Todd Rose is a faculty member (educational neuroscience) at Harvard who has dedicated himself to putting an end to average. As a high school dropout, he is more than familiar with how a capable student can get lost in the system. He believes a big part of that is standards and curriculum being designed around the “average” student, something Rose says is a figment of our imagination.
His 2013 TEDx talk in Sonoma County sheds some light on that concept, detailing an Air Force design problem of 1952. Planes (and cockpits) were being designed for “average.” The issue was that this “average” didn’t fit one single pilot. The solution was to implement adjustable seats, which not only improved the technique of existing pilots, but opened up opportunities for new pilots that otherwise wouldn’t have fit these planes.
“Many of our top pilots (today) would have never fit in a cockpit designed on average,” said Rose.
Convenience Can Be Our Worst Enemy
What does this teach us? Convenience can be our worst enemy. The most convenient solution for plane manufacturers was to take the average height, weight, and build of pilots and design based on that. It was easy to do.
When the Air Force dug in its heels and refused to keep things as they were, manufacturers were forced to find a new solution. The status quo – aka the most convenient way of doing things – was a mindset that needed to be changed. Once it was, the new normal opened up a world far better than one relying upon the most convenient (and ineffective) solution.
Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
Rose tells a story that highlights the first time he saw this principle in action. He was conducting a study with a fourth grade class that was testing a new digital science curriculum.
“One of my favorite things about this particular classroom was the teacher because she hated technology,” he said. “It’s the first thing she told me when I met her and my response was, ‘Okay, then why did you sign up for a study that’s about technology?’ She told me she was willing to go through this in the hopes that it would help one kid in her class.”
Rose glosses over this humorous story, but I think it is critical to this concept and education reform. The reason one child benefitted from this technology was because the teacher stepped outside her comfort zone to try something new.
She recognized that her dislike of technology didn’t mean technology was ineffective. She gave it a try and the results were fantastic.
Getting the Reward
Rose tells the story of Billy: a child who had a mind for science, but who was still an average reader. Billy’s teacher had opted to do this study in the hopes of helping him catch up.
“She was hoping this might reach him now while he was still learning to read,” said Rose. “Now, I have say, that actually made me nervous because … this technology was pretty basic and I didn’t want to disappoint her.
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“So you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was about halfway through the study (when) the teacher reaches out to say, ’Hey, guess what. Not only has Billy taken to the technology, but I’m starting to see improvement in his performance.’ So that was nice.”
Despite that little boost, Rose says nothing could have compared him for what he saw at the end of the study.
“Billy had become the de facto smartest kid in the class … and everybody knew it,” said Rose. “In fact, the first thing that I saw when I walked through the door are six or seven kids huddled around Billy’s desk asking him questions about the assignment. The thing is, all we really gave Billy and his classmates was the learning equivalent of adjustable seats.”
Change for One Child
Billy’s teacher had set out on this journey with the primary goal of helping him succeed. One child in one class. That may seem like a small margin of success, but Rose doesn’t see it that way.
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“Isn’t that what it’s actually about? Nurturing individual potential,” he said. “Jonas Salk was one individual. He cured Polio. What if Billy’s the next Jonas Salk? What if the cure for cancer is in his mind? Who knows. But I do know that we came dangerously close to losing his talent before he even left grade school. Not because he didn’t understand science, but because he was still learning to read.
“That’s what I mean when I saw simple solutions can have a profound impact on individuals.”