I’ve just finished reading Todd Rose’s book The End of Average – a captivating read that challenges almost all of the underlying assumptions that form the basis of our current education system. Here’s a favourite quote:
“From the cradle to the grave. You are measured agains the ever-present yardstick of the average, judged according to how closely you approximate it or how far you are able to exceed it” Todd Rose – The End of Average
It was perfect timing to be reading this book – just as the ‘examination season’ is in full cry here in New Zealand (my youngest daughter has just completed being subjected to this for another year). The argument Rose makes in the book is that we need to “refocus on the individual within a crowd of averages”. It provides some deep insights supporting the concepts of personalisation, and learner agency – supporting the assertions of others like Seth Godin, Yong Zhao and Simon Sinek who have argued too for empowering choice and voice for learners. The book starts with an historical overview of where the concept of average came from, and how it has impacted on the thinking of human kind across all areas of endeavour over the past 200 years. Through this section of the book, Rose explains how this thinking, although well intentioned, is actually completely flawed and doesn’t serve the purpose it was intended at all. When thinking about schools we don’t have to look to far to see where the concept of ‘average’ has been used. Think of things like teacher student ratio, size of classrooms, student desks and chairs, periods in the school day etc. – not to mention the concept of standardised tests, intelligence tests, learning styles, personality types etc. Our traditional acceptance and continuance of all of these things come into question in light of what Rose reveals here. The second section introduces three principals as an alternative to the use of average:
- Jaggedness: – this involves looking at the various attributes and achievements that make up the whole person and understanding that the concept of ‘average’ actually masks a great deal of individual difference across a range of characteristics.
- Context: – acknowledging that individuals are likely to act and perform differently in different contexts, and therefore a label of ‘average’ isn’t likely to represent them in these different contexts.
- Pathways: – challenging the prevailing wisdom of things such as the standardisation of time and expectations, arguing arguing instead that there are many ways to reaching the desired outcome, and that the best path is a path just for us.
Finally, Rose offers some examples of how this can work in practice. If you read The End of Average expecting to find a set of of answers written to guide teachers and leaders through a new way of being you’ll be disappointed. Rather, the book introduces a challenge, and sets the scene for disruption in the way we might think and act into the future. The point is that the answers aren’t actually there – yet. They will emerge as we engage with the challenging thinking that Rose introduces here, and then work collectively to imagine and develop new ways of working that will help us truly achieve the aspiration of helping every individual to live and learn purposefully.