Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

Individuality and Equal Access

"An individual is a high-dimensional system evolving over place and time."
~Peter Molenaar


ew people would disagree with the statement that it is "normal" for human beings to differ in physical appearance, characteristics such as hair or eye color, or athletic abilities. In this article, we explored the potential reactions of parents if schools held all children to the same physical standards, such as height or weight, at a given age. We recognize that children grow and mature at different rates…that their bodies are a complex result of genetics, activity, and nutrition. We know that certain body types are more suited to certain athletic pursuits…and we also know that not every child wants to be an athlete. Because of this, most people would agree that it is unreasonable to expect every 7 year old…male or female…to "measure up" to the same standard weight, height, muscle strength, or athletic ability.

Why then, do we not see it as infinitely more unreasonable when policy makers impose the same mental standards on the minds of all children of a given age? Yes, we all have a brain and a nervous system with the same general composition. But that's where any similarity ends!

The Brain and Learning

Neurons and Dendrites

The diagram shows two brain cells, or neurons. Each neuron has a cell body with multiple extensions called dendrites. Extending from the cell body is a tail-like structure—the axon, which branches at the end. At the tip of each branch is a structure called a synapse. When the synapse of one neuron comes in contact with a dendrite on another neuron, an electrical signal passes from one cell to another.

Even before birth, connections among and between brain cells begin forming. Researchers have shown that babies begin recognizing words before their birth.(1) Other evidence suggests that newborns learn to recognize the sounds of their native language—the language spoken by their parents—as the infant's sound-processing system develops.(2) In other words, the brains of children learn even before birth—without being taught!

From the moment of birth, the experiential life of infants begins to diverge. Each experience modifies the connections in the brain. Each new stimulus causes the baby's brain to develop more synapses. Some suggest that as many as 700 new synapses per second form in response to a rich sensory environment.(3) In addition, the dendrites on the infant's neurons multiply and grow as it learns and experiences new things. The richer the infant's experiences, the more connections are enabled within the brain. By the age of 3, a child's brain may contain 1,000 trillion connections! And no two children have the same sets of connections because they have had different experiences!

This growth is also dependent on many different factors that may also be part of an infant's experience. What a child does or does not do in this stage determines how a brain develops.

The brain continues to reshape itself throughout adolescence and adulthood, with connections forming, disappearing, strengthening, or weakening based on every new experience a person has. As brains age, the axiom "Use it or lose it" becomes even more important.

In comments written by educators (or parents), one frequently encounters the idea that "we need to teach children how to think." Really? What were they doing before they got to school? Who taught them to crawl, to walk, to communicate nonverbally, and to talk? Were they not thinking as they learned those things? The brain doesn't have to be "taught" to think. It's only when adults decide that everyone needs to know and be able to do the same things in the same ways and at the same age that external "teaching" ("giving learners information") begins to war with internal "learning"—what the human brain has evolved to do successfully since early hunter-gatherers walk the earth.

Given the fact that 1. a child's brain contains trillions of connections by the time they reach "school age"; 2. every experience the child has ever had or will have changes the brain and its connections; and 3. no two individuals—even identical twins—have exactly the same experiences, how can we, for a single instant, assume that every child of a given age learns in the same way…or should?!

Public education was designed to create average people who could do average jobs in average factories. (See The Historical Purpose of Public Education). Apparently, public education has done such a great job of creating standardized thinkers who do what they are told that people readily accept the claims and mandates of others even when they fly in the fact of common sense.

Our Education System

Group-think (similarity) vs. Individuality (diversity)


he concept of average is only valid when comparing a single, directly measureable characteristic, such as height, weight, or arm length. Even then, the average may be fleeting if the data is collected from children who are still growing.

Because human beings are multi-dimensional in both physical and mental characteristics, an educational system structured to fit the "average" fits no one! The only students who will appear to "succeed" in such a system are those whose strengths happen to be a close match to the characteristics the system values. Who chose those values? What expertise did they have and why should their choices be accepted without question? In accepting this narrow and extremely limiting criteria, we must also accept that we are wasting the talent and potential of many more children whose strengths lie in other areas. Worse, the talents of these children are not only lost, but the children themselves are made to feel like 'failures' because they don't "measure up."

The average student is a myth

The diagram barely scratches the surface of the profile of a given individual. Based on numerical data, either measured on some scale, or estimated using a hypothetical norm, this student isn't "average" in a single category. Further, the categories themselves are multidimensional. What would a comparable graph look like if we expanded the "knowledge" categories by asking "Knowledge about what? History? Math? Computer programming? Social media? Gaming? Music? Mechanics? Poetry? And why stop there. If the student ranked high on knowledge about math, can we assume that they would rank equally high on every type of math—algebra, geometry, probability theory, statistics, calculus…?

