Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

The Myth of the Average Man

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hat do you think of when you hear the term "average man"? A person who fades into the crowd? Neither too tall, nor too short—neither too fat nor too thin—neither too good-looking nor too ugly? Is an average person a rough estimate of "normal" (whatever normal means)? Or do you equate average to mediocre? Where did the whole idea of the "average man" come from? And why has it become the underlying foundation of so many of our social institutions?

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In math class, we are taught the mathematical operation to calculate average. For example, if you want to know the average height of the boys in your class, you simply add together the heights of each boy and then divide by the number of boys. The answer you get is, indeed, the average height of the boys in your class. But what does that number mean? Can you then declare that each boy who is taller than the average is "above average" and each boy shorter than the average is "below average"?

There is an unconscious, but extremely damaging belief that, if someone uses mathematical data to reach a conclusion, that conclusion is somehow objectively "more true" than conclusions reached without measurement. Is there anything especially significant about that average height? There are some who would insist that the average height of the boys in a 5th grade class is the "normal" height of a 5th grader. So anyone who is taller or shorter is either ahead of the growth curve or behind it. In this way, the number takes on a significance it doesn't really have.

What is the value of such a calculation? It might be useful if you are trying to choose players for a basketball team. But wait…height is only a single factor. Would the same boys who are above average in height, also be above average in speed, shooting ability, and ball handling ability? And for that matter, would they all have an interest in playing basketball?

The concept of average as the mid-point in a range of data is a mental construct. It is not something that exists "out there" in the world. It is a useful tool if you need to calculate how many people an airplane can hold before exceeding the weight limit, or how big a turkey you need to feed 20 guests at Thanksgiving dinner. But in and of itself, the average measurement of anything is just a number. Unfortunately, it is a number that has taken on mythical properties in social institutions.

"From the cradle to the grave, you are measured against the ever-present yardstick of the average, judged according to how closely you approximate it or how far you are able to exceed it. In school, you are graded and ranked by comparing your performance to the average student. To get admitted to college, your grades and test scores are compared to the average applicant. To get hired by employer, your grades and test scores—as well as your skills, years of experience, and even your personality score—are compared to the average applicant. If you do get hired, your annual review will quite likely compare you, yet again, against the average employee in your job level. Even your financial opportunities are determined by a credit score that is evaluated by—you guessed it—it's deviation from the average."(1)

Where did this myth about the significance of average come from? And how did it gain such power over human institutions? Let's find out!

1840s

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hen scientists measure the same object, the measurements they report are often slightly different due to the precision of the instruments they use, error in reading the instruments, or other differences in procedure. For example, in the 1800s, when ten astronomers measured the same astronomical object, they often reported ten different measurements. To address this problem, astronomers estimated that half the measurements were probably higher than the correct measurement, and the other half were probably lower. They believed that the error could be eliminated by taking the average of the measurements. The average would then represent the "true" measurement.

When his career in astronomy disappeared due to political unrest, Belgian mathematician Adolphe Quetelet decided to apply the statistical methods used in astronomy (a study of inanimate objects) to gain a better understanding of human beings. Ignoring the fact that human beings were the antithesis of inanimate, Quetelet used the concept of average, or mean, to analyze a set of data on the chest measurement of nearly 6,000 Scottish soldiers. Quetelet added together all the measurements, divided by the total number of soldiers, and then reported this average measurement (just over 39.75 inches).

But Quetelet didn't stop there. He then set about to measure every human attribute for which there was data—average height, average weight, the average age couples got married, the average age people died, average annual births, average annual incidents of crime, average amount of education, etc. And then Quetelet went on to explain what he believed these averages actually meant.

Just as astronomers decided that the average measurement of a star was the "true" measurement, Quetelet insisted that anyone who exhibited the "average" in all measured human attributes was, in fact, the One True Human, the Average Man. Quetelet had strong feelings about those who did not conform to the Average Man.

"Everything different from the Average Man's proportions and condition would constitute deformity and disease.… Everything found dissimilar…(including) exceeding the observed limits, would constitute a monstrosity. …If an individual at any given epoch of society possessed all the qualities of the Average Man, he would represent all that is great, good, or beautiful."(2)

Quetelet's flawed application of astronomy's method of averages to human beings led to the invention of the Average Man, which has had, and continues to have, profound influence over history and social institutions. For example, Quetelet organized the first census, which became the model for all modern censuses. His concept of average became the model for standardized design for everything from airplane cockpits to consumer products. Karl Marx used Quetelet's ideas to develop the economic theory of Communism. The concept of average is also the basis of stereotypes—a set of shared average characteristics (real or imagined) that defines generic labels such as lawyers, the homeless, ADHD, the gifted, Type-A personalities, or micro-managers. Once these labels have been assigned, they push the unique characteristics of any given individual our of people's perceptions, opening the flood gates for unwarranted generalizations.

