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The age of averages is ending.
This shift is so fundamental that if you only read one book this year, it should be Todd Rose’s The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness. Rose explains how we invented the mental model of the “average person” and how we are steadily overcoming the inadequacies and errors of that model. The rise of individualism, or more accurately, the return to individualism, is entirely changing our approach to education, medicine, employment, and more.
Calculating averages or standardizing practices is not necessarily bad. No one should ignore the life expectancy gap between economic classes, or argue for basing college admissions on political clout rather than desire to learn.
Yet averages are not representative of individuals and they are not expressions of ideals.
Take two examples from Rose:
1) No one is average. When the US Air Force built cockpits for the average pilot, planes often crashed due to human error. Then they noticed that for the ten physical dimensions measured, not one pilot matched the calculated average for all ten aspects. When the Air Force implemented adjustable seats and pedals, crash rates plummeted. (This also opened the door to talented pilots of many shapes and sizes.)
2) Individuals are consistent in context. The old rule was aggregate then analyze. Today’s rule is analyze then aggregate. We build behavioral predictions by observing individuals’ patterns over time and identifying common threads across people. For example, psychologists are moving past essentialist notions of fixed personality traits by recognizing that a person’s behavior is the result of if-then conditions. If she is around her boss, then she is timid. An individual can consistently be introverted in the workplace and extroverted at social events.
One aspect of the individualist model with enormous implications for education is Rose’s Jaggedness Principle. Jagged qualities consist of multiple dimensions that are weakly related to one another. Things like talent, intelligence, creativity, character, and physical size are too complex to collapse into a single measurement. Moreover, their dimensions are not strongly correlated. We incorrectly assume that if you are good at one thing, you are good at most things, and this is simply not the case. For example, two women can have the same IQ score, but differ vastly in their performance for reasoning, memory, vocabulary, and arithmetic.
Higher education leaders increasingly recognize that there are many pathways to the same outcome. We no longer claim that learning speed indicates learning ability*. Student success is a factor of fit: creating flexible learning environments that accommodate individual needs and styles. ASU in particular is working toward more and better tools to make education adaptable. (Todd Rose noted ASU’s partnership with online learning gateway edX. Most recently, Adrian Sannier’s team released the first self-paced, online algebra course for college credit.)
With technology, educators can now build better, faster, and bigger learning platforms. The real change in higher education will arrive, however, when we also change our mental model of humans. Education at scale cannot account for individuality if we do not alter our design mindset. Something designed for the average person is designed for nobody. Fortunately, the age of averages is ending.
*For example, see the petition to change the federal definition of student achievement.