What is Average?

I just started reading End of Average by Todd Rose. It's Blowing. My. Mind. I can't wait for this weekend to make a better dent.

The first thing that blew my mind is his explanation of a study by Lieutenant Gilbert Daniels. Rose does a way better job explaining this but the gist is Daniels (and others) evaluated various body measurements like leg length, shoulder width, foot size, thumb length, and many many more of 4000+ pilots in the 1950s. He calculated the average of each measurement and then wondered how many of those 4000+ men would be considered "average" in 10 of those measurements. He called average anything in the middle 30% of the measurements. The result was zero. None of the pilots fit the average in all 10 of the areas! When he randomly picked just 3 areas, only 3.5% of the pilots were average in the 3 areas. That's astounding! And that's just physical.

He then talks about how things are similar with brain scans and I read in a recent article that brain scans are kind of like fingerprints (link good as of 4/21/2016). So of course my brain is spinning: If there is no real average, why do we look at averages so much in the classroom? What should the average student know? Why is there a stigma to being an average student? What does average even mean? Is it "just OK", or does it mean you're normal, or does it mean something else?

I have no doubt that Rose, the director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education will address many of these questions but in the meantime it's got me reflecting on my last year at Harrisburg High School in Oregon when I tried to move towards standards-based grading. My thinking was that "passing" a class shouldn't mean guessing or somehow stringing together enough points to get to 70% but that passing meant you knew all of what I (and the standards) deemed was essential knowledge. Students pursuing As and Bs would need to demonstrate more sophisticated ways of working with that knowledge. It was definitely a work in progress but my gut says that standards-based grading may be a way to get rid of the stigma of "just average" and is a way to acknowledge to students that people have different interests and strengths. I mean, I could be totally wrong with where Rose is going (and I'll totally tell you if I am) but it's clear there isn't an average student so what should passing mean?

The second thing that caught me is a quote from Frederick Winslow Taylor. He didn't think much of average people. I'm not going to give you a history on him (Hello, Wikipedia!)but just this quote: It is thoroughly illegitimate for the average man to start out to make a radically new machine, or method, or process to replace one which is already successful."

I think most of us nowadays would disagree with this statement - everyone can have brilliant ideas and our society is most definitely not static. What is successful today may not be sustainable. Little changes add up until what seemed ridiculous or fanciful may now be realistic or desirable. But what about our classrooms? Most of us are "average" teachers - what new methods or processes can we try to improve up on our successful lessons? For our average student - what can they do to change the nature of their success? Is it just content knowledge? Is it critical thinking skills like those in the CCSS and similar state standards? Is it learning how to learn?

As a member of the CRISS National Office, obviously I have an opinion on that last question: People need to learn how to learn because out of the thousands of ways we'll be measured (or think we'll be measured) in our lives we're very rarely going to be "average". We need tools to make up for lack of interest or skill/knowledge gaps and we need tools to make the most of our exceptional interest. What we might think is a successful process for our learning (or that of our students) may not be the best way. We can radically change our methods. We should be willing to. We should enable our students to do the same.

Sorry for the rambling entry today and thanks for sticking with me as I started my processing over this great reading. Email or Tweet comments to adeese@projectcriss.com or tweet @ProjectCRISS (or @addeese).