In his eye-opening book, The End of Average, author Dr. Todd Rose who heads Harvard's Mind, Brain, and Education Project, states that:

"Quetelet's invention of the Average Man marked the beginning of the Age of Average. It represented the moment when the average became normal, the individual became error, and stereotypes were validated with the imprint of science."(3)

1850s

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nglishman Francis Galton was a member of the wealthy merchant class. As an aristocrat, Galton believed in the innate superiority of the upper class. He felt that the growing democratization of society was "polluting the greatness of the British Empire."(4) So while Quetelet saw excessive deviation from the average as a "monstrosity," Galton claimed he was only half right. Those who were "below" average were indeed monstrosities. However, famous, wealthy, and successful people such as Queen Victoria, Isaac Newton, and of course Galton himself, were clearly superior to the average. They represented people of higher "rank." In other words, Galton quietly converted the mathematical concept of deviation from the average to a justification of social classes! He then went on to divide humans into fourteen separate "classes" beginning with "Imbeciles" through "Mediocre (AKA average)" to "Eminent."

Like Quetelet, Galton didn't stop there. He claimed that, if a person was "eminent" in one way, he or she was also superior across all dimensions—mental, physical, and moral. A genius in math could also be expected to be a genius in verbal skills, athletics, and leadership ability. And conversely, if you were "below average" in math, verbal skills, or physical ability, you probably weren't good at much of anything!

Galton "single-handedly supplanted Quetelet's conviction that human worth could be measured by how close a person was to the average with the notion that worth was better measured by how far a person was from the average. "By the early 1900s, the notion that people could be sorted into distinct bins of ability from low to high had infiltrated virtually all the social and behavioral sciences."(5)

Think about how this plays out in today's public schools. If a child is "well above average" on a test, the child is often labeled as "gifted"—without regard for where the strengths and weaknesses of that child actually lie. Conversely, a child who is "well below average" on that single measure (the test) is labeled "remedial"—under the totally unproven and erroneous assumption that such a child has little or no ability in any area. Look at your own life. Aren't there contexts in which you are very proficient, and others in which you have little or no aptitude? Isn't that true of all of us? Yet a single score on one narrowly limited test (with questionable validity) can potentially relegate a student to the realms of the gifted or the remedial, which in turn, determine the educational opportunities given that child.

1890s

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rederick Winslow Taylor, born in 1856, was the son of a wealthy Pennsylvania family. Although expected to attend Harvard and practice law, Taylor was instead drawn to the new world of industry. He worked in several factories owned by friends of his parents, analyzing what he saw and figuring out ways to make the work more efficient. By the 1890s, Taylor declared that the only way to solve the problems of the factory age was through a "science of work."

Taylor would eliminate inefficiency by ignoring the individual and putting the system first. Business should not worry about adapting their systems to fit the individual. Instead, they should hire Average Men who fit the system. Taylor didn't want brilliant or talented workers who had a tendency to want to change or "improve" methods. He believed that there was one best way to accomplish any process, so he set about to "standardize" industrial processes. Taylor established a set of standard steps for every industrial process, and workers were not permitted to deviate from those standards. Everything from tools to assembly lines were standardized. As Taylor's standards were adopted throughout business and industry, workers once celebrated for their ingenuity and creativity were relegated to the role of programmed robots.

(For a more complete decription of the role Taylor played in the standardization of both industry and education,see this article.)

1900s

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s factories grew, their need for semi-skilled workers multiplied, so Taylor turned his attention to schools! Taylorists argued that schools should provide a standard education for an average student. They would organize and teach children to become workers who could perform industrial tasks in Taylor's "perfect standardized way." Although a few humanists argued that schools should offer a variety of courses to help individuals develop their own strengths and interests, they were shouted down by the Taylorists.

1920s

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y the 1920s, most American schools were organized according to the Taylorist vision of education, aiming to provide each student with the same standardized education, regardless of his or her background, abilities, or interests. Curriculum and classrooms were designed to serve the Average Student and create Average Workers.(6)

Taylor's belief that there was "one right way" to accomplish any task in the industrial process had metastasized into the belief that there is one right way to learn, grow, or achieve "success." This, in turn, has led to the inflexible structure of our current educational system. Just as they did a century ago, schools have fixed-length classes, fixed-length school days, and fixed-length semesters, "proceeding through the same unyielding sequence of 'core' courses, all of which ensure that every (normal) student graduates from high school at the same age with, presumably, the same set of knowledge."(7)

But it doesn't end there. Just as Galton had once distorted Quetelet's Average Man to separate society into superior and inferior classes, Edward Thorndike further distorted Taylor's idea about standardization to separate a school's "superior" students from its "inferior" ones.

Thorndike agreed with Galton's idea of rank, and its notion that, if a person was talented at one thing, he was likely to be talented at everything. He posited his own biological theory of learning. Some people were born with brains that learned more quickly, while others were born with slow-learning brains. Thus was born the invalid belief that children who learn to read earlier are "smarter." Given this obvious (to Thorndike) condition, Thorndike argued that schools should stop wasting resources on those with inferior abilities as soon as possible, and devote those resources to the advancement of the superior students. But how to determine as quickly as possible who was superior and who was inferior?

