Measuring Average Promotes Average
Mid-way through 2022, the government announced a mission for education. That “90% of pupils should achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths at the end of Key Stage 2 by 2030.”
To put that into perspective, only 65% of pupils achieved those results in 2019.
As you can imagine, the announcement was greeted with a mixed response. Some people thought the new target was too ambitious and would place even more pressure on teachers and schools. Others expressed concern that the current levels were so low.
But perhaps the biggest problem isn’t the number but the behaviour it promotes. These types of targets focus attention on the average rather than individual students. Put yourself in a teacher’s shoes. Where are you going to focus when the pressure is on to deliver results? Are you going to spend your time pushing the children who are already beyond that level? Are you going to focus time on those who have little or no chance of reaching it?
Whilst teachers may have the inclination to help each and every child, they simply don’t have the time. And if they are assessed on that metric, then they have little option but to do what teachers often refer to as “teach down the middle”. They teach to the average.
But what does average look like given that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses?
Todd Rose, former faculty Director at Harvard, tells the story in his TEDx Talk, about cockpit design for US fighter pilots. As you can imagine, pilots come in all different shapes and sizes, so designing a cockpit to fit everyone was a challenge. So, the designers made what appears to be a logical decision. They designed a cockpit based on the average pilot.
The problem was that the life of a fighter pilot comes down to fractions of a second and the design of that cockpit is critical. If a button is slightly too far away, then it eats into that time and impacts performance.
So, an Air Force researcher decided to prove how wrong it was. He studied over 4000 pilots and measured them on 10 dimensions of size. He then looked at how many pilots were average on all those dimensions. The answer was zero. In other words, there was no such thing as an average pilot.
Todd’s summary was – if you design based on average, odds are you’ve designed for nobody.
And in an education setting, it also raises questions about developing potential.
Now let’s say I asked, how long will it take me to drive 10 miles? The likelihood is I’d be told how long it would typically take. In other words, how long it would take on average. The expectation would be set. It will take me a similar amount of time and I’ll plan my journey accordingly.
We do the same thing with education. If I want to know how fast I can learn the times tables, the answer will be based on the average time it typically takes. And we will set out our classroom learning accordingly. We set out with a system designed to achieve the average. We teach to the average, we set targets around the average and that means we’re likely to achieve the average.
Potential may be reached as a result of teacher or parent influence, but it isn’t designed into the system.
There has to be a better way. A system that encourages all students to be as good as they can be. Focused education that helps all children to reach their potential. With internal and government metrics following suit.
That’s what we believe in at Plytime and why content is personalised to each and every student. We want to help every child to be their best.