Excerpted from The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Todd Rose. Copyright ©2016 by L. Todd Rose, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 

I hope I have captured just how incredible a pilot Killer C is. But I would never be telling you this story if the U.S. Air Force still insisted that our pilots fit inside a cockpit designed for an average pilot: Colonel Kim N. Campbell, whose real call sign is Killer Chick, is five foot four and weighs 120 pounds—and she could not be any further from someone’s idea of an “average” pilot.

There is an important lesson here about the nature of opportunity. When the military adopted Lieutenant Gilbert Daniels’s radical idea of creating adjustable cockpits that fit any person’s body, nobody was talking about expanding the pool of pilot talent, let alone advocating for gender equity. They just wanted their existing pilots to perform better. The air force did not get Campbell because they designed a female-friendly plane, they got Campbell because they made a commitment to build planes designed to fit the jagged profile of individual pilots, whatever their jaggedness might be. “When I climb into the Warthog,” Campbell said to me, “the seat needs to go to its maximum height and the pedals go all the way back—but it fits.”

This is the lesson of Kim Campbell: 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 have the opportunity to show what we are truly capable of. This means that if we want equal opportunity for everyone, if we want a society where each one of us has the same chance to live up to our full potential, then we must create professional, educational, and social institutions that are responsive to individuality.

Rose End of AverageThis is not how we usually think about equal opportunity. During the Age of Average we have defined opportunity as “equal access”—as ensuring that everyone has access to the same experiences. Of course, equal access is undoubtedly preferable to older alternatives such as nepotism, cronyism, racism, misogyny, and classism. And there is no doubt that equal access has improved society immensely, creating a society that is more tolerant, respectful, and inclusive. But equal access suffers from one major shortcoming: it aims to maximize individual opportunity on average by ensuring that everyone has access to the same standardized system, whether or not that system actually fits.

Imagine if the Air Force had passed a policy to allow all men and women the opportunity to become fighter pilots if they had the “right stuff,” but continued to create cockpits designed for the average pilot. The Air Force would have rejected Kim Campbell, not because she lacked the talent to be a world-class pilot, but because she didn’t fit inside an average cockpit. It would be difficult to argue that this is equal opportunity.

Equal access is an averagarian solution to an averagarian problem. For generations, people have been discriminated against because of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic class. Our response to such discrimination has been to try to balance the scales of opportunity—on average. If we see that the Average Man of one group is receiving different access to educational, professional, legal, and medical experiences than the Average Man of another group, then averagarian thinking suggests that the fair thing to do is to try to make those two Average Men as similar as possible. This was the right thing to do in the Age of Average—because it was the best we could do to address unfairness in a standardized world.

But now we know there is no such thing as an average person, and we can see the flaw in the equal access approach to opportunity: if there is no such thing as an average person, then there can never be equal opportunity on average. Only equal fit creates equal opportunity. Equal fit may seem like a novel idea, but it is ultimately the same view of opportunity expressed by Abraham Lincoln, when he declared that government’s “leading object is to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

Equal fit is an ideal that can bring our institutions into closer alignment with our values, and give each of us the chance to become the very best we can be, and to pursue a life of excellence, as we define it.

The good news is that we have it within our power, right now, to implement equal fit as a new foundation for equal opportunity in society. We no longer need to compel people to conform to the same inflexible standardized system, because we have the science and technology to build institutions that are responsive to individuality. But this transformation from an Age of Average to an Age of Individuals will not happen automatically. We must demand it.

If we are looking for the institution where implementing equal fit would have the biggest immediate impact on opportunity, the place to start is clear: public education. Despite the fact that “personalized learning” is the biggest buzzword in education today, and despite efforts of many organizations seeking change in the system, almost everything in traditional educational systems remains designed to ensure students receive the same exact standardized experience. Textbooks are designed to be “age appropriate,” which means they are targeted toward the average student of a given age. Many assessments (including many so-called high-stakes tests) are age or grade normed, which means they are based around the average student of that age or grade. We continue to enforce a curriculum that defines not only what students learn, but also how, when, at what pace, and in what order they learn it. In other words, whatever else we may say, traditional public education systems violate the principles of individuality.