Yet in our current educational setting, this student is subjected to textbooks in each required subject that are written in average vocabulary for his age, and to standards that are based on what an average student of that age "should" know and be able to do (based on what???), and an average time in which to learn the required content. At that point, the student must take a norm-referenced test containing questions that have a single correct, unambiguous answer. His score is then compared to a hypothetical "normal" (average) student of the same age. And the resulting placement on the Bell Curve determines whether or not he is a "success" as defined by a small, but influential segment of society.

Nothing in this litany addresses the actual strengths and/or weaknesses of this particular student. What type of "giftedness" might lie outside those average expectations? What talents might we be ignoring, demeaning, or throwing away?

Perceiving Individuals


n order to truly perceive individuals, we must begin with three principles identified by Dr. Todd Rose in The End of Average.(5) Rose's book was identified as one of the "must read" books of the year. Although it is only 196 pages long, Rose provides a wealth of fascinating historical evidence and research that should put the final nail in the coffin of standardized factory education. Highly recommended!

The Jaggedness Principle

The Jaggedness Principle: The qualities of any human individuals, including body size or characteristics, intelligence, talent, character, creativity, empathy, etc. are multi-dimensional and cannot be reduced to a single score or category.(6)

Which man is taller? You can answer this question because it is based on a single dimension. Rose then asks the question, "Which man is bigger?" In trying to answer that question, one recognizes that it can't be answered without specifying a single dimension. The man in orange is average or barely average in four of the nine dimensions. The man in purple is barely average on only two other dimensions. So which man is closest to average?

Questions of which child is smarter, more talented, more creative, or has the better character, are equally impossible to answer because each of those characteristics is not only subjective, but multi-dimensional and thus, outside the realm of statistics or one-dimensional either-or thinking. Of course, that doesn't stop educators from trying to answer them—using test scores, GPA, or other spurious types of "ranking."

Designing a car seat based on average male measurements would clearly not "fit" either of the gentlemen in this picture. Similarly, designing a school system based on mythical "learning" averages does not fit any children.

You may be thinking that designing a different learning environment based on the strengths and weakness of each individual is impossible. And it is, but only if we remain at the level of thinking that created the problem in the first place—group think. First, let's look at the other two principles of individuality.

The Context Principle: A person's behavior always depends on the interaction of the person and the situation; it is meaningless to evaluate performance independent of the immediate context.

The two 18th century "psychologists" who created and defined the concept of average also differed in their beliefs about behavior. "Trait" psychologist Frances Galton believed that human temperament and characteristics were consistent and persistent factors of one's behavior. "Situation" psychologist Adolphe Quetelet, on the other hand, claimed that the environment drives behavior much more than personal traits. For example, being part of a violent crowd can make people more aggressive. This argument between the trait and situation psychologists continues to this day.(7)

Have you ever taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, which categorizes people into one of sixteen distinct "types"? Or the Enneagram personality test, which assigns people one of nine personality types? Rose suggests that these types of tests are popular because humans have come to believe that each of us is "hard-wired" to be friendly or unfriendly, industrious or lazy, introverted or extroverted. And if we know a person's traits, we can then predict how they will behave in a given situation.(8)

But isn't this the poster child for fixed mindset? When we label learners as remedial, gifted, aggressive, smart, thoughtless, or respectful, aren't we assigning them a fixed personality type? And doesn't that label further color our perceptions and interpretation of what the student does, as well as the potential future of that student?

In the 1980s, University of Washington professor Yuichi Shoda undertook a study of 84 children in a residential summer camp. For six weeks, Shoda and a team of 77 adult camp counselors recorded more than 14,000 hours of observations—about 167 hours per child. After sifting through the findings, Shoda discovered that each child exhibited different personalities in different situations. While this would seem to validate the situational theory, it did not because the same situation elicited different types of behavior from different individuals.

What Shoda did find was that individuals were consistent in their behavior, but only within a given context. For example, one child was extroverted in class, but introverted on the playground. Another was introverted in math class, but extroverted in P.E. Two boys in the study were given the "aggressiveness test" and both scored in the 80th percentile. That might suggest that both boys needed the same kind of counseling or intervention. But as it turned out, one boy was aggressive around adults and the other around his peers.(9)

The link between behavior and context applies equally to personality traits or what we often think of as "character" traits, such as honesty, kindness, or respect. Research on traits such as honesty have shown that the same jaggedness is found in physical or mental traits of abilities. A person may be honest when observed, but dishonest in private. You may be generous to someone who is truly needy, but not to a charity that you see as well-funded. You may not cheat on your taxes, but when a cashier unknowingly gives you too much change, do you return the extra?

