What is the “average” student? (Part II)

Last week I shared with you a little bit about the idea of averages.  From astronomers in the 16th century, to the work of Quételet in the 1800s, to Lincoln’s efforts to standardize the military during the Civil War, averages have a long history of being used to understand humans both physically and mentally.  During World War II, the research of Gilbert Daniels showed that averages were not a great idea for design of the cockpits of airplanes because no pilot fit the mold of the average man.  As a result, the Air Force banned the use of average for design, and began demanding design to the jagged edges.  This led to adjustable foot pedals, helmet straps, flight suits, and seats (things that seem like a no-brainer today).

airforce-dimensionsThrough the choice to move to flexible design, our Air Force was able to move forward in ways that they were not able to do when design was based on the average.  Now I know that some of you probably read last week’s post and may not have seen an immediate connection to education.  If you recall, in last week’s post I mentioned Todd Rose, a Harvard professor and a high school dropout, who is doing some interesting research in the science of individuality.

During a TEDx Talk titled The Myth of Average (if you have a chance, this is a really good TED Talk with some real implications for the education of all students), Rose talked about the educational repercussions of using average to design learning.  Sometimes our classrooms are like the airplane cockpits at the beginning of World War II.  There aren’t a lot of options for adjustments, and because of that, there are students who struggle.  Here’s the dirty little secret though – it’s not just the kids at the bottom who struggle in school.  When you look at dropout rates, a significant portion of high school and college dropouts aren’t leaving because it’s too hard, they’re leaving because it’s too easy and they aren’t challenged or engaged.

Over the summer I had a video post to the blog titled “An Open Letter to Educators.”  More recently I have been reading the book The Boy Who Played with Fusion, the story of Taylor Wilson, a 22-year-old who built a fusion reactor at the age of 14.  Both talked about a need to embrace new formats of education in an effort to be more individualized and prepare our students for the real world.  The implication I saw was that this individualization isn’t just for the kids that we identify on the low end of the spectrum, or those on the high end of the spectrum, but also for the kids we identify as the “typical” student.

No matter how we might identify our students (typical, below average, above average), our students come to us with jaggedaverage-student learning profiles.  Some are strong in math, but struggle in ELA.  Others have a talent for memorizing facts in social studies or science, but when you try to get them to think deeper, and solve the problems of our scientific world, they just can’t do it.  What if our education system was designed to adapt to the jaggedness of our students instead of expecting our students to adapt to the school setting?

The HSE21 Best Practice Model is a great method to get there.  Through student-centered approaches, transfer of learning, cognitive curriculum, and fundamental classroom conditions, we can develop an environment that accepts students where they are, and helps to move them further.

As you continue to design your classroom conditions for your students, be thinking about their jagged profile of learning.  How are you making the learning environment more flexible?  What are you doing for that science genius who struggles with the reading?  They may be awesome with the hands-on portion of science, but when it comes time to read and learn about theories, they just don’t get there because the textbook is too challenging for them.  Our goal has to be one of constant incremental growth, both for the kids who are struggling in a lot of areas, as well as those who seem to have it all together.  Remember, we’re all jagged!

Technology can help us to get there.  With an iPad, each of your students has the ability to translate text, look up vocabulary, or even have text read aloud to them.  With programs like NEWSELA or Achieve 3000, we are able to have our students read materials that are at the appropriate level for them, be able to understand what they have read, and in turn have an opportunity to grow.

Flexible design in learning is the school equivalent to adjustable seats!  These adaptations will nurture the potential of each individual in your classroom.  And remember, adaptations aren’t just for those on either end of the spectrum.  That kid that you think of as average probably has a jagged profile of learning too, with strengths that we can tap into, and weaknesses that we can target for growth.  The adaptations that we’d make for anyone with a label can work for those without any specific label too – and as the teacher, you are allowed to make the choices of what is best for your students!

What might flexible design in education look like in practice?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Get rid of specific numbers on assignments (3 pages, 5 paragraphs, 4 signposts, etc.) and shift to requiring quality work instead.
  • Allow modifications on assignments.
  • Create a loose structure for projects to allow more student autonomy in what they are creating and how they are making it.
  • De-emphasize standardized test scores or other systems where averages are used to judge students.
  • Let students select the strategies that work best for their own learning (that student who struggles with reading might be able to listen to a podcast or watch a video on YouTube and think just as deeply as that star reader who can learn from the text).
  • Change the pace so that certain students can finish earlier and have enrichment opportunities and others who are behind can have more time to work and not feel like all they are doing is to catch up.

Now, I know some of these ideas sound crazy, or scary, or hard to put into practice.  We can’t change everything at once, but we can move incrementally to try to develop an environment that our students will be able to have more success.  Just like setting goals for students to grow, we have to set goals for our own growth, and then take steps to get there.

But isn’t it worth it?  Who knows, that kid who is struggling in your class right now might be on the path to dropping out, but they may have the potential to be a professor at Harvard – or any one of millions of other successful paths.  They just need to have the opportunity to embrace their individuality!

So what are your thoughts?  What successes have you had when adapting to be better suited to the individuality of your students?  What challenges do you see in this way of thinking?  Let us know in the comments below!

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