The Age of the Individual is Upon Us

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.


12 thoughts on “The Age of the Individual is Upon Us”

  • How about a film about civics education in Chicago, which is making great strides. The focus is on students as active citizens in their schools and communities. Contact me & I’ll put you in touch with the Chicago Public Schools Office of Civic Engagement. I don’t work for them – I just admire them.

  • Sam, spot on brother! I am looking forward to the series, great idea. I also am sharing this with “Coach” Fred Spence, who is principal at Team Success, a charter school in Bradenton. Keep it up man, change can happen, have to get people to listen.


  • You’re right, of course, in this post, Sam. Except for the implied critique of most classrooms in America’s public schools. While I agree that the standardized test driven reform movement worships averages and statistical improvements in outcomes on those tests each year. Teachers generally chaff under those strictures. Teachers I know cherish the kids who come up with unique answers or approach tasks differently. Teachers think of their classes in terms of the individuals in them. But they are frequently admonished for individualizing expectations or teaching strategies. Much of the reforms of the past decade or more have been to restrict teacher autonomy, teacher-proof curriculum, and tie principals and teachers rigidly to raising average outcomes through tricks. So I think the critique you and Rose offer is right, but not the assumptions about teachers in our public schools. Most teachers agree with you and left to their own devices with the right training and permission, will operate with close attention to the individuals in their charge.

  • When I was a teacher I don’t think I was equipped in any real way to differentiate instruction the way, say, a Montessori teacher is equipped to do so. In fact I was encouraged to sift and sort, as I say in the piece. So, to echo your point, the issue here is not about blaming (or lionizing) teachers, but about redesigning a system around the needs of the student, and putting educators in a position to actually deliver on that promise. And, like you, I see evidence of that everywhere — but the reality is most people have no idea that these sorts of things are happening in public schools. That’s what 180 is hoping to disrupt . . . with your help.

  • Yes to Coach Spence! And meanwhile please share far and wide through your own networks, Facebook or otherwise. We all have a role to play in changing the story.

  • Get the school ready for the student, not just the other way around. Absolutely! Case in point, my daughter with autism. School says we have to get her to school earlier. Yet starting at 5 am every morning we need to feed her supplements and certain foods in a certain order so that she can through the day without losing it or getting sick. So rather than having her school day end at 3 pm (agricultural era model), we propose a school day for her that goes from 10:30 – 5 pm. Neurotypical kids get after school programs, why can’t mine? Reply, the school day ends at 3 pm. Period.

  • Brian Cambourne says:

    I admire your attempt to align progressive activism with the changes that social media has wrought on the way we debate important issues. Your plan to get new narratives, metaphors and analogies ” out there” using short video clips like this has obviously been carefully researched planned. I’d love to do something similar for my country where progressive educators are being trolled and demeaned by well organised neocon think tank teams. How are you funding this project? Can you give me a rough ball park figure of the costs?
    Brian Cambourne

  • I am a huge fan of un-average! Why is it that every thing in the world can be unique or receive praise for being different except students and education? I will be following this series and spreading the word!

  • In The Opt out Florida Network, we support and inform parents about high stakes standardized testing, and we advocate for meaningful assessments, which inform teachers’ instruction and which do not harm students, teachers or schools. Your article has made me consider deeply what it is, specifically, we mean when we say (and demand of our legislators) “meaningful” assessments. Thank you for your wonderful and inspired article. I’d like to learn more about your work.

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