Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

TES Talks To.Todd Rose

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

TES Talks To.Todd Rose

Article excerpt

We are conditioned to believe that comparing students to the 'average' is the best way to improve their attainment. But this Harvard professor tells Joseph Lee that only by recognising individuality can we truly support learning

Before Todd Rose became a Harvard professor, he was an educational failure: a high-school dropout working minimum wage jobs.

After he turned his life around in night school and college, finishing top of his class and winning a graduate school place at Harvard, it became pretty clear that he had not been held back through lack of ability.

So it was natural to ask, how many other students like him were being let down by their schooling? And how could the system do better for them?

Answering those questions has become part of his life's work at Harvard's Laboratory for the Science of the Individual and non-profit organisation the Center for Individual Opportunity.

Deviation from the mean

His conclusion, set out in his recent book The End of Average, is that mass education has relied on crude standardisation. It doesn't reflect students' individuality, but instead a tendency to rank individuals according to their deviation from the mean.

"We're so conditioned to think that the only way you can understand someone is by comparing them to someone else," he says.

Basing educational practice around the average student is critically misleading, he warns, because no one is average. He cites the example of US Air Force pilots, who suffered a spate of unexplained accidents. The cause was eventually traced to the design of the plane's cockpits, which had been based on the average measurements of pilots in 1950. The problem? No individual pilot fitted the average. When they created an individually adjustable cockpit instead, the crashes stopped.

Modern data science is revealing that the profiles of individuals are far more complex than averages capture, whether it comes to body measurements or educational performance, Rose argues. Instead, our profiles are "jagged" and highly specific: for example, we might appear average at maths, but actually excel in algebra while at the same time struggling with statistics.

"We know there's no such thing as an average kid," he says. "If you list the attributes that matter, in math class or in the student as a whole, those dimensions just don't correlate with each other. Every kid has this jagged profile."

But our ranking against averages can have dramatic consequences for students' educational experience. Professor Rose contrasts his early experience in college when he was thought to be a low-achieving student with his experience after he begged for a place on the honours programme.

"When I was in the honours programme, I got so many more resources than any other kid at that school got," he says. "Not just material resources but respect and the way that people look at you - that leads to a qualitatively different experience."

Rose proposes three principles to improve our thinking about individuals. The first is this idea of jagged profiles: our strengths and weaknesses are complex and highly specific.

The second is that traits are a myth: instead, he suggests that individuals all display different characteristics in different circumstances. Rose's own experience of schooling was influenced by an incident in which he was labelled aggressive - just one example of the way schools risk stereotyping their students. …

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