Abolish the bell curve, because “average” doesn’t exist

We’ve all coveted the “My kid is an honor student” bumper sticker. On the flip side, imagining your kid earning a ‘D’ or F’ on their report card is probably the type of mental exercise that gets your heart pumping and sweat flowing. For some of us, too, there’s the dreaded diagnosis that our kid is average. Not failing, not exceeding expectations, just floating right there in the middle, merely meeting acceptable performance.

The concept of average, however, is scientifically flawed when it comes to measuring individuals. There is no such thing as an “average” person, explains developmental psychologist Todd Rose in his best-selling book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness. Rose points out the historical development, dependency upon, and downfall of averages in the measurement of people. From body types to brain science, averages have failed to capture true insights about individuals when researchers rely on group averages. 

For example, today, it seems obvious that cockpits should be adjustable. Seats, seatbelts, helmets, jumpsuits—are all now adjustable. But in 1950, the idea was unthinkable, especially to the manufacturers who supplied the Air Force. But they made it happen when they realized there was a major flaw in their previous design, which was based on the average pilot.

In the 1940s, the U.S. Air Force was experiencing a high amount of “pilot error” crashes, Rose shares in The End of Average. They hypothesized that the errors had been caused by the cockpit designs, which had been based on the average size of a pilot in 1926. After measuring 4,063 pilots on 140 dimensions to determine the new average size the cockpit should fit, the Air Force was lucky to have one researcher discover that the issue was that no pilot fit the average for the 10 most-important dimensions (including height, chest circumference, and sleeve length). “There was no such thing as an average pilot,” Rose writes.

And, there’s no such thing as an average brain. In a 2002 study at UC Santa Barbara, neuroscientist Michael Miller found that none of the individuals’ brains in his study looked like the Average Brain. Today, this foundational concept of neurological research—the “Average Brain”—is finally being challenged, thanks to Miller.

The history of averages in education

While science has invalidated the use of averages in measuring people, our education system was built on, and continues to operate within the confines of, averages.

Averages were important during the Industrial Age, when the advancing efficiencies of factories meant a burgeoning economy for the United States and the need to manage worker output to maximize profits. The education system was built around the need for workers who could be obedient, repetitive, and specialized. But today’s rapidly changing economy demands different skills and competencies from its workforce—and ultimately our kids.

The vision for the American public education system was developed by a small group of businessmen—led by oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller—who formed the General Education Board. The men leaned on the wisdom of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who had become a household name for his role in standardizing factories. 

Standardization taught students how to comply, be on time, and follow directions. One influential architect, though, thought there was one thing missing: ranking. Psychologist Edward Thorndike—in charge of the largest superintendent training program in the country—advocated for the systemic separation of inferior and superior students—the below-average and average, versus the above-average. By measuring students’ deviations from the average, educators could create a normally distributed bell curve that helped them identify “inferior” and “superior” students.

In The End of Average, Rose points out, “Thorndike’s guiding axiom was ‘Quality is more important than equality,’ by which he meant that it was more important to identify superior students and shower them with support than it was to provide every student with the same educational opportunities.” In fact, systemic inequities were built directly into the ranking system.

From this mission to rank and differentiate came the onslaught of standardized tests. The SAT, for example, developed by psychologist and eugenicist Carl Brigham and first adopted by Harvard, has become one of the de facto standardized tests that has become a kid’s golden ticket to college. A college degree means a chance at higher paying jobs and job security.

In her book, Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life, author Diane Tavenner calls it “the nuclear arms race to college admissions.” She writes, “The highest priority became not to graduate, but to get accepted to a good college. The standard formula required good grades, good test scores, and lots of activities and extracurriculars. Be the same as everyone else, only better.”

“What if our educational system focused on opening minds instead of filling minds and testing how full they are?” says Ibram X. Kendi, one of the nation’s leading scholars and historians of racism and founder of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research. “What if we realized the best way to standardize a highly effective educational system is not by standardizing our tests but by standardizing our schools to encourage intellectual openness and difference?”

Some of our most important systems are designed around the average person: public education, college entrance, job search, job performance review. But what can we do to change that?

There are three key steps you can take as a parent to rethink “average.”

