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Designs for Everyone that Fit No One

Book Review: The End of Average

by Grant Frost

Designs for Everyone that Fit No One

Ever since the government announced a few weeks ago that it was going to be putting together a set of standards for the teaching profession, I have been distracted by the idea.

Teaching standards have been in place for as long as I have been a teacher. From the Education Act on down, there are plenty of lists of professional expectations of how I am supposed to carry out my duties; the creation of another seems rather pointless. The added irony in this particular case is that the government that decided I need professional standards finds itself embroiled in a conflict of interest issue, and did an end-around of my collective bargaining rights with Bill 148.

Perhaps this government should be looking in the mirror when considering professional standards...but I digress.

The cynic who reads this might indeed ponder my hesitation at embracing a list of professional standards for a job that is as important as teaching children. Standards, after all, exist in just about every other aspect of our lives. But the thing about teaching is that it is inherently a very creative profession. Teachers need to have enough latitude to adapt and change on the fly, depending upon the needs of the kids in front of them. My fear is that the more we turn the art of teaching into a checklist of standards, the more we run the risk of hindering that creativity. Teachers may well spend more time meeting the needs of the checklist than meeting the needs of their kids.

The other thing about standards is that they rely an awful lot on the notion of averages. Education is often subjected to the results of what are known as meta-analyses, where researchers take a great deal of data and figure out what is, on average, best practice. Those best practices often end up as part of a checklist, usually carrying a title like “Indicators of Quality Teaching“.

What happens, however, if the averages upon which these indicators are based, simply don’t work?

This question is raised in a fascinating new book by Todd Rose entitled The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness. The book basically looks at how the notion of “the average” is not all it’s cracked up to be.

As an opening example, Rose speaks about how in the late 1940s, the US Air Force had a serious issue with pilots crashing airplanes. This was a time of tremendous advances in aviation, but those advances were not enough to justify the number of accidents that were occurring. Accident investigators could determine no root mechanical cause, and pilot error, although a convenient possibility, seemed unlikely to be so prevalent. The military remained stumped until a young lieutenant named Gilbert S. Daniels proposed a rather simple solution.

The planes, he surmised, did not fit the pilots.

Aircraft designers were building cockpits for planes based on an average of ten body measurements taken across a large number of pilots. The thinking was, of course, that if you take an average, most pilots would fit closely to those measurements, so a cockpit designed for the “average” pilot should fit most people. Daniels decided to test that theory, and discovered something rather shocking. Of the 4063 pilots he measured, not a single one fit all ten indicators.

By building a cockpit to fit the average, designers had built a cockpit to fit no one.

Enter such innovations as the adjustable seat.

Rose’s book contains several other examples where the idea of applying averages from a group to determine the attributes of the individual simply does not hold water.  From brain scans to the ideal body type for women, averages have a history of representing absolutely no one.

This error of what Rose calls “averagarianism” has some pretty major implications for education.

Rose takes issue with modern day school. Himself a high school drop-out-turned-Harvard-faculty, Rose argues that because we have refused to change the way we have set up schools, we are making the same error that the air force made. By designing a system that is supposed to fit “the average” we have a system that is designed for no one. Text books are designed to fit the average student, curriculum is designed to be delivered at an average pace, students are expected to reach certain levels at an average age, all, according to Rose, false assumptions. If we are designing these things for the average student, we may be designing them for no one.

If Rose is right, this throws a pretty big wrench into a lot of what we believe about quality education.

Rose doesn’t go quite as far as kicking 100 years of educational research to the curb. But he does raise some pretty pointed questions around our fairly widely accepted notion that there is set of educational practices that should work for most students at a particular age. This is, of course, one of the fundamental ideas upon which school is based. But while I was reading Rose’s work, I couldn’t help but apply his theory to teachers as well.

Many educational practices are deemed successful because they supposedly increase student performance. Taking Rose’s argument into consideration, it may well be possible that educational practices that have been proven to increase student achievement on average may actually not work for individual students.

It follows that indicators of quality teaching that have been derived because of those averages may not describe any individual teacher.

The idea of average is being currently being challenged on a number of fronts, and Rose uses Google as a prime example. For years, Google had been hiring based on a checklist of what they were looking for, on average, in quality employees. Around about the mid 2000s, Google became concerned that they were missing out on some truly talented people. One of their human resources analysts took a look at over 300 indicators of what folks thought would equate success at Google, such as SAT scores and interest in computers. Surprisingly, even Google, a metrics behemoth, was unable to find even one common indicator that correlated to success in the company. In other words, when looking for potential candidates for jobs, there was no one attribute that Google could use to determine future success in the company.

The company has since changed its hiring practices. Google, according to Rose, has realized that talent is jagged. On any given checklist, people may have talents in certain areas and not in others. That may not mean that they are not suitable for a certain position, but rather that they may be suitable in different ways. These ideas, again, have tremendous implications for the idea of teacher standards. A teacher may be truly talented in an aspect of the craft that allows them to be successful, but if that talent is not on “the list” they may well be asked to change their practice.

Rose also points out that a great deal of human behaviour has more to do with context than anything else. Folks who are introverted in the office may well be the life of the party at the family reunion. Teachers know this to be true of their students, we all know a little Jenny who is a troll in Math but an angel in English. But do we recognize the importance of context when discussing good teachers? A teacher who struggles with a certain grade 6 Science class may light the place on fire with her Grade 8s using the exact same approach.

Rose spends considerable time in the book arguing, (quite successfully, I believe) how, in order to become more successful, our education system needs to adapt. He points out that for the first time in our history, education need not be bound by specific curriculum, timelines and textbooks, due, of course, to technology. Yet I can’t help but wonder if a new list of teaching standards, which may well rate teachers on how they stick to daily lesson plans and deliver age-appropriate outcomes, will allow teachers the flexibility they need in a 21st century classroom.

As someone who likes to examine his teaching practice, I am not afraid of standards. I believe that after twenty-odd years of teaching, a fellow like me should be confident enough in his practice to defend what works and be willing to discard what does not. However, Rose’s book raised some excellent questions around the assumptions that are sometimes made when terms like “best practice” and “accountability” are bandied about.

It may just be that in our desire to create a list of standards which describes attributes the average teacher should possess, we may end up with a list that describes no one.

And some truly talented teachers may be unfairly scrutinized because they are simply not average enough.

Grant Frost is an educational commentator and a teacher of over 20 years. More of his commentary can be found at frostededucation.com, or you can check out his new book It's a Blog's Life, available through Amazon.ca.


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