Ten ideas that changed my teaching: #1 There is no average student

I don’t think anyone would argue that all people are the same. Sure we’re made of the same DNA, we all smell, get hungry, angry, laugh and spend most of our lives trying to discover who we are and why we exist.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains how our brains are widely different, resulting from an interaction of genetics and environment creating different brain trajectories, leaving us with brains as similar and different as our fingerprints.

Schools were developed to create similar workers and citizens. Individuality or “standing out,” was, and often still is, viewed as being rebellious. As parents, we may also have been guilty of saying or thinking, “Why can’t you just be more like ______?” Conformity to a norm or ideal has been a key way teachers manage a classroom of students.

Creating average reading levels or math scores is statistically possible but as a measurement it tells us little about the individual and their unique potential.

In The End of Average: how to succeed in a world that values sameness, Todd Rose explains the history of the idea of averagarianism, an assumption you can understand individuals by ignoring their individuality (!) and comparing them to an average that represents the ideal of the individual. Individuals are judged according to their “error,” they are either above or below average.

Who is the average student? The average learner? No one. Using “average” to describe a person, does not describe the person, it describes an idea of a person. The average person does not and cannot exist, in the same way that couples cannot have 1.2 children, even if the statistical average says they do.

…individuals behave, learn, and develop in distinctive ways,
showing patterns of variability that are not captured by models based on statistical averages. (“The Science of the Individual,” 2013)

The jaggedness principle

Individuals are complex and have “jagged” profiles. Adjustable car seats and steering wheels are examples of the recognition our bodies vary in arm, leg and torso length. Fixed school desks on the other hand, are built on the “average” height of students.

The whole notion of ranking assumes that individuals are one dimensional. Marks and comparing by marks is one-dimensional thinking. Humans are multi-dimensional with weak correlation between dimensions. One-dimensional thinking prevents us from seeing unique talents of individuals.

While Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences — the idea that people are more inclined towards particular ways of knowing and making sense of their world — is well known in schools, it is much less used in practice.

“Students learn in ways that are identifiably distinctive. The broad spectrum of students — and perhaps the society as a whole — would be better served if disciplines could be presented in a numbers of ways and learning could be assessed through a variety of means.” MI


Context matters. We are different people in different circumstances, reacting and responding according to the context of the situation. A student who causes trouble for a teacher in one classroom is well-behaved in another. A teenager enjoying a movie at home panics when a parent unexpectedly enters the room. What was once an enjoyable movie and experience has become an anxious experience and a you-shouldn’t-be-watching movie.

Rose says we should rather look for behavioural consistency within a given context. Contexts are system-based and the properties of a system result from the interactions of various parts, not the sum of the parts taken separately. So whether it’s an individual’s personal system (physical, emotional, mental) or an individual interacting within a classroom with classmates, curriculum and physical space, we need to look for the interactions for understanding, not the separate parts. An approach to a solution may work in one context and completely fail in another.

Systems expert Russell Ackoff says that identifying something or someone as a “problem” doesn’t tell you a damn thing about the issue. What it does do is tell you about the point of view of the person looking at the problem.


There is not a single “normal” pathway for any type of human development. Many pathways will result in the same outcome. Watch the video to see how the students arrived at their answers for the same question.

Relying on familiar “guideposts” may hinder more than help.

“Be the same as everyone else, only better.”

Break from the idea of average

The acceptance of the end of the idea of average would be — and should be — a huge disruption for how we approach school learning.

Yes, we can average numbers, but the complexity of human understanding and achievement can not be. How much are we hindering rather than helping learning by holding students to the false idea of average?

An entire notion of identity gets built around the error of average. Some think they are smart because they received an above average mark on a test. Others, that they’re not-so-smart, dumb even, because their mark is below the statistical average.

Schools and universities are still mostly focused on the simple metric of a grade, a number that tells us nothing about what someone is actually capable of or what they have done. Humans are complex so we need to find ways to work with this complexity rather than try to extinguish it for the sake of efficiency.

Some high schools have at least acknowledged the damage caused by ranking, and have removed class ranking. Some large companies have acknowledged that grades aren’t the indicators of successful employees they once thought and no longer ask for them from applicants. Google also found that grades and degrees were not indicators of future performance.

My son, a third year mechanical engineering student, was recently at a presentation by a company that hires over 20 engineers a year. The presenter made it very clear that he had zero interest in a university abstract and grades. He told the story of two top-grade engineering students who were not hired because they could not show evidence of their abilities in mechanical engineering. They built a hydraulic log splitter over the next year and then were hired.

As the long tail not only of products and markets grows, niche jobs are also on the rise. Rather than one-size-fits-all degrees, alternative credentialing should be used to meet the job market demands.

Accepting each person as unique and individual means that each student should have an individualized learning plan, something some US states already require.

Having spent five years creating individual learning plans for students, I learned first hand how unique and gifted each student is. They are truly jagged in skill, ability and personality profiles, learn and perform differently depending on context, and take different pathways to make and create meaning as they learn.

I think of myself more as a learner now than a teacher. I spend most of my time learning about students through their interactions, what interests them and how they learn best. I take every opportunity to stretch within the system to fit to the individual rather than trying to get the individual to conform.

It’s a rewarding pathway, unlike any other.

Next post: #2 The Reader Creates the Text

professional learner, university instructor

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