Death to "Averagarianism!" Long Live the Individual!
Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash It began with reading Todd Rose's excellent book, The End of Average. I had gathered a group of local folks interested in transforming public education at monthly "coffee and conversation" meetings. We had such a dynamic group join us: an expert in innovative preschool education, a parent activist and unschooling advocate, a charter school founder, school administrators, teachers, university faculty members, even an architect who helps build innovative school buildings. One of our members was Dr. Sonn Sam, a former school principal and now regional director for Big Picture Learning, an educational non-profit responsible for helping schools become more student-centered. Sonn had a wealth of resources to share with us, and when we were deciding what book to read next for our book study, he proposed Rose's book. How had I never heard of it? I am still so very grateful for the serendipity of Sonn's suggestion, which has led me back to my own field of psychology, to a branch of personality science that I had never fully explored. The End of Average Back to the book. In it, Rose called for schools, industry, even advertising, to stop focusing averages and focus on the individual. Such a powerful book, with tremendous implications for education and schooling. As he noted, the "humanist perspective argued that the proper goal of education was to provide students with the freedom to discover their own talents and interests by offering an environment that would allow them to learn and develop at their own pace" was supplanted by a Taylor-ist perspective focused on a standardized system of education targeted at the average student (p. 49). And maybe we needed that approach to fuel the industrial revolution, but in today's information-based, gig economy, the humanist perspective now seems like the more reasonable approach. But humanism as a philosophy is not empirical or research-based. It's not persuasive enough to advocate for it in these data-driven times. The Psychological Theory to Back it Up Which leads me back Rose's book. In it, he grounds his claims on the innovative work done by Walter Mischel and Yuichi Shoda. This work is featured, discussed, and commented on in the seminal 2007 text by Shoda and his colleages, Persons in Context: Building a Science of the Individual (PiC). PiC provides the theory, supported by sound experimental research, that people aren't stable personalities at all. We can't predict people's behavior on average. Rather, behavior depends on the context. Therefore, the very premise of structuring schools based on what Rose calls an "averagarian" approach is misguided. We are missing a lot of talent and wasting a lot of students' time and energy with this outdated approach to learning. Top 4 Implications for Schooling
There's so much richness in Shoda and his colleagues' text, but for now, I want to highlight what stood out to me as key implications for schooling:
1. Reframing situations can change their meaning and thus affect our behavior. Mischel makes a powerful claim on p. 272: "People are able, at least sometimes, to transform the impact of situations by changing their meaning." What he found from his marshmallow studies from decades back was that reframing the marshmallow temptation situation allowed students to delay their gratification and choose better rewards. Recently, I claimed that play has the potential to serve as a powerful reframing of difficult learning situations. It's why I have spent much of my career investigating beliefs about learning. Beliefs frame our interpretation of experiences. Right now, many students see learning as a drudgery and obligation, and it affects their motivation and engagement, both of which are powerful predictors of their achievement. If we can reframe learning situations using metaphors like play, it may help change students' and teachers' mindsets and ultimately, their behavior.
2. Schools should focus on individuals, developing their unique strengths, talents, and interests rather than trying to fit students into the same mold. As Mischel noted, how we think of people and assessment must be informed by their context. Our high-stakes standardized traditional approach to schooling lends itself to a hyper-competitive, skills-based, lowest common denominator form of learning. It ranks and sorts kids according to norms and averages. Sternberg, in a separate chapter, reviews his prodigious research on intelligence that shows that "One's ability to be successfully intelligent depends on capitalizing on one's strengths and correcting or compensating on one's weaknesses" (p. 240). Schools, though tend to foster the opposite approach, to the terrible detriment of our nation's kids: "If one capitalizes on weaknesses rather than strengths, one may create a life in which one never allows oneself to be intelligent" (p. 241). Ugh, that is exactly what is happening to our most vulnerable students. It just pierces me to the heart. 3. Just like in medicine, schools would be better served by a "personalized, systems approach" rather than a "one-size-fits all" approach. Walter Mischel's son, Paul, is a cancer biologist using his dad's ideas to transform cancer research. As he noted, medicine is "moving to an era of predictive individualized care based on molecular classification and targeted therapy" (p. 227). As an education researcher, I'd argue it's the same for teaching--we need to acknowledge that different approaches are needed depending on learners' differing levels of background knowledge and experiences (see the expert-novice literature for more on this). Note, before my ed psych colleagues start protesting: I am NOT calling for a return to the unsubstantiated learning styles approach. Rather, I am calling for "targeted" approaches that take into account students' (a) background knowledge, (b) personal learning and life goals, (c) motivation and interests, (d) existing skills and talents, (e) special needs, (f) culture (see culturally relevant pedagogy), and (g) learning preferences (Do they prefer to work alone, in groups? outside or on a computer? Write long-hand or type? draw or compose essays?) 4. School culture and systems matter. The unit of change should be the school not just individual teachers and students. Since personality is exhibited in specific contexts, and schools are a powerful context shaping the waking hours of our children from ages 5-18 and beyond, then we must pay attention to what values, atmosphere, culture the school is perpetuating. Who gets attention? Who gets punished? Who gets the rewards? How are teachers treated? Is there a culture of trust? Do teachers and students have "voices and choices?" Ok, that's all for now. I long to be part of a community discussing these ideas and sharing ways to transform our public schools into places where kids can thrive. If you want to be part of this conversation, I encourage you to join us at our emerging Facebook community and to subscribe to our email list via the subscribe button at the top of this page.