I recently watched Todd Rose’s TEDx Sonoma County talk, “The Myth of Average.” Rose, a former high school dropout, is a professor at Harvard University. Rose dropped out of high school because he was failing, but the truth is our educational system was failing Rose.
As Rose points out, our educational system is designed to meet the needs of the average student. But, how many of our students are actually average is the key question. Rose makes a stunning case that the number of average students is pretty close to zero.
US Air Force researcher Gilbert Daniels conducted a study over sixty years ago to find out how many fighter pilots were “average” since the cockpits were designed for the average pilot. He studied over 4,000 pilots on ten physical dimensions like height, reach, waist, and chest. What he found was that exactly zero of the pilots studied were average on all ten dimensions. Instead, pilots had what were called “jagged side profiles.”
Armed with this information, the US Air Force went back to the plane manufacturers and demanded that they build cockpits that were customizable to fit real pilots and not a theoretical average pilot. The idea was to “design to the edges” of the jagged side profile of their pilots. As Rose tells the story, manufacturers balked at this idea because it was too expensive or would take too long, but the US Air Force stood firm. The end result was that manufacturers were able to meet the demands of the US Air Force, and today we have the most diverse set of fighter pilots because their equipment is designed to the edges instead of the average.
Rose skillfully weaves this analogy back to our educational system. Our classrooms are designed to the average student. But if zero of over 4,000 pilots were average on ten simple physical dimensions, how many of our students are really going to be average based on a high number of complex learning dimensions?
If we accept that no two snowflakes are alike, then how can we accept an educational model that treats even two students the same? If we want to improve our educational system for students with jagged side profiles, then we need to design to the edges by implementing models like blended, personalized, and competency-based learning.
Not every student like Rose who drops out of high school finds his way back to become a professor. By including personalized-learning pathways in our schools we can stop our schools from failing students like Rose. Isn’t it time we banned the average in our educational system and designed to the edges?