Teaching, Learning and ‘The End of Average’

Edge pedagogy.

January 31, 2016

The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Todd Rose.

Published in January of 2016.

Todd Rose’s corresponding TEDx Talk to his book is called The Myth of Average. This seems like a much better title than the The End of Average - but maybe his publisher thinks that books with “The End” in the title sell better than books with “Myth”?

Rose is a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and co-founder and president of the Center for Individual Opportunity

He is also a high school drop out. 

The narrative of Rose's journey from a failed (and very poor) student to a Harvard professor invests the research he describes with a raw emotional energy. Rose is not speaking abstractly when he tells us that standard schooling - educating to the average - fails many of today's learners.

Reading The End of Average brings up two questions for postsecondary educators.

First, are we guilty of designing our educational systems for an average student that we imagine exists, but that does not actually match our real students?

Second, can we reasonably expect to re-design our pedagogical strategies for the edges?

Rose spends much of the book giving examples of where averages obscure rather than enlighten. Measures of central tendency on aspects of populations tend to hide the reality that exceedingly few individuals have profiles that match the average profile. Examples include everything from body type to brain structure.

Basing a pedagogical strategy on the average learner is guaranteed to ensure that large numbers of learners will not succeed. For instance, most summative assessments are taken within a fixed time allotment - a practice based on a dubious theory that processing speed is a predictor of future performance. Rose shows that this assumption is a myth, and that small changes like eliminating time constraints on assessments can dramatically shift the performance outcomes of large numbers of students.

I’m betting that The End of Average will be well-received by the adaptive learning platform community. Rose is excited about the potential of digital learning platforms to offer individualized routes through the curriculum.  He is a fan of Khan Academy, and he thinks that personalize / adaptive learning platforms (when combined with competency based learning) have the potential to fundamentally alter the postsecondary landscape.

I share both Rose’s belief that we should design our pedagogy for the edges, and that technology has the potential to enable non-incremental gains in learning outcomes.  Where I would have liked to see Rose extend his argument is around the barriers (institutional, cultural, structural) in achieving postsecondary organizational change in support of an active learning agenda.  I’m always suspicious of technological solutions for cultural/structural/organizational problems.

The development of active learning platforms will be a piece of improving campus learning. But their impact will be determined mostly by effectiveness of our higher leaders to drive change (and support our educators), and less by the sophistication of the technology.

My hope is that The End of Average makes it on to the shelves, and maybe even the discussions, our Teaching and Learning Centers throughout the land. 

This is a book of immediate and important relevance to all of us wishing to improve learning at our schools.

What are you reading?



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