The Myth of the Average Child

The Myth of the Average ChildIn the industrial construct of traditional educational systems, we all too often designed for the “average” child. I believe that the existence of the “average” child is a myth and a paradigm we need to radically reject from our societal thinking. Instead, anyone involved today in the design of new curricula, teaching resources, and assessments should consider the question: “How can I create new educational resources and assessments that will nurture and maximize each child’s optimal learning potential?”

Todd Rose dropped out of high school with a 0.9 GPA and also has significant problems with working memory. He knows what it is like to fail in the educational system. Today Dr. Rose serves on the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he teaches Educational Neuroscience, and is co-founder and president of Project Variability, an organization supporting research and advocacy for the emerging science of the individual. He is also the author of Square Peg: My story and what it means for raising visionaries, innovators, and out-of-the-box thinkers.

Todd Rose responds to the question of “normal” in a TEDx talk he gave entitled “The Myth of Average.” He describes how in the 1950s the Air Force had a problem. Despite huge technological advances in fighter airplanes and the recruitment of great pilots, the reactions of pilots in critical situations were getting slower. The problem turned out to be the cockpit design; it was built to fit the average man – which meant the cockpit fit nobody. The Air Force learned to design flexible fighter cockpits that fit the margins of people’s sizes, not the “average”- sized pilot. The goal became to build in flexibility from the outset. As a result, the Air Force tremendously expanded the potential to get the very best pilots – both men and women. By designing to the margins, the Air Force implemented universal design.

Universal Design: Building for the Margins

The term “universal design” finds its roots in architecture. Ron Mace coined the term to describe the concept of designing the physical environment to be usable, as well as pleasing to the eye, for most people. As universal design was implemented in the design process, it was found to be more cost-effective and equitable than retrofitting. Universal design anticipates the needs of most people and builds into the original design alternative modes and adaptations. By doing so, everyone benefits; alternative options are often used by people other than the original intended users. Sidewalk curb cuts are a good illustration; although these ramps built from roads to sidewalks are designed for wheelchair use, people riding bicycles, pushing strollers, or handling delivery carts also benefit from using them.

Universal design also extends to products and services. TV captioning was originally designed for people who are deaf; today captioning is found on TVs in airports, athletic facilities, and anywhere else where it is hard to hear. In 1990, Sam Farber founded the company OXO to create kitchen products using universal design because he watched his wife, who had arthritis in her hands, struggle to use existing tools. Today, many people select these “Good Grips” utensils for their ease of use. Employees of OXO collect lost single gloves and display them in their NY office to remind themselves of all the different sizes and shapes of hands their products should fit. Today’s GPS systems in people’s cars are another good example of universal design principles in action, with multiple options for interaction.

What it Means for Schools

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) applies the concept of flexible design to teaching, learning, and assessment. The foundation of UDL rests on three basic design constructs:

  1. Multiple means of representation – providing content to students in a variety of modes
  2. Multiple means of action and expression – providing a variety of ways for students to express themselves as they respond to content
  3. Multiple means of engagement – stimulating and motivating students by using a variety of ways to engage their interests, emotions, and gifts

UDL is grounded in understandings of how learning integrates three primary brain networks. To maximize each child’s learning potential, we must incorporate ways to address these three learning networks. As we implement new standards and new curricula and assessments, let us remember that there is no “average” student.


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