The Science of the Individual (why average doesn’t make sense in school)

By AJ Juliani, 7 comments

You are not average.

Neither am I.

Actually, no one is average.

The assumption that metrics comparing us to an average—like developmental milestones, GPAs, personality assessments, standardized test results, and performance review rankings—reveal something meaningful about our potential is so ingrained in our consciousness that we don’t even question it. That assumption, says Harvard’s Todd Rose, is spectacularly—and scientifically—wrong.

The end of average – as Todd Rose puts it in his book – is a huge shift in how we think about medical studies, designing fighter jet cockpits, and our current educational system.

If averages have defined our education system for the previous 100+ years, what might define our education system in the next 50-100 years is the science of the individual. 

Here’s how Rose puts it in a recent article:

“Right now because we believe in the myth of average, we believe that opportunity means providing equal access to standardized educational experiences, ” he says. “However, since we know that nobody is actually average, it is obvious that equal access to standardized experiences is not nearly enough to provide equal opportunity. To me, if you accept the reality of individuality, then it means that we have to rethink how we define equal opportunity in education and beyond.”

Equal opportunity, then, requires equal fit between individuals and their educational environments.

“Anything less is inherently and profoundly unequal, ” Rose says. “I believe that we should set a much higher bar for ourselves in the 21st century. If we are going to be a country that cares about equal opportunity, then we must strive to ensure that equal fit is the birthright of every single child in this country. But right now in education we do not take this idea seriously, in part because until recently we didn’t have the science or technology to do it. But we do now. So if you accept the idea of equal fit, then it means something radical for the future of education — it means we cannot accept a system based on averages; it means we cannot accept standardized curricular materials, or simplistic one-dimensional assessments, or fixed amounts of time for learning or one pathway to academic success.”

But while we know people learn and develop in distinctive ways, these unique patterns of behaviors are lost in our schools and businesses which have been designed around the mythical “average person.” This average-size-fits-all model ignores our differences and fails at recognizing talent. It’s time to change it.

Rose offers an alternative—the three principles of individuality—and reveals how to take full advantage of them to gain an edge in school, in our careers, and in life. Watch this talk below (the first 15 minutes are a must watch) to get a deeper picture of this problem.

The Science of the Individual

Ever since the development of digital brain imaging methods, the standard methodology for brain research has been to average together the brain maps of all individual subjects in a particular study and report the average brain map, then use this average map to make claims that are applied to individuals. However, this violates the assumptions of ergodic theory, rendering such conclusions questionable at best.

In recent years, researchers—lead by neuroscientists like Mike Miller at the University of California, Santa Barbara—have found instances where average-based results literally correspond to no one.

This realization has motivated scientists to look beyond averages to understand individual brain patterns. The Brain Individuality Project takes brain imaging data from previous studies that employed average-based methods and re-analyze the data using individual-focused methods from the science of the individual.

The Science of the Individual takes what scientists have figured out about these brain imaging methods and applies it to all different fields and areas of life where “average” has ruled for years and years.

Rose goes into more depth on how this applies to our education system:

This is not a new debate. In fact, this century-old clash of foundational assumptions might be regarded as the cardinal battle for the soul of modern education. On the side of education for individuality, we find some of the most admired and progressive names in American education, including John Dewey, Charles Eliot, and Benjamin Bloom. These “Individualists” were animated by their defining assumption that every student is different and that education should be designed to accommodate those differences. Dewey railed against the relentless forces of standardization in the 1920s, proclaiming, “It is safe to say that the most limited member of the populace has potentialities which do not now reveal themselves and which will not reveal themselves till we convert education by and for mediocrity into an education by and for individuality.” The Individualists distilled their core assumption into a compelling moral argument: We have an obligation to help all students become the best they can be, according to each one’s unique constitution of abilities and interests.

Yet, by the 1940s the Individualists had lost, and lost unequivocally. They were steamrolled by the “Standardizers,” who possessed two decisive advantages that the Individualists lacked: a coherent science supporting their assumptions about students, and practical, effective methods for designing an education around those assumptions.

The means — and mind-set — for implementing a standardized education was provided by Frederick Taylor, the Quaker industrialist whose principles of “scientific management” transmogrified American industry and education in the early 20th century. Taylorism mandated the standardization of all organizational processes around the average employee (or average student) in order to produce a standardized product. Crucially, this design philosophy held that every individual must conform to the needs of the system, a doctrine that rejected the central tenet of the Individualists. “In the past the man has been first,” pronounced Taylor in 1919, “In the future the system must be first.”

People First, System Second

What this really brings up is the philosophical questions surrounding education. We tend to get lost in the “what” in terms of education reform, new technology, changing standards, and the list could go on.

This is about the WHY.

We know what has worked in learning for years, and what will continue to work in years to come: Social, human-centered, meaning-centered, and language-based experiences.

The science of the individual is about seeing each student as a person, not part of a collective system.

I know we can all agree that is why we teach, that is why we are in this business, and that is why we have railed against standardized tests and methods for years and years.

If we all agree (and if it is not all educators, it sure is a lot of us) that there are better ways to assess and teach students that with standardized methods, then I believe it is time to seriously look at this science and what it can mean for the future of learning.

Would love to hear your thoughts below!

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