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.
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.
So, the real question to me is how do we get these adjustable seats for learning in the hands of every student as fast as possible without spending more money? Here, I actually think the Air Force has given us the formula for success. What if we ban the average in education? We know it destroys talent. Instead, what if we demanded that the companies that sell these materials into our classrooms design them not to the average of dimensions of learning but to the edges? It would be a bold move. It would certainly send a strong signal to the market: the game’s changed.
But trust me, if we do this not only will we increase the performance of the kids in our classrooms today, we will dramatically expand our talent pool. Because right now there are so many students we simply cannot reach because we design on average. Design to the edges and we will reach them and we’ll get their talent. And I have to say I know because I was one of those students.
So, today I’m a faculty member at Harvard. But I’m also a high school drop-out. It gets better. I was a high school drop-out with a 0.9 GPA. For those of you who don’t know that’s pretty bad.
But here’s the thing. I’ve been to the very bottom of our educational system and I’ve been to the very top. And I’m here to tell you we are wasting so much talent at every single level. And the thing is because for every one person like me, there are millions who worked as hard, who had the ability, but who were unable to overcome the drag of an educational environment designed on average. And their talent is forever lost to us.
The thing is we can’t really afford to lose them. The good news is we don’t have to anymore. I’m telling you we have a once in a lifetime chance right now to fundamentally re-imagine the very foundation of our institutions of opportunity like education in ways that nurture the potential of every single individual and therefore expand our talent pool, make us far more competitive in the world. We can do this. We know the formula. And it’s time we demand it.