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

Todd Rose
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published January 2016

Reviewed March 2016

This book, through the first half, is iconoclastic and invites, if not insists, that people 'think outside the box' .

And while 'thinking outside the box” is a phrase tossed around like an unqualified virtue, many, quite possibly a majority, are made uncomfortable by 'thinking outside the box' or worse having others think out there. They may see it as unacceptable anarchy.

The thinking here may cause humanists, at first blush to cheer. Pragmatists may offer polite laudatory mumblings before launching into how it can't work in practice because too much of our world is predicated on things remaining essentially the same.

And then there are some who will be threatened and angered that the system that suits their purposes, and maybe ego needs, should be dismantled.

The 'end of average' is calling for the dismantling of a system that describes people's abilities, talents intelligence as essentially some degree above or below average. Under the system advocated by author, Todd Rose, the director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, people should be assessed and measured on a broader more subtle spectrum of skills.

And many of these skills, for the purpose of advancement in school or career, should be described as competence or not, essentially pass/fail with little gradation beyond.

That would force people demanding to know more, to investigate people more personally and extensively to find out their individual characteristics.

One factor he uses in arguing that this is doable is the extensive amount of data possible in this digital age.

Of course all of this means more work as those determining worth can no longer rely on old (if not tried and true) measures of relative personal worth.

He is saying scores on many now 'motherhood tests' on which people's futures can hinge, don't tell a complete or, in many cases, the true story.

One can see the author's own personal journey impassioning his thesis. Now employed at one of the world's most renowned universities, he was a high school dropout and father of two who battled his way up through less notable educational institutions.

While his personal journey certainly impels his case, it may have truncated his educational experience and skewed it in the direction of practical career-related application.

He makes some perfunctory comments about education for its own sake, but it is clear his focus is toward helping one make a living. His own urgency comes to the fore as he describes his desire to escape the dead-end jobs he saw stretching before him and do it by getting an education.

The latter half of the book devolves into something of a manual for human resources. That is not to say it isn't interesting or his examples aren't compelling, but intellectually it was a bit of a downer for me, hoping for more renegade battling-the-status-quo ideas.

He launches the book with a history of the concept of average (a human invention) or more colourfully the rise of “age of average” in the 19th century.

Early in his description of the detriment of relying on average, he talks about airplane cockpits and how designing them for the “average” size resulted in poor fits leading to detrimental piloting.

In his last chapter, he tells what may be his most dramatic story. It is about an heroic pilot. I think he could have led the book with this story and maybe he actually thought of it, but decided on it as a finishing flourish.

The difficulty with the cockpit issue was in designing it for the “average” size person, nobody fit all those parameters, so was a kind of fiction. The search for “average” is a “pitfall into which many persons blunder”. The new search, he said, should be for individuality.

“Yet the concept of average as a yardstick for measuring individuals has been so thoroughly ingrained in our minds that we rarely question it seriously.” And the author's premise is “no one is average”.

However, the concept of average helped shape the industrial revolution. Rose describes several principles illustrating how invalid the idea of average has become.

He says the hardest part of learning something new is not the new ideas but letting go of the old ones and one is “tyranny of the average”.

Rose takes the reader through the history of “average” from its first proponent mathematician Adolphe Quetelet in the early 19th century. He saw “average” as the ideal template. His application of it became the foundation of census.

One of his early disciples Francis Galton saw the average as something to be improved upon and used it to classify people generally supporting the class system with the name “eminent” for those “above average”. “Normality” became “mediocrity”. Further “eminence” “on “narrow metrics of achievement” in one area was expected to extend to all areas, hence the ease of supporting class and rank.

The two aspects of this thinking, especially Galton's, underpin organizing principles in education, hiring practices and performance evaluation, he says.

Both of these people were claiming that a person could only be understood in comparison to the group. From the adoption of this idea Rose uses the word 'averagarian' to describe people of any occupation who use averages to describe individuals.

And the comparison with average has become so 'normal' we are hardly conscious of it and the erasing of individuality coming from it. The idea ”colours every aspect of our lives”.

Rose points to Frederick Taylor as the driving person for applying this idea worldwide and making it the norm. It manifested itself in the leavening of people such that they could be interchangeable cogs in production during the industrial revolution. Tasks were standardized based on efficiency and people expected to conform. And from this came 'managers' to see that this 'scientific' system worked as designed.

It became a guiding principle in the organization of education from the turn of the 20th century. Edward Thorndike generated the 'elitist' idea that students should be organized according to ability, based on standardized tests, so they could “more readily find their proper station in life”. Ranking became a mania in education.

And while the term 'Taylorism' may have fallen out of favour, the system hasn't.

While seeming to cast aspersions on this organization, Rose concedes that Taylorism “probably lifted more people out of poverty than any single economic development in the past century” and contributed to a relatively stable and prosperous democracy. Effectively averagarianism worked better than anything else, especially to aid in quick decisions, despite a lack of precision.

Now more lip service is paid to the idea of the individual, but the system still matters more.

While the author is willing to give credit to the system for past accomplishments, he is suggesting that it is time to move beyond it with more tools to assess individual strengths.