In an old study of self-control, children between the age of three and five were offered a marshmallow. They could eat the marshmallow immediately, but if they waited fifteen minutes, they would receive a second marshmallow. Later, it was found that the children who had exhibited self-control tended to be better adjusted socially and had greater academic success. So of course, psychologists began to look for ways to improve self-control in children.

Fortunately, they didn't stop there. When the context of the experiment was taken into account, it turned out that the children with the most self-control were those who had been in situations where adults kept their word—a reliable situation. Those from situations in which the adults did not keep their word more often ate the marshmallow right away. Doesn't that make perfect sense? Wouldn't children who had found they could trust adults have a greater chance of being socially well-adjusted? And if they weren't constantly stressed about whether to trust the people around them, wouldn't it be easier to be academically "successful?"

The Pathways Principle: There is no single, normal pathway for any type of human development—biological, mental, moral, or professional.

Grouping learners by age, and the fixed pacing in public education are perfect examples of how ignoring the importance of individual pathways inhibits learning. For example, in one study, one group of students was taught a new concept in the traditional way—a teacher presented the same concept to all students during fixed periods of instruction. A second group of students spent the same total time on the same material, but the tutor allowed each student to move through the material at his or her own pace… slow in some places and fast in others. When tested on the concept, roughly 20 percent of the fixed-pace group achieved mastery of the material. In the self-paced group, more than 90 percent of the students achieved mastery.

This kind of flexibility and self-pacing is so contrary to traditional education that many teachers have convinced themselves that it can't be accomplished with their current class sizes. What they forget is that, when the focus shifts to individual learners, the teacher is no longer responsible for "teaching" (giving) the content to each learner. The learners themselves take on the responsibility of "individualizing" the content by choosing how long to spend on each section and when to ask for assistance. This frees the teacher to help those who may need more guidance.

Rose asks why the time it takes a person to learn something should matter. Given that every learner learns at a different pace, and the same student learns at a different pace for different materials, is it any wonder that so many students feel that they are "not good at" math, science, or other subjects when subjected to the fixed-pace curriculum? "Were you really not good at math or science? Or was the classroom just not aligned to your learning pace?"

Pace is only one dimension of learning. In one-size-fits-all standards-based education, not only when, but also what and how, are pre-defined into a fixed-pace program through which all learners are expected to proceed. Yet all we have to do is to think about how neurons in the brain connect to recognize why this can't possibly work.

"Each one of us has our own web of development, where each new step we take opens up a whole range of new possibilities that unfold according to our own individuality."(11)

Placeholder Picture

The way we learn is as unique as our fingerprints. It might be useful to remember that learning takes place as neurons in the brain communicate with one another.

How likely is it that any two brains will process the same information at the same age, in the same way, and in the same amount of time? And yet that is the foundation around which public education is built.

What if, rather than comparing and labeling—looking for similarities and differences—we saw each student as a unique creation—a one-of-a-kind work of art…because they are!

Abstract Minds

Which mind is gifted? Which has the greatest potential? Which is the smartest, the most intelligent, or the most "successful?"

Rose points to himself as an example of what can happen when everyone is taught, assessed, and judged based on a fictitious "average." Rose dropped out of high school with a 0.9 GPA. He spent time on welfare, had 10 different minimum wage jobs, and had a wife and child before exiting his teens. Today, Rose lectures at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, is the author of two books, and is director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at Harvard. He also directs the Center for Individual Opportunity.(13)

"For every one person like me, there are millions who worked as hard and have the ability who are unable to overcome the drag of the educational environment that is based on average. We have a once in a lifetime chance to fundamentally re-imagine the foundation of our institutions so they nurture the talent of every individual."

The U.S. Department of Education mission statement promises "equal access," but what they mean is access to the same content, the same pacing, and the same standardized learning experiences. While it is clear that they have come nowhere near achieving even that nominal goal, Rose insists that "…[N]ow 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."(14) So what is equal fit?

  1. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2013/08/babies-learn-recognize-words-womb
  2. http://www.livescience.com/25908-newborns-learn-native-language.html
  3. https://prezi.com/yynnhaflynhv/brain-development-timeline/
  4. Ibid.
  5. Rose, Todd (2015) The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, HarperCollins, NY.
  6. http://www.individualopportunity.org/science/
  7. Rose, p 99
  8. Rose, p 101-102
  9. Ibid, p 104-111
  10. Ibid. p 129
  11. Ibid. p 138
  12. http://thephenomenalexperience.com/content/how-fast-is-your-brain
  13. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/15/08/beyond-average
  14. Rose, pp 185-189

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