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Todd Rose Celebrates Jaggedness and Advocates the Abandonment of “Averagearianism”

February 19, 2016

I just finished reading a transcript of Anya Kamenetz’ NPR interview with Todd Rose, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and the co-founder of Project Variability, a new organization devoted to “the science of the individual and its implications for education, the workforce, and society”… and based on what I’ve read, he’s written the book I tried to write over a decade ago. I’ll spare you my narrative analysis and instead use some aphorisms as headers for some of the concepts Rose covers in his book:

We are jagged, not “average”

Body size is a very concrete example of what I call jaggedness. There is no average pilot. No medium-sized people. When you think of someone’s size you think of large, medium, small. Our mass-produced approach to clothing reinforces that. But if that were true you wouldn’t need dressing rooms… Height is one-dimensional, but size isn’t. People are jagged in size, in intelligence, everything we measure shows the same thing.

“Averagearianism” plagues public schools… and results in age-based grade cohorts

It’s so ubiquitous that it’s hard to see.

We design textbooks to be age-appropriate, but that means, what does the average kid of this age know and can do? Textbooks that are designed for the average will be a pretty bad fit for most kids.

Then you think of things like the lockstep, grade-based organization of kids, and you end up sitting in a class for a fixed amount of time and get a one-dimensional rating in the form of a grade, and a one-dimensional standardized assessment. It’s everything about the way we test and move kids forward.

Standardized tests value “averagearianism” over jaggedness… and diminish student learning a seemingly false numerical score: 

Kamenetz: “With standardized tests, I often hear teachers talking about students being two months behind or ahead, as if there’s a very fixed timeline for progress that all human beings should fit.”

Rose: It feels comforting. But if you take the basic idea of jaggedness, if all kids are multidimensional in their talent, their aptitude, you can’t reduce them to a single score. It gives us a false sense of precision and gives up on pretending to know anything about these kids.

Public education confuses speed with capacity:

I think when you look at the idea of pace, we are so convinced that slow means dumb and fast means smart. We feel justified in pegging the time to how fast the average person takes to finish.

But this is where, with a better understanding of this and realizing, “Oh, pace really has nothing to do with ability, people are fast at some things and slow with others,” you would build a very different system than the one we have.

Competency based education can lead us to abandon the time-learning linkage: 

To me, competency based education is nonnegotiable. I don’t think you can have fixed-time, grade-based learning anymore. I don’t see how you justify diplomas.

It doesn’t mean students can take forever, but allowing some flexibility in pace and only caring whether they master the material or not is a sound foundation for a higher ed system.

Rose wants to move beyond factory schools:

What I think my contribution is, is to say: Our institutions are based on assumptions about human beings. Our education system is based on a 19th century idea of an average person and using 20th century statistics.

As long as people think you can understand people based on averages, or how they deviate from averages, it seems reasonable. It looks like accountability and fairness rather than absurdity.

I hope Mr. Rose’s book sells… but his ideas are so contrary to our current paradigm that values efficiency and standardization that I fear he may be swimming upstream. One ray of hope: for all of its flaws, ESSA does allow states to set standards. MAYBE Vermont and New Hampshire will seize this opportunity to introduce the kind of jagged education required to ensure that all students master the material needed to become successful citizens.

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