic I’ve studied as much as anyone over two decades. My conclusion might be wrong, but I think I’ve earned the right to share this research without risk to my career. Instead, my research was under constant attack for years by activists, journalists and politicians.” 

Robert P. George, a conservative professor at Princeton, and a strong voice at that university for the importance of dialogue, addresses the value of being exposed to ideas with which you don't agree in his article “Why I Wanted to Debate Peter Singer.” Singer is a liberal philosophy professor at Princeton, and George says how much he enjoys those kinds of exchanges. He admonishes students that colleges do not need to be places where we hide from dialogue. We need to open ourselves to diverse points of view.

We need to open ourselves to diverse points of view.

George writes: “If you are a student at a college or university, you are there to learn—from the faculty, from the speakers who visit campus, and from each other. It is a precious opportunity. Making the most of these years requires cultivating and practicing certain virtues, including dispassion, intellectual humility, openness of mind and, above all, love of truth. Your willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge your beliefs, who represent causes you disagree with and points of view you do not share, will allow you to strengthen these virtues.”  

Last thing: Write this sentence: “I am writing this sentence with my non-dominant hand.”

What’s taking you so long? Speed equals smarts, right? Sign your name in cursive with your non-dominant hand. Draw a square with it. Draw a tree.

This is a quick exercise for understanding a difference that we all can have. Think about how it felt, and how you might equate it to other areas of life in which you might feel difference very profoundly.

In closing, I would urge you, as I urged our faculty, to hold these ideas in your thoughts: that we should value individual identity over group identity, questions over answers, and facts over feelings.

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Topics: diversity, Featured, professional development, professional growth, average student, cognitive growth, individualization


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