Nobody’s average

Schools are designed for the “average” student, but nobody’s average, says Todd Rose in a TEDx talk.

Rose dropped out of high school with a 0.9 grade point average, married his pregnant girlfriend and worked stocking shelves for $4.25 an hour. He went on to earn a doctorate at Harvard; he’s now a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Rose runs Project Variability and is the author of Square Peg: My Story and What It Means for Raising Innovators, Visionaries and Out-of-the-Box Thinkers.

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    A few brief and woefully superficial thoughts:

    * “I would argue that these are the cockpits of our economy” — but he doesn’t argue, he asserts. And it’s not only false, it’s not even a good analogy. It’s also the central analogy of the talk.

    * Despite that, the fundamental premise of this talk seems true: any performance profile is going to have its ups and downs, and it makes sense for performance situations to be as adaptable to those profiles as possible.

    * But the analogy really does break down, and the respective solution in each instance (cockpits, classrooms) isn’t of even remotely similar facility: Human physical variability is, compared to learning variability, amazingly narrow.

    * Human physical variability also depends on far fewer factors — not only is the profile flatter, it’s shorter.

    * I think one might be forgiven if they listened to this talk and came away thinking, “First, intense multi-axial tracking. Second, flexible materials.”

    * Don’t you love it when people talk about some technology or another without telling you what it *IS*?

    • Mark Roulo says:


      It is a TED talk. Expect lots of enthusiasm. Don’t expect much rigor.

    • I think he IS talking about flexible materials, specifically reading materials to go with the science curriculum that are adapted to the students’ reading levels; this is how the kid who was good in science but a below-grade level reader gets to shine — he is not missing content because it is phrased in words he can easily read. Or so the guy implies, since as you point out he does not actually say how the materials are adapted.

      Now, this is a) not the first suggestion that reading material be matched to reading level of the student who will be reading it; and b) only goes so far. Probably could help in ES; not so much in MS and HS.

  2. Starts out well enough in observing that a failure to account for relevant variables is a prescription for disaster, i.e. pilots dying. But, having tiptoed up to the precipice Mr. Rose beats a hasty retreat into comforting generalities that he does his best to imbue with urgency and credibility while shying away from more contentious questions.

    Jet fighters had lousy user interfaces, to use current parlance, because not that terribly long before the advent of jet aircraft just getting into the air was a feat. Once it was clear that a failure to account for human variability would result in ineffective aircraft lots of money was spent to deal with the situation.

    No reasonable person would ask why it’s important to have effective military aircraft. The danger to the nation is obvious. So the question from which Mr. Rose averts his eyes is why there’s no similar urgency to deal with human variability in the public education system. He just asserts that it is important while artfully avoiding the question of why the importance hasn’t resulted in action.

    • the question from which Mr. Rose averts his eyes is why there’s no similar urgency to deal with human variability in the public education system.

      Because too many “important social changes” have been forced onto schools and communities using the denial of such variability.  Admitting that students are variable and may require different settings to make their best progress is an admission that 60 years of policy has been utterly wrong.

      • Sorry but the inflexible nature of public education far predates the rise of political correctness.

        A hierarchical organization is never born flexible nor does it ever attain flexibility. A hierarchical organization has flexibility thrust upon it by the imminent prospect of death and quite often not even then.

        • If the organizations really were inflexible, we would not have replaced tracking with “full inclusion” heterogeneous grouping, nor forced busing for “racial balancing”.  Those were huge changes, based on the belief that all the variability was the product of environment and thus remediable by changing the environment.  I understand that it was a lie from the get-go; even the research about children’s reactions to different-race dolls was riddled with bias to force its conclusion.

  3. One of my biggest beefs with the public schools (and lots of charters, as well) as the one-size-fits-all approach; curriculum choices, instructional methods, school size & structure, school specialty (HS, some MS) etc. Even within the same family, different kids have different needs. We’ve known many families whose kids have attended very different schools; public, private and a combination. Teaching to the “average” kid isn’t very pleasant or effective when your kid isn’t average. Lots of kids are unhappy and/or wasting time in school because the school doesn’t meet their needs.