Recently I viewed a TED talk called The Myth of Average. In this talk, the speaker, Todd Rose of the Harvard Graduate School of Education suggests the notion that there is no average student. His point is, when we design for the average, we design for no one. He begins his talk by explaining how the U.S. Air Force began to explore how they could increase the performance of their pilots. They began to think about cockpit design and discovered that this design was intended for the average pilot. Size profiles of pilots revealed that there was, in fact, no such thing as average; not a single pilot was "average" on all components of the profile. Consequently, by adding some adjustable features to the cockpit design they were able to improve the performance of their pilots, but also expand the pool of talented pilots who had before been excluded based on their size profiles.
Rose connects the idea to education. He explains that the learning profiles of students are so variable that when we design our learning experiences for the average student, we design for no one. He builds on the pilot analogy by pointing out that if we consider designing for the margins we will, in fact, expand our talent pool so that more students will be successful in our classrooms. He also introduces the idea of universal design in built spaces as an example of the way that designing for the margins benefits not only the group perhaps intended, but may assist other people who find another way to use the design. This isn't about making adaptations; it is about proactively designing to reduce barriers. The example used in the video is that of ramps in buildings. While perhaps originally intended for wheelchair access, people pushing strollers and riding bicycles may also use the ramps to make access to the building easier.
Again, the idea isn't about making adaptations for our students as a sole means of providing access, but instead proactively designing to reduce barriers to learning. Universal Design for Learning takes the philosophy of designing for the margins into educational design. That is not to say that educational accommodations and modifications aren't necessary, but what would happen if we considered the barriers that we know exist for our students and designed our experiences to break those down from the beginning? How many other students might benefit in ways we didn't anticipate?
Each month, the SEED innovation coaches feature an idea that we think is worth considering in service to our students. This month consider The Myth of Average; this powerful video is a great professional development resource. Here are some ways you might consider using it to support your own professional growth or the growth of your PLC or staff:
- For the purposes of personal learning, consider the students in your classroom. You might even make a list of the strengths and barriers to learning each student possesses. Consider how you might design your next lesson, or next week's lessons to break down those barriers from the outset.
- As a PLC group or whole staff, might each member be asked to do the exercise mentioned above and then bring realizations to share with the group? Might others have different realizations about the strengths and barriers that are part of every student's learning profile? Collaborating with colleagues by sharing insights about students and also ways in which barriers can be addressed in lesson design could be a powerful professional development activity. This type of collaboration could expand the awareness of students, but also build capacity for lesson design and differentiation within the group.
As you consider The Myth of Average, feel free to share any comments you might have!