All of us have heard (or used or been subjected to) these many times- “Average score”, “average child”, “average employee”. And of course the labels. “Introvert”. “Extrovert”. “Judgmental”. “Perceptive”. Or be forced to comply with absurd, “standard” rules, processes, forms etc.
Many of us have probably used various “standardized” tests to hire or promote. And in some cases I bet the employee shockingly turned out to have very different traits from what the test said.
All this was frustrating and confusing to me.
Till I recently read The End of Average by Todd Rose of Harvard University.
Rose argues that no one is average. Our schools and businesses are all designed based upon the mythical notion of the average person, a one-size-fits-all model. Paradoxically, we live in an increasingly democratic world that ignores the individual.
The origins of Average
But how did we get here? Meet F W Taylor, a name you will see in almost every book on Management. Taylor was appalled at the inefficiency in the factories of the late 19th century. His solution was Standardization. He separated the Doers (Workers) from the Thinkers (Managers). The concepts of Management, job descriptions, job instruction cards, standard operating procedures, organization charts, planning departments, efficiency experts and industrial psychology all originated from Taylor. His ideas had a massive impact. Productivity soared, production and exports jumped, wages rose, the standard of life improved dramatically and some nations rose to become world powers.
Everything seemed perfect. With one small wrinkle. Taylorism, which is practiced widely today, largely ignores the individual. The worker was not required to take initiative, to think. He simply had to follow instructions. He was a mere cog in a giant machine who had to fit the system. Go to most workplaces. Whether its a bank, airline, hotel, factory, super market or call center. many employees find the experience dehumanizing and demotivating.
Impact on Education
Taylorism sadly wasn’t confined to the workplace. It spread to the education system.
Pink Floyd’s The Wall is one of my fave albums. And “Another Brick In The Wall- Part 2” was a memorably lyrical rant against standardized school education, a factory administered by ruthless and uncaring teachers that churned out mangled students.
We’re getting not-so-great results in education, but instead of looking at design and fit, we blame bad teachers, lazy students and bad parents. But how much of this problem is just bad design? Students are grouped in grades based on chronological age. Curriculum and textbooks are written to be “age appropriate.” Course durations are fixed. Most standardized assessments, like the SAT, are designed based on a comparison to a hypothetical average student. Walk into a school classroom and even the design of the room is for the “average” kid: one size desk, one size chair, one size table.
But there isn’t one size student or one way to learn. There is no “average learner”. They have strengths and weaknesses. Even geniuses do.
Let’s talk come back to personality tests. For example, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator ( another pillar of the Average-ist world) says that people MUST fall in one of the 16 personality types/traits- ENFP, INTJ etc.
This may be false. Because we are not always driven by situations (as the legendary Milgram experiments and situations psychology suggests) or 100% driven by our traits (“self-control” being the paramount trait as the famous Marshmallow experiments and traits psychology suggest). Reality is a mix of both- IF the situation is like this THEN you will behave this way. A liar at home but honest in school etc. Behavior is very contextual and very individual.
To label people with a “trait” may not just be lazy, inaccurate and misleading but also dangerous. And here’s a shocker- a person may not have a fixed, predictable “Character”- his/her behavior is a product of the situation.
So what next?
Overall, Rose offers a compelling alternative to the average with three key principles: The jaggedness principle (talent is never one-dimensional), the context principle (personality traits do not exist), and the pathways principle (we all walk the road less traveled). These "principles of individuality" unveil our true uniqueness.
In education, rather than forcing students to fit to the environment, we need to have the environment fit each student. Rather than getting mad at a student with poor working memory, a teacher could easily help that student by verbalizing assignments andwriting them down on the white board. Rather than making all students in a grade fill out the same worksheets, assignments could be customized.
And we can now focus on individual learning. Using technology we can easily create learning environments that are flexible. We live at a time when such individualized teaching and learning is not restricted to a tiny wealthy elite but can be distributed far more widely.
Individualisation is both insightful and incredibly liberating as it has the massive potential to change parenting, education and the workplace. Governments, organisations and parents can work to make this happen. It will be tough and the domination of the average concept may not “end” anytime soon.
Binod has been teaching advanced finance and accounting courses since 1996. He quit corporate life (where he worked for firms like KPMG, Arthur Andersen and Ernst & Young in Oman, Nakheel in Dubai and Gulf Finance House in Bahrain) in 2009 to help set up and run Genesis Institute. Binod says that his focus as a Trainer, Mentor and Speaker is to deliver conceptual clarity, get to the core issues, build relationships, keep things simple (and fun!) and talk of practical and effective solutions.