Todd Rose, Co-founder of The Center for Individual Opportunity, discusses The Myth of Average at TEDxSonomaCounty. Here is the full transcript of the TEDx Talk.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The Myth of Average by Todd Rose at TEDxSonomaCounty
Announcer: Please welcome to the TEDxSonomaCounty stage Todd Rose.
Todd Rose – Author of The End of Average
It’s 1952, and the Air Force has a problem. They’ve got good pilots, flying better planes but they’re getting worse results. And they don’t know why.
For a while they blamed the pilots. They even blamed the technology. They eventually got around to blaming the flight instructors. But it turned out that the problem was actually with the cockpit. Let me explain.
Imagine you’re a fighter pilot. You’re operating a machine that in some cases can travel faster than the speed of sound and where issues between success and failure, sometimes life and death, can be measured in split seconds. If you’re a fighter pilot, you know that your performance depends fundamentally on the fit between you and your cockpit. Because after all what good is the best technology in the world, if you can’t reach the critical instruments when you need them the most?
But this presents a challenge for the Air Force. Because obviously, pilots are not the same size. So, the issue is: How do you design one cockpit that can fit the most individuals? For a long time, it was assumed that you could do this by designing for the average pilot. That almost seems intuitively right. If you design something that’s fit for the average sized person, wouldn’t it fit most people? It seems right but it’s actually wrong.
And 60 years ago, an Air Force researcher, Gilbert Daniels, proved to the world just how wrong this really is and what it was costing us. Here’s how he did it. He studied over 4,000 pilots and he measured them on 10 dimensions of size and he asked a very simple question: How many of these pilots are average on all 10 dimensions? The assumption was that most of them would be. Do you know how many really were? Zero. Gilbert Daniels proved that there was no such thing as an average pilot.
Instead, what he found was that every single pilot had what we call a jagged size profile. Right? It means no one is at the same on every dimension. And this makes sense. Just because you’re the tallest person doesn’t mean you’re the heaviest, doesn’t mean you have the broadest shoulders, or the longest torso. But this is tricky because if every pilot has a jagged size profile and you design a cockpit on average you’ve literally designed it for nobody.
So, the Air Force realized they had a problem. And their response was bold. They banned the average. Meaning that moving forward they refused to buy fighter jets where the cockpit was designed for an average sized pilot. And instead, they demanded that the companies who built these planes designed them to the edges of dimensions of size. Meaning that rather than design for, say, the average height, they wanted a cockpit that could accommodate as close to the shortest pilot and the tallest pilot as the technology would allow.
Now, the companies that made these planes as you could imagine weren’t happy, right? They argued and lobbied and they said, it’s going to be impossible, or at least impossibly expensive to build a flexible cockpit. But, once they realized that the Air Force wasn’t going to budge, suddenly it was possible. And it turned out it wasn’t that expensive. And in fact, they made great strides leveraging simple solutions that we all take for granted in our everyday life, like adjustable seats. And as a result, the Air Force not only improved the performance of the pilots that they already had, but they dramatically expanded their talent pool.
And today, we have the most diverse pool of fighter pilots ever. But here’s the thing, many of our top pilots would have never fit in a cockpit designed on average. So, most of us have never sat in the cockpit of a $150 million fighter jet, right? But we’ve all sat in the classroom. And I would argue — I would argue that these are the cockpits of our economy and I think we all know that we have some problems. We’re spending more money than ever before, but we’re getting worse results. Whether we’re talking about declining test scores in math and science, or our drop-out crisis.
You probably know, that we have over 1.2 million drop-outs every single year in high school in this country. What you may not know is that at least 4% of those dropouts are known to be intellectually gifted. That means we’re losing over 50,000 of our brightest minds every single year.
So, we know we have a problem. But do we know why? So far, we’ve been content to blame the students. We blame the teachers. We even blame the parents. But here’s the thing. I think back to the Air Force example and I can’t help but wonder, how much of this problem is just bad design?
Here’s what I mean. Even though we have one of the most diverse countries in the history of the world, and even though it’s the 21st century, we still design our learning environments, like textbooks, for the average student. No kidding. We call it age appropriate. And we think it’s good enough. But of course, it’s not.
I mean, think about it. What does it even mean to design for an average student? Because a student is not one dimensional, like struggling to gifted. Students vary on many dimensions of learning just like they vary on dimensions of size.
Here are a few obvious ones. And just like size, each student, every single one of them, has a jagged learning profile. Meaning, they have strengths, they’re average at some things. And they have weaknesses. We all do. Even geniuses have weaknesses. But, if the fighter pilot example has taught us anything, it’s this: If you design those learning environments on average, odds are you’ve designed them for nobody.
So, no wonder we have a problem. We’ve created learning environments that, because they are designed on average, cannot possibly do what we expected them to do, which is to nurture individual potential. But, think about what that could really cost us. Because every single student has a jagged learning profile, it means that the average hurts everyone, even our best and brightest. Even for them, designing on average destroys talent in at least two ways. First, it makes your talent a liability. We all know kids like this. So unbelievably gifted in one area that their educational environment can’t challenge them. We also know what happens. They get bored and a shockingly high number of them drop out.
The second way that designing on average destroys talent is that it means your weakness will make it hard for us to see, let alone nurture, your talent. We all know kids like this as well. Like the kid who’s gifted in science but who is a below average reader. Because our science textbooks assume that every kid is reading at grade level, this kid’s in trouble. Because for her, science class is first and foremost a reading test. And it’s doubtful that we will ever see what she’s truly capable of.
Now, it’s one thing when our technology does not allow us to do anything other than average. But it is a whole other thing when the technology changes and we can do more but we don’t realize it. That’s where we are today.