* There is no average student

No average student?  Isn’t that contrary to the way our school systems, textbooks, and tests are designed?  In fact, ALL our kids have learning differences, whether labeled or not.  In my online class, I watched an excellent TED video featuring Todd Rose, a high school dropout with dyslexia (and 0.9 GPA) who now teaches Educational Neuroscience at Harvard.   

In an analogy to the current crisis in education, Todd describes the dilemma faced by the Air Force when designing cockpits for fighter jets.  They wanted a cockpit that would best fit the greatest number of pilots.  To their consternation, airplane designers found that there was NO average size among pilots.  Despite protestations that this was an impossible and expensive task, when the Air Force wouldn’t budge from their demands, the designers came up with adjustable seats and controls.  And today, the Air Force pilot pool is more diverse than ever.

Todd Rose makes his case that classrooms are the “cockpit of our economy.”  But we have plummeting math and science scores along with rising dropout rates (including about 50,000 gifted students in the 1.2 million+ high school drop outs every year).   Todd argues that our problem is “bad design.”  We design learning environments for the average student.  But he points out that all students have a “jagged edge” learning profile, so teaching to the average hurts everyone.  Teaching to the average makes talent a liability (“I hate boring school!”) and weaknesses make it hard for us to nurture students’ talents (“I can’t read the science textbook!”).  Todd says we have an opportunity to use technology in creating more flexible learning environments, such as “cockpits” where iPads can read for students, pronounce unfamiliar words, and allow all kids access to engaging activities.  For twice exceptional students, those gifted kids with a learning or social disability, technology provides the opportunity to “teach to the edges” and take advantage of our brilliant workforce in the making.

Now, how do we take the “average” out of testing?  Or put another way, how do we assess “to the edges?”

9 thoughts on “* There is no average student

  1. We had a technology which didn’t try to stuff every student into an average-sized box, and we threw it away. It was the one-room schoolhouse. In the pursuit of efficiency, we grouped children by age instead of by neighborhood, and we built massive megaschools. Now, home educators are re-inventing the one-room neighborhood school, usually with the children of one or a few families, who are of all different ages.

    Even within a single family, of children whose genes are more similar than most, there are still individual variations in learning. I have even tutored twins who had variations in learning.

    Instead of trying to make the variations go away – “Everyone, please turn to page 37” – we should start with the assumption that every child is different, but they do not need or even desire to focus on a teacher for almost all of 6 continuous hours. They should be doing much more independent, self-paced learning, and should be free to go as fast and high as they wish, or to move at a more sedate pace.

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    • I agree with you but I can tell that it’s hard for me to give up on public schools, which is what Todd is trying to fix. I know many bright and successful kids who were home schooled. But their parents are well-educated and have the financial resources and will to teach. I ask myself, “Who will teach our black and Hispanic kids?” and I’ve always looked to the public schools. But I can’t defend a system where they are so poorly served, chewed up and tossed out. I know you’ve described parents in developing countries who’ve educated their kids. But can the same people who’ve been demoralized and marginalized lift their own kids out of the mess we’re in? I see some of those families turning to charter schools, where locally, black kids are doing no better. (I’m not referring to special education charters.). There are some charter schools where black kids are excelling. And then there’s the charter school mess that Exceptional Delaware describes in his blog, so what do I say? I’m not sure.

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      • The poor parents in developing countries are demoralized too. In India, they actually had to endure a caste system. In Africa, they were sneered at for being poor. And, frankly, the existing system in America is more of a tar pit than an escalator. A prominent researcher, Larry Cuban if my memory is correct, says that school outcomes reflect the social capital of the children much more than the other inputs – the ones which teachers and administrators control. You know the saying about teaching a man to fish? Building social capital is a skill which can be taught, and with very few exceptions, schools as we know them are reducing the supply, not adding to it.

        Have you had time to read The Beautiful Tree? It’s quite an interesting book. In part, it speaks to the relations between the deprived and their government teachers.

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      • Your comments are right on the mark, PL. The Beautiful Tree is on my reading list for today. I really appreciate your insights and the time you’ve taken to respond. If it weren’t so true, I’d laugh at your clever tar pit analogy. You are right. Public schools are not an escalator. And honestly, teachers don’t control much. In my own experience and reading through hundreds of comments in my online course, teachers are appalled at the ways they are forced to teach to the test. None of them signed up to be test administrators, not teachers.

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