In 1952, the United States Air Force came to a realization. Even though good pilots were flying even better fighter jets, they could not figure out why split second decisions were lagging. Pilots were blamed, the technology was blamed, and flight instructors were blamed. The source of the problem though, was the cockpit. They found that that every cockpit was built for the “average” pilot, yet when each pilot was measured, there was no such thing as an average sized pilot.
Director of Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program, Todd Rose, likens the state of our education system to that of United States Air Force fighter pilots. In his 2013 speech for TEDx “The Myth of the Average”, he noted, “If every pilot has a jagged size profile and you design a cockpit on average, you’ve literally designed it for nobody.”
This is what we do with our education system. We design it for the average student. So it begs the question, how much of this problem is just bad design? Furthermore, what does it even mean to design something for the average student? Students vary on many different dimensions of learning. We call it age appropriate and think it’s good enough.
Discovery Senior Fellow Don Nielsen similarly describes our educational situation as unsound. He argues that the average set of students is statistically and educationally unsound. Statistically, it is unsound because classes vary in size, and any one class is too small to provide a normal distribution set of data. It is educationally unsound because it is “exclusively based upon a supposed normal distribution of intelligence. However, in human behavior, intelligence is only one factor in a person’s ability to learn and perform.”
The truth of the matter is every student has a jagged learning profile—they have strengths, they are average at some things, and they have weaknesses. We all do. Even pilots.
By designing learning environments for the aggregate, you design them for nobody.
Our learning environments cannot do what we want them to do, which is creating responsible citizens for the 21st century and beyond. As Nielsen aptly points out, “A group-based learning system will never effectively educate all our children.”
A way to visualize the current situation is best described as a swim meet versus a swim lesson:
Building a system around the average hurts all types of learners. Changing our system to focus on individual progress will begin to ensure that every child learns.
As Rose summarizes, “the Air Force has given us the formula for success. What if we ban the average in education? Much like the cockpit, you ban the average, which destroys talent, and design to the edges.”