Somewhat ironically one of the main challengers to averagarianism is Peter Molenaar, a Dutch developmental psychologist, who spent his life in averagarian mathematics. In the late 1960s, he was about to be retired (based on an average determined retirement age) when he had an epiphany. The premise of averagarianism was that “one could understand individuals by ignoring their individuality”. He described this as an error and called it “the ergodic switch”.

To circumvent the averagarian approach much more data is needed. However the tools to utilize more data are now available, says the author. With this, patterns that couldn't be discovered with the averagarian approach are now revealed.

However, when most of the world is relying on averages it is brave, and in the view of many foolhardy, to abandon it.

The author goes on to explain the jaggedness principle, the context principle and the pathways principle as ways and reasons to avoid reliance on average.

Jaggedness refers to the variability in skills within one person. It counters the earlier belief that good in one thing usually means good in all. This seeking of a variety of skills is useful for building a team and reduces the competition within a narrow parameter of skills.

Averages may be useful where dimensions are narrow such as the Dow Jones average to describe the vitality of the stock market. However, when systems with divergent factors are compressed into this the results are less reliable with weak correlations. IQ scores are one such system and it can prevent discovering the scope of talent.

The context principle can be illustrated by the idea that people exhibit different personalities in different situations, dispelling the idea of “essential nature”. Averages tend to blur important details of a person's behaviour. Both the individual and the context have to be considered for better prediction. A person may be a thief in one place and not in another, but people find it convenient to judge on “moral fibre”. A stable steady personality may only exist in one context. And the observer is part of the context.

Relying on the idea of 'average' has conditioned society to see deviation as abnormal.

The educational system continues to operate following classic 'Taylorism' with a narrow regimented structure to fit people into normal patterns, says the author.

The resulting “normative thinking”, he says, has conditioned people to see deviation as a sign that something is wrong when in fact it may be a version of normal that society has been blind to.

And “normal” may not be a matter of innate, but a reflection of societal custom.

Another principle he introduces is the 'pathways principle' which suggests there are many ways to the same goal and the pathway chosen is a product of individuality. There are no universal sequences in human development, despite books and guides suggesting otherwise. Each person has his/her own web of development, maybe even discovering it.

This may also be the case with learning as people discover and utilize their own strengths, says Rose.

In the case of learning, “faster” may be seen as equivalent to “better” or “smarter” when that may not be the case. And even where “faster” and “slower” exist it may also be a matter of context. Rose says the education system has generally operated on the idea that learning faster is better.

He also says that new technology is making learning at individual speeds a plausible direction.

The author profiles his own circuitous educational adventure from high school dropout to Harvard academic. He opted for honours classes favouring essays and discussions rather than general courses demanding more rote memory. He believed the path to success (possibly a less travelled one) was open to him, but he would have to find his own.

He has a section describing the interchangeable averagarian labour system of Taylorism with the now trending one where the the individual is hired for personal characteristics. He indicates that Walmart uses the Taylorism model and pays much lower wages and has higher employee turnover than Costco which hires more on individual characteristics and even for a heterogenous employee mix and ideas. He says Costco performed better coming out of the 2008 recession. Costco employees are able to chart a course based on individual strengths and interests.

And while educational performance is a primary concern in hiring generally, Rose said there is often little correlation with job performance in many fields. This may suggest that job training be left to companies and more general education to the education system.

However, he says that “higher education is the single most important gateway to opportunity in our society”. He admits to looking at a college degree in pragmatic terms of preparing students for their self-chosen careers.

He sees goals such as critical thinking, appreciation of the arts and exposing students to new ideas as worthwhile, but secondary to career preparation.

He lived this idea through opting to increase his education to improve the standard of living for his family. Had he had less material demands and moved to post secondary education as a more relaxed unfettered curious high school student, he may have put more primacy on these other aspects.

And while he concedes the practical need for post secondary education, he doesn't embrace the “one dimensional ranking” averagarian method. The system still “demands that we be like everybody else only better”.

While he states the importance of knowing your own strengths and utilizing them, he points out that in an age of averages one departs from the 'expected' at risk of peril, since many of the rewards of society are predicated on this.

The “architecture of higher education” will have to change for individual direction not to be threatened by the system. He claims that it is changing. To an extent the system, with “its careless sorting and ranking” is threatened by the expression of individualism

He introduces the idea of 'credentialing' where individuals are given diplomas/recognition for small segments of useful learning. It offers more flexibility.

Rose favours replacing the parsing represented by grades with declarations of competency. This, he adds, should be of skills aligned with professions. And while a course with a live teacher may be one way, on-line could be another.

He says “we don't need a standardized system to efficiently separate talented from untalented.” He concedes that the current system has triumphs, but also produces “intolerable failures”. For change in education, he believes, employers must demand it.

While 'personalized learning' is buzzword, he says, little is changing and past practice continues to define what is learned.

The book concludes with the heroic pilot story with an interesting twist, which I said earlier could have as well led the book as concluded it.

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Todd Rose
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published January 2016