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.
In the last few years, education just like the rest of society has gone digital. If you don’t believe me, just consider this fact: U.S. public schools are one of the largest buyers of iPads in the world. Right? So, the question isn’t do you want the technology? It’s already here. You’ve already paid for it. The question is: what do you want it to be? And this is where it really gets exciting.
We have a chance right now to use this technology to create learning environments that are so flexible that they truly can nurture the potential of every single individual. Now, you might think that sounds expensive, right? Doesn’t have to be. In fact, we can get a long way; we can make great strides, with simple solutions that we take for granted in our everyday digital lives.
Here I am thinking about basic stuff like language translation, support for reading, vocabulary, even the ability of a machine to pronounce a word for you, or read a passage if you want. Basic stuff. But while these are simple solutions, you’ll be surprised at how big of an impact they actually have on the lives of individuals. I know I was the first time that I saw it happen.
I was observing a fourth-grade classroom a few years ago and they were participating in a study where we were testing the effectiveness of a new digital science curriculum. Now, I’ll be the first to say this new digital version wasn’t fancy. In fact, it was pretty basic. The thing that it had going for it though, was that it did not assume that every student in that classroom was reading at grade level.
Now, one of my favorite things about this particular classroom was the teacher. Because she hated technology. And I know this because it’s the first thing that she told me when I met her. And, my response was, “OK, why did you sign up for a study that’s about technology?” She told me she was willing to go through this in the hopes that it might help one kid in her class. His name was Billy. And Billy as she told me had a mind for science. But he was one of those kids who was a below average reader. And she was hoping this might reach him now while he’s still learning to read.
Now, I have to say that actually made me nervous. Because as I said, the technology was pretty basic. And I didn’t want to disappoint her. So, you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was about halfway through the study the teacher reaches out to say hey, guess what? Not only has Billy taken to the technology but I’m starting to see improvement in his performance. So, that was nice. But nothing, nothing prepared me for what I saw when I went back to that classroom at the end of the study.
Billy had become the de facto smartest kid in the class. No kidding. And everybody knew it. In fact, the first thing that I saw when I walked through the door was six or seven kids huddled around Billy’s desk asking him questions about the assignment. And boy did he have answers it turns out.
The thing is all we really gave Billy and his classmates was the learning equivalent of adjustable seats. And in return we got a glimpse of Billy’s talent. And sure, you might say well look that’s one kid in one classroom, but then again, that’s one kid in one classroom. And isn’t that what it’s actually about? Nurturing individual potential. Jonas Salk was one individual and he cured polio. What if Billy is the next Jonas Salk? What if the cure for cancer is in his mind? Who knows? But I do know that we came dangerously close to losing his talent before he even left grade school. Not because he didn’t understand science but because he was still learning to read. And that’s what I mean when I say that simple solutions can have a profound impact on individuals.