Although it would not be easy, it’s not difficult to imagine how to introduce equal fit into education. For starters, we can require that textbooks be designed “to the edges” rather than to the average; we can require that curricular materials be adaptive to individual ability and pacing rather than fixed based on grade or age; we can require that educational assessments be built to measure individual learning and development rather than simply ranking students against one another. Finally, we can encourage local experimentation and sharing of successes and failures to accelerate discovery and adoption of cost-effective, scalable ways to implement student-driven, self-paced, multipathway educational experience.

We can also apply the principle of equal fit to social policies that influence the workplace, such as policies that influence hiring, firing, and pay. Imagine the talent that we can unleash by redesigning our schools and jobs to fit the individual, instead of fitting the averagarian system—even if that averagarian system is motivated by the best of intentions. We would unleash a society of Kim Campbells—a society of individual excellence.

Todd Rose is president of the Center for Individual Opportunity and faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

What Do We Lose By Measuring ‘Average’ In Education? 28 March,2016MindShift

  • OPERI

    I fully agree with the need for “equal fit” and you have done a great job presenting it. I don’t see it as a difficult thing to introduce into education once we recognize that it is not a matter of designing a new cockpit for students, but rather a matter of empowering students to design their own cockpits. The individual student is the only person remotely qualified to know what kind of cockpit he or she needs. The teacher/facilitator role is to help students to identify who they are, to “Know thyself”. With knowledge of self they can unfold themselves. Incremental change is required to provide scaffolding for students as they transition from highly controlled learning environments to ones that have high levels of autonomy. OPERI (www.operi.ca) offers ideas about how public schools can create the incremental change that gradually puts students back in a position to design their own cockpits. I say “puts students back” because young people are generally quite good at designing them before they go to schools where adults take over the design responsibility.

  • Larryalobo

    Equality is a tricky thing. Who decides what is equal and If I am satisfied with things being equal, does that mean you can’t object to what is fine with me – do we take the ‘AVERAGE’ opinion of a group of people who are affected in equal access? The idea of ‘equal fit’ may be a lofty goal but in practice what it would mean is a tutor for each student and that is not practical. Do we give the ‘A’ student a tutor to match their level of performance to take them higher? As they advance and get better, grades between them and the struggling student get farther apart which gives them a greater advantage in higher education. So talking about equal is not so simple though I get the gist of the aim – help struggling students to perform better and to their capacity. I don’t know if this is the way to go

  • umbrarchist

    A National Recommended Reading List could have helped with this decades ago. There would have been nothing to stop 2nd grade kids frome reading books selected for 5th graders if they wanted to read/study them.

  • robert45654f@mail.ru

    It is a very meaningful though concerning the education that is really good one writing. But, it is most important to keep alert our mind for the education. how to write MBA essay.

  • Lee McAuliffe Rambo

    “By designing systems for the average person, individuals lose out on
    potential opportunities to excel.” Hmm. I’m confused. Did the
    “individuals” design the systems? Or do they “lose out”? If the
    “individuals” aren’t responsible for the system design, who is?

  • Pingback: In the Age of Technology, Social Connection May Still Drive Lifelong Learning()

  • Edward O’Neill

    Ah, the straw man is alive and well and being used to sell books about education.

    The words “equal,” “average,” and “individual” in this excerpt are being misused to make a tendentious argument which has no reason for being without a set of systematic distortions.

    (1) “Equal access” *never* meant “as ensuring that everyone has access to the same experiences.” The equality applies to the *access* not to the system: if there is equal access to an education, everyone still gets a unique educational experience.

    (2) “But now we know there is no such thing as an average person….” I don’t believe with know this now. “Average” refers to a statistical norm. Individuals approach this norm to varying degrees. Does the author really believe that a man in North American who is 5’10” tall is *not* closer to average height? By saying “average person,” the author evades the entanglements of specificity.

    (3) “[W]e can require that educational assessments be built to measure individual learning and development rather than simply ranking students against one another.” Educational assessments *do* measure individual learning and development: by comparing scores year after year. There are other ways to do this besides testing instruments that are valid and reliable, but that does not mean valid and reliable tests fail to measure anything. This is like saying “my growth can’t be measured by a yardstick, because a yardstick only gives one number!”

    ‘Everyone is unique! Education must change entirely to accommodate this keen insight!’ Were this argument true, our educational systems would have created only automata. And yet, everywhere you go, people are different. It seems that the standardized and standardizing educational system that so badly needs decrying is actually terribly ineffective.

    The author has to mis-state the problem so that the remedy on offer seems desirable.

    A better solution would come from a less distorted estimation of the problem.

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