The following is an interview Todd Rose, faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, author of Square Peg, and co-founder of Project Variability. In his recent Sonoma TedX talk “Ban the Average” he explains the myth of the average and how it harms kids in the education system by depriving them of learning, and our society as a whole, robbing us of needed talent and creativity.
We found his work to be highly relevant to the work we do at Pathways Institute, where it is part of our stated mission to help all children “function at their highest level and bring their unique gifts to the world.” We began the interview by asking him about the Myth of the Average:
L. TODD ROSE: The Myth of Average is a belief that’s been prominent in most sciences and in education. It’s the belief that we can use statistical averages to understand individuals. Scientists have come to realize that it’s a myth, and over the last 10 years have been moving from averages to individuals, so for example we’re hearing a lot of things like ‘personalized medicine.’ Unfortunately, education has not quite realized the myth yet, and so what we have is a situation where not only do we accept the idea of designing something for the individual based on the average, we actually promote it. The myth is that the average is fits for most people, when, in fact, it doesn’t.
Interviewer: And how does that hurt us?
L. TODD ROSE: When it comes to designing environments it hurts us in two ways. As I said in my TEDX talk, the first is that you can be incredibly talented in one area, but average or below average in another. For example, say you’re really gifted in math, but you are an average or below average reader. The way our education system is designed will make it very hard for us to be able to get at your talent, because even in math class many of the problems are reading problems, so the reading problem can mask what you’re really good at.
The second way it hurts us is that someone can be unbelievably gifted in something, but their environment won’t challenge them because it’s teaching to the average. They end up getting on-board and doing only what they are supposed to. In this way, designing environments to averages end up hurting even our best and brightest.
Interviewer: So how does that play itself out in our everyday world? How are these problems going to effect all of us, even if they don’t harm us personally?
L. TODD ROSE: Good question. To me, the effect of the Myth of the Averages is even broader than education. It’s really about how we develop our current and future talent pool, and as you know we have big challenges in our society and need all of the talent and creativity we can get.
We already have all the raw talent that we need! If you think about something as big as finding a cure for cancer, we need as many people who have the talent and the work ethic becoming scientists and chasing down this problem as possible. But if we design our educational environment so that an individual’s limitations make it almost impossible for us to get to their talents, then we are going to lose a whole bunch of talented individuals, and in my mind we’re in danger of losing the cure for cancer. If we extend this myth of averages all the way it has very serious implications, because when we studied cancer on the average, it led us to conclusions that were not helping us actually cure people. And since we’ve gone away from average and started studying cancer, individual cancer, we’ve made great progress.
The workforce environment is not dissimilar. We’re trying to get people to be the most productive and effective person they can be. But if the environment is designed around averages, it makes people less efficient, less creative. So, you know, in every sector of society this idea of average has turned out to be a sort of barrier to advancement.
Interviewer: I see. And so what does Ban the Average mean?
L. TODD ROSE: Well, to me it’s step one of a two-step process that gets us away from this average and toward helping our institutions become institutions of opportunity that can actually nurture individuals. So Ban the Average is the first step. It’s about helping people realize the average really is the problem. We can’t move forward until we realize that.
The phrase “Ban the Average” comes from the Air Force, which gained insight about the Myth of Average 60 years ago, when cockpits, jumpsuits, and instruction was designed for the mythical average person. They they realized it was a problem, and even though they didn’t really know what the solution was that didn’t stop them from saying, ‘You know what? We know the average is hurting our performance and shrinking our talent pool, so we’re going to ban the use of average.’ That initial step was enough to make a signal to the market that things were going to change, and it forced designers and entrepreneurs to create better solutions. So we can talk about solutions, which is ultimately what needs to be done, but until we have the common understanding that the myth of average is a problem we’re not going to get very far. So Ban the Average is the first step.
Interviewer: And how does Project Variability fit into this?
L. TODD ROSE: Project Variability is an enabling organization. We see this emerging new science of the individual and we have the knowledge that we to be able to create an environment that understands individuals and nurtures individual potential. At the same time, we’re seeing a massive shift toward technology in every sector of society, from workforce to science, and in education. So we see a wonderful opportunity to combine those two in ways that enable us to do things that are almost magical, quite honestly, and that won’t actually cost more money. We can do things in education today that we only dreamed of before. But it requires making good choice.
What we realized as a team was that those choices are rarely going to be made on their own because people in all parts of the current system have an interest in keeping the status quo. What we’ve decided to do is be an organization that exists solely to initiate the transition from average to individual. We’re doing it as a messaging campaign: to communicate to the public so people understand what’s possible and what to ask for, to ultimately create the demand. At the same time, we’re going to enable scientists and entrepreneurs to create solutions that will meet the demand. The truth is, is we exist to put ourselves out of business. We just need to change the demand structure and help create some new solutions. At that point our goals have been met.
We highly recommend you watch Todd Rose’s Sonoma TedX talk “Ban the Average”.
And a special thank you to Peter Dippery of Fuse Media for help making this interview possible.