The End of Average

Todd Rose

Before you read further, I encourage you to use the following link to watch a TEDX presentation by Todd Rose. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4eBmyttcfU4

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If you have viewed the video, I trust that you are convinced that using averages for complex systems such as human traits serves many people and our society poorly. We have the potential to do better in many areas and it is important for us to do so. Technology, used appropriately, can now facilitate this. Since the technology is already in the classrooms, there is minimal additional cost. A critical question about technology is, “How will it be used?” Using the example of medicine, utilizing the genetic code may make individualized care more possible in the future, but the reason that all medical codes changed in October 2015 was to enable diseases and their treatment to be tracked creating more averages for evidence-based medicine. The treatment that performs above average will become the norm. This is valuable, but many treatments perform like presidential elections and professional sports teams. Winning 60% of the time is a blow-out, which leaves 40% as outliers whose problems need to be addressed through alternative care; treatment of the individual.

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Augmenting the video, I found the following statements in the book to be the most thought-provoking.

But the moment you need a pilot, or a plumber, or a doctor, the moment you need to teach this child or decide whether to hire that employee – the moment you need to make a decision about any individual – the average is useless. Worse than useless, in fact, because it creates the illusion of knowledge, when in fact the average disguises what is most important about an individual.

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

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Todd Rose explains that the science of the individual has demonstrated that there are three principles to replace reliance on averages.

The first is the jaggedness principle which he describes in the video. One dimensional scales will never adequately represent traits which are jagged such as size, intelligence, or talents.

The second is the context principle. When it comes to predicting the behavior of individuals – as opposed to predicting the average behavior of a group of people – traits actually do a poor job. In fact, correlations between personality traits and behaviors that should be related – such as aggression and getting into fights, or extroversion and going to parties – are rarely stronger than 0.30. Just how weak is that? According to the mathematics of correlation, it means that your personality traits explain 9 percent of your behavior. Nine percent! There are similarly weak correlations between trait-based personality scores and academic achievement, professional accomplishments, and romantic success. But there is something consistent about our identity – it just isn’t the kind of consistency that anyone expected: we are consistent within a given context. Behavior is not determined by traits or the situation, but emerges out of the unique interaction between the two.

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The third is the pathways principle. There is not a single, normal pathway for any type of human development – biological, mental, moral, or professional. In all aspects of our lives and for any given goal, there are many, equally valid ways to reach the same outcome; and, second, the particular pathway that is optimal for you depends on your own individuality. Because of the jaggedness and context principles, individuals vary naturally in the pace of their progress, and the sequences they take to reach an outcome.

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If you believe only one pathway exists to achieve your goal, then all there is to evaluate your progress with is how much faster or slower you hit each milestone compared to the norm. Consequently, we bestow tremendous meaning on the pace of personal growth, learning, and development, equating faster with better. Equating learning speed with learning ability is irrefutably wrong.

Fit creates opportunity. If the environment is a bad match with our individuality – if we cannot reach the controls in the cockpit – our performance will always be artificially impaired. If we do get a good fit with our environment – whether that environment is a cockpit, a classroom, or a corner office – we will not have the opportunity to show what we are truly capable of.

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Whatever else we may say, traditional education systems violate the principles of individuality if they continue to enforce a curriculum that defines not only what students learn, but also how, when, and at what pace, and in what order they learn it.

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