• The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness

    By Todd Rose, Director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Founder of The Center for Individual Opportunity


    2015; 191 pages

    This review/synopsis has several direct quotes from the book, as well as comments from Sheila (those comments will be obvious); hence, quotations will not be used. It is a difficult book to synopsize, as you really need to read all of the history, research and examples, but I'll do my best. 

    Are you above average?  Is your child an A or C student?  Are you an introvert or extrovert?  Mr Rose will use historical contexts to get you to question so many every day assumptions about performance, and force you to expand the on-dimensional understanding of achievement that much of our educational systems are based upon.  He will also provide glimmers of hope for each and every student who is feeling that s/he is below average, based on false assumptions and an evaluation system that is designed as a "one size fits all."  He forces us to look at each person as a "one size fits one" and see the many facets that create value in each unique child.

    If we apply the principles of individuality, human potential is nowhere near as limited as the systems in place would have us believe. Mr Rose dropped out of high school with a .09 gpa, worked a low paying job to support his wife and two children and then stopped trying to conform to the system and instead figured out how to make the system work to fit him.  Fifteen years later, he is on the faculty at Harvard.  This book tells you how he accomplished that feat and how you can use the principles to improve your performance at school, work, and in your personal life. 

    The hardest part of learning something new is not embracing new ideas, but letting go of old ones.

    A history of Adolphe Quetelet's work in mathematics and the establishment of "averages" as a means of managing humans is detailed.  Once averages were established, anything deviating from them constituting a deformity or abnormality.  Averages simplify humans and their characteristics and abilities, allowing us to group or norm them, stereotype them and outline certain benchmarks and behaviors for all humankind. 


    Average has become synonymous with normal, and is used to categorize behavior and performance and to judge students, employees, etc.  The perils of using the average of the multitude to evaluate individuals is then outlined in great detail from a variety of perspectives.  The law of large numbers is always true in general and false in particular. 


    One view of education was to prepare masses of students to engage in an economy where most work was standardized and very little creativity was required (think of cars being built on assembly lines).  The humanist perspective of education argues that students should be given the freedom to discover their own talents and interests in an environment that allows them to learn and develop at their own pace. 

    In our current system, students are groups by age (not by performance, interest or aptitude), and rotated through classes for a set period of time (even if some students master the curriculum at a faster rate, while others master it over a more extended period of time).  The aim appears to be preparing all students to achieve the same level by the same age with the same instruction - average students being prepared for average work.  Some believe that the job of education is simply to sort students, as opposed to others who believe that it is to provide the opportunity for all students to expand their knowledge and broaden their horizons to new possibility.

    Society compels each of us to conform to certain narrow expectations in order to succeed in school.  Be like everyone else, only better.  The question: how can a society predicated on evaluating everyone in reference to the average create the conditions for understanding and harnessing individuality? 

    The "erotic theory" is explained, and it calls into questioning all standardized testing (i.e., IQ, SAT, ACT, GATE, mental health, selection for special needs programming, etc.).    Rose explains in detail why substituting knowledge of a group for knowledge about an individual will get you the exact wrong answer. 

    We are all individuals and CANNOT be reduced to a single score.  Once you free yourself from averagarian thinking, what previously seemed impossible becomes possible. 

    The Principles of Individuality.  "An individual is a high-dimensional system evolving over place and time."  Peter Molenaar, Penn State University

    Google and Microsoft hiring practices (hiring folks with high gpa's from prestigious universities) is put under the microscope.  The fact that they have changed their hiring practices drastically, given the fact that those folks are not always the best performers in an ever-shifting marketplace, where creativity and ingenuity reign supreme, demonstrates the need for each of us to expand our viewpoint on student abilities.  Both Google and Microsoft have found that SAT scores and prestige of university were not at all predictive of success.  There are many different ways to be talented, which is why some companies no longer allow resumes but insist on observing candidates work on actual teams to solve real problems faced by companies prior to hiring them.  Companies who embrace jaggedness are uncovering many "diamonds" in the candidate pool, as they are redefining talent with a broader brush. 

    The idea that taken can be boiled down to a number that we can compare to a neat average simply does NOT work.  The Jaggedness Principle explains why.  Almost every human characteristic of importance - talent, intelligence, character, creativity - is jagged.  It is not average or static over time. 

    Think about great teams; you don't recruit people with the exact same attributes if you want to succeed.  You recruit a variety of people with different attributes who can contribute to the good of the team, thereby creating greater opportunity for success. 


    The IQ scale is and scoring system are reviewed and an illustration depicts how each set of sub scores are combined to make up an individual score.  Hence, two people can have the exact same IQ, but very different strengths and weaknesses and very disparate sub scores. Consequently, we evaluate differences based on very weak correlations that have very little meaning.  For example, if you find a 0.4 correlation between two dimensions, that means you have managed to explain 16% of the behavior of each dimension.  Do you really understand something if you can explain 16% of it?  Would you hire a mechanic who could explain 16% of what is wrong with your car? 

    Traits are a Myth: a great chapter on all of the milestones of childhood that we considered "average" and why most of them are irrelevant.  It really doesn't matter if you were 16 or 18 months old when you took your first step - we all learned to walk!  Turns out milestones are irrelevant and traits result in inconsistent behaviors depending on context.  Every given situation results in a different response from every individual and it is fairly impossible to make accurate predictions.  Character and context are intermingled. 

    It is really important to reflect on the reasons we make judgements about others (something we heard, a behavior one day in one context, something we attribute to their particular personality style), and consider the fact that we are only seeing people in one particular context most of the time.  The perceptions and views of others may be wholly inaccurate; therefore unreliable. 

    We All Walk The Road Less Traveled

    This chapter demonstrates that there is no normal path to anything and that each of us is unique in our attitudes, abilities and behaviors. There are many equally valid ways to reach the same outcome, and the particular pathway that is optimal for you depends on your own individuality. 

    Trying to fit everyone into the same pathway and having the same expectations at the same time for everyone is stultifying.  The pace of our expectations actually results in far more failure than success, so that needs a good review.  What if speed and learning are not related?  Have we created an educational system that is profoundly unfair? 


    Self-paced learning is a focus here with examples of how it may better serve some (or many) students.  Assuming that the best way to be successful in life is to follow a well-blazed trail may be a false assumption. 

    Several business models are shared.  These foster individual initiative, nurture individuality, and treat each individual as unique.  Compelling examples of financial success, while treating individuals with dignity and respect and providing them with autonomy in their work lives. 

    Some ideas about how to revamp education are shared.  Some of these ideas can be dovetailed into our current system; some require a total overhaul.  All of them are interesting to consider in light of the fact that our current system really is not serving a vast number of students, which results in a weakened economy and less life satisfaction for a large percentage of the population. 


    Rose suggest fewer penalties for experimenting in order to discover what you want to study in college and work on in your career.  He suggests that students try to be the very best version of themselves instead of trying to be like everyone else, only better.  Stop worrying that your child is "different" or hasn't figured it all out by 17.  Support her to explore, make choices, fail forward, and live a life of excellence on her own terms. 

    Posted 08/09/2016 by Sheila Souder.