Thorndike's answer was to insure that every aspect of the educational system should be standardized around the average. He created standardized tests for handwriting, spelling, arithmetic, English comprehension, drawing, and reading, all of which were quickly adopted by schools across the country.(8)

Thorndike wrote textbooks standardized around the average student of a particular age, a practice still used in schools today. He supported the idea of grades and scores on standardized tests to rank students' overall talent. Thorndike's ideas gave birth to the notion of gifted, honors, and special needs students, as well as grades, GPAs, and educational tracks. "For Thorndike, the purpose of schools was not to educate all students to the same level, but to sort them according to their innate level of talent."(9)

It is ironic that one of today's highly-touted programs to improve education is to make sure students have a "growth" rather than a "fixed" mindset. Yet, the entire foundation of public education, including one-size-fits-all standards and standardized testing, is mired in the fixed mindset—Thorndikes' belief that people are born with a certain type of brain and they just needed to accept that fact!

21st Century

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years later, not only does the concept of the Average Man remain at the heart of our institutions, but there been little change in the school system devised by Taylor and Thorndike. In fact, their obsession with standards and standardized testing has become even more prevalent.

Over the centuries, science advances. New discoveries shed new light on the old, casting them first into doubt, and eventually replacing them with a paradigm based on the best research of the times. Just as the advancement of science showed that the Sun, rather than Earth, is the center of the solar system—just as the advancement of science replaced "bad air" with tiny microbes as the cause of the plague—the science of human beings has also advanced. Here are the conclusions of modern day research.

"…there is no such thing as average body size, there is no such thing as average talent, average intelligence, or average character. Nor are there average students or average employees—or average brains, for that matter. Every one of these familiar notions is a figment of a misguided scientific imagination. Our modern concept of the average person is not a mathematical truth, but a human invention created a century and a half ago …"(10)

(To read more about the science behind these statements, it is strongly recommended that you read The End of Average by Dr. Todd Rose!)

Established paradigms are extremely difficult to displace. For example, the geocentric model of the Solar System had been accepted by Greek and Roman astronomers since ancient times. It was one of those "obvious" ideas supported by two common observations. First, to ancient astronomers, the stars, the Sun, and the planets appeared to revolve around the Earth on daily basis. Second, from the point of view of a person on Earth, Earth did not appear to move, making it a fixed point in space. The theory was supported, not only by scientists and astronomers, but by the Catholic Church. It wasn't until the 16th century, when astronomers found that the geocentric theory no longer fit the observations and measurements they were able to make with the introduction of the telescope, that the heliocentric (Sun-centered) model of the universe was seriously considered. And thanks to religious factions, both theories were still taught in schools until the early 1800s!(11) Still, it took until 1992 for the church to admit they were wrong!(12)

Basing public education on the concept of the average man, and using standardized testing to rank students has been around for less than 200 years…and yet it appears that it will take something comparable to a root canal to replace it. Why? One reason is that it is the only system most people in this country have known. The words school and teacher are powerful memes. Much of the public has been lulled by experience into believing that the current system is what education must be like. So despite the ever-growing research showing that one-size-fits-all standards and standardized testing has not only not improved learning, but has produced harmful social and psychological side-effects, parents and the public seem content with "tweaks" to the status quo. Move the desks in circles rather than rows. Let students work in groups on occasion. Give students a few options in how they carry out an assignment.

It's difficult to see how education and other public institutions can remain in the grip of "a figment of misguided scientific imagination" given the following facts.

None of these beliefs and decisions were based on science. Just because a person manipulates data in some way does not make that person's conclusions scientifically valid. The articles Individuality and Equal Access and Equal Fit and Opportunity explain why a focus on the individual is the only way to insure equal access to educational opportunities.

All of the key principles on which the system of public education is now based have been scientifically disproven! Yet, rather than throw out the failed system and use research to shape environments that facilitate authentic learning, educational policy makers keep insisting that, if what we're doing doesn't work, we just need to do more of it!

What will it take to convince parents, students, and society in general to "Opt Out" of a system designed to maintain and widen the gap between the social classes? What will it take for them to demand the right to define "success" for themselves? What will it take to get them to stop funding a system designed to create obedient, "standardized" citizens who are easy to govern, and more than happy to work for someone else.


The task of transforming public education to serve all of our children doesn't involve staring from scratch or reinventing the wheel. Options are already in place based on proven principles of authentic learning and authentic assessment. Please read this article for a compelling picture of what education designed to educate the whole child can, and already does, look like.


References
  1. Rose, Todd (2015) The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, HarperCollins, NY. p 10
  2. Ibid, pp 27-29
  3. Ibid., p 31
  4. Ibid., p 32
  5. Ibid., p 35
  6. Ibid., p 52
  7. Ibid., p. 125
  8. Callahan, Raymond E., (1964) Education and the Cult of Efficiency, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Chapter 5
  9. Rose, Todd. The End of Average… p. 54
  10. Rose, Todd. The End of Average… p. 11
  11. http://www.universetoday.com/33113/heliocentric-model/ and http://io9.gizmodo.com/when-did-the-church-accept-that-the-earth-moves-around-1295437000
  12. http://www.universetoday.com/13175/galileo-to-return-to-vatican/

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