One year, early in my teaching career, I got reprimanded for giving too many “A’s.”
“You can’t give everyone the same grade,” I was instructed. “Give a few A’s and F’s, and a lot of B’s and C’s. Otherwise, everyone will know that your class is either too easy or too hard.”
This was unremarkable advice; indeed, it was as close to the educational Gospel as you could find. It was human nature in action.
And, apparently, it was completely wrong.
“We have all come to believe that the average is a reliable index of normality,” writes Todd Rose, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and the author of The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness. “We have also come to believe that an individual’s rank on narrow metrics of achievement can be used to judge their talent. These two ideas serve as the organizing principles behind our current system of education.”
And yet, Rose suggests, “when it comes to understanding individuals, the average is most likely to give incorrect and misleading results.”
In fact, the origins of what Rose calls “averagarian thinking” had nothing to do with people; they were adaptations of a core method in astronomy — the Method of Averages, in which you aggregate different measurements of the speed of an object to better determine its true value — that first got applied to the study of people in the early 19th century.
Since then, however, this misguided use of statistics — by definition, the mathematics of “static” values — has reduced the whims and caprices of human behavior to predictable patterns in ways that have proven almost impossible to resist.
Consider the ways it shaped the advice I got as a teacher, which was to let the Bell Curve, not the uniqueness of my students, be my guide. Or consider the ways it has shaped the entire system of American public education in the Industrial Era — an influence best summed up by one of its chief architects, Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose applications of scientific management to the classroom gave birth to everything from bells to age-based cohorts to the industrial efficiency of the typical school lunchroom. “In the past,” Taylor said, “the man was first. In the future, the system must be first.”
Uh, yeah. No.
Of course, anyone who is paying attention knows that the end of the Taylorian line of thinking is upon us — and Rose’s book is but one of the many factors that will expedite its demise. “We are on the brink of a new way of seeing the world,” he predicts, and “a change driven by one big idea: individuality matters.”
In systems thinking, there’s a word for this approach: equifinality — or the idea that in any multidimensional system that involves changes over time, there are always multiple pathways to get from point A to point B. And the good news is that this revolution in thinking is already underway – it’s not just evenly distributed.
The bad news is that most of us have no idea that a revolution is occurring. Instead, we are stuck in the familiar notion that most American schools are failing, that the problems are too big to tackle, and that our slow and steady decline into, well, averagarianism, is inexorable.
I am here to tell you this is not true.
We know more than we think we do.
We are further along than we think we are.
And so, in the coming months – approximately every ten days for the foreseeable future – expect a new story that is about solutions, possibility, and the people and communities whose work is lighting that new path.
The Age of the Individual is upon us.