1. Opt out of the parenting race

As parents, we can shift the way we look at success. Raising and educating kids does not have to be a winner-takes-all race to the top where some kids succeed, others are left behind, and everyone else is merely average. All kids can succeed.

As parents, we can choose to opt out of the parenting race and into a learning and parenting approach that better prepares kids for a fulfilled life—one filled with financial security, purposeful work, strong relationships, meaningful community, and personal health.

Ask yourself: Am I advocating that my kid [do this activity] because it’s setting them up to have the habits and skills they need to be fulfilled? Or am I advocating for them to do it, because it’s setting them up to stand out as “the best” among their peers?

Try this: Make a list of what truly matters—what will put them on the path to success. What does “success” mean to you? How will you measure success in your household?

2. Get personal, Be purposeful

Get to know your kid, so that you can help them find meaning and purpose in everything they do, including what and how they learn.

On a recent Class Disrupted podcast, Rose stressed the importance of individuality in education. He said, “Every single person shows up with a different constellation of needs, interests, preferences, and motives. People are going to be at different levels of reading ability, differences in everything else you can imagine. So, we need to design flexible environments.”

Education should be personalized. Your kid’s learning experience shouldn’t look exactly like every other kids’ experience, because kids have different needs, interests, and learning preferences. Each kid is unique, and their learning path should be, too. Kids learn and grow best when their education and development feels purposeful, meaningful, and relevant to who they are as individuals. 

Ask yourself: 
  • Who is my kid?
  • What are their unique interests and curiosities
  • What matters most to them?
  • Am I doing this because it fits with their interests and curiosities? Or am I doing this because everyone says I should do this for my kid?
Use insights about what makes your kid unique to explore, find, and work towards the learning path that best fits their kid’s unique needs, interests, and curiosities.

Try this: 
  • Discover and dig deeper into what your kid enjoys doING with the INGs Tool
  • Consider setting up weekly 1:1 time to stay in-tune with the small details of their life—the joys, the challenges, and the mundane will all give you insights into what lights their spark.

<<Download the Projects at Home tool>>

3. Make your kid future-proof

With continuous advances in technology some current professions will cease to exist in a few short years and many of the jobs our kids will do have yet to be created. In fact, 65% of kids entering elementary school will work in as yet unnamed fields. Our kids should be learning universal skills and habits of success, so that they’re able to adapt to this rapidly changing environment.

“[The Industrial Age education] system, more or less accomplished what it was originally designed to do: prepare generations of students for standardized jobs in an industrial economy,” says Rose in a 2014 talk. “To meet the needs of society today, education must change. If our goal is to prepare students for a diverse and changing world, if our goal is to help each student become the best that they can possibly be, then it’s no longer good enough to think about students on average, to teach students on average, and to rank students against an average.”

Comparing the top ten skills demanded by employers from 1950 to today, we can see the tides have shifted from factory-model hierarchies to demanding greater creativity, autonomy, and leadership from individuals.

Some K-12 schools across America have shifted the learning experience to center around individuals, in what’s called personalized learning, a teaching and learning approach that enables all students to learn content at their own pace and in-line with their unique interests and learning styles.

Even if your school hasn’t caught up with teaching universal skills and habits of success kids need to succeed, there are things we can do at home to start to nurture them. Collaboration, self-direction, reflection, and purpose are all valuable skills and habits that set our kids up for fulfilling lives.

One way is through real-world projects at home. Well-designed projects are the most effective learning approach to developing the skills and habits kids need to be successful in life. Kids retain information longer because they are seeing how something is connected to real-life situations.

Ask yourself: 
  • How am I actively developing universal skills and habits of success at home?
  • Am I celebrating/praising my kid for the skills and habits they’re developing? Or am I celebrating/praising my kid for being a straight-A student, winning competitions, or achieving other arbitrary goals that don’t actually measure their ultimate path towards success? 
Try this: Design a real-world learning project using the Projects at Home Tool.

<<Download the Projects at Home tool>>

Whether our kid has been deemed average, above-average, or below-average, we all worry about what those labels mean for our kids’ futures. Knowing that there is no “average” student, though, is the start to changing the system to work for all kids.