See you at the library, 2017

The world seemed to have gone off its spinner this year, making the library one of the few places you could retreat where the pace of life was slower and blessed silence reigned. It is also the place where serendipity thrives.

“The library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else,” the late Maya Angelou once told an interviewer from the New York Public Library. Those are wiser words than pretty much anything that was said in all of 2016. Let’s try again next year, shall we?

—Elizabeth Renzetti, “As 2016 crashed in flames, libraries were the last good place

Happy New Year, everyone!

The End of Average: Jagged Brain

The End of Average  talks about the “jaggedness principle,” which is the notion that what seem to be homogenous qualities, like intelligence or physical size, turn out to be quite heterogenous or  “jagged” when broken down into their parts. For instance, measuring one part of a person’s body provides no clue whatsoever to their other dimensions (which would explain why off-the-rack clothes never fit properly). We are all variable in every possible way, all the time.  Another classic example is intellectual performance:

[James] Cattell administered a battery of physical and mental tests to hundreds of incoming freshmen at Columbia University across several years, measuring things such as their reaction time to sound, their ability to name colors, their ability to judge when ten seconds passed, and the number of letters in a series they could recall. He was convinced he would discover strong correlations between these abilities—but, instead, he found the exact opposite. There was virtually no correlation at all. Mental abilities were decidedly jagged.

For a devout believer in ranking, there was worse to come. Cattell also measured the correlation between students’ grades in college courses and their performance on these mental tests and discovered very weak correlations between them. And not only that—even the correlations between students’ grades in different classes were low. In fact the only meaningful correlation Cattell found at all was between students’ grades in Latin classes and their grades in Greek classes.

—Todd Rose, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

As it turns out, even standardized IQ tests reveal the variability in people’s talents, at least until it all gets boiled down into a single number. When IQ subtests are broken out, jaggedness rears its ugly head, and it turns out the everyone has a unique collection of strengths and weaknesses. Trying to characterize people’s abilities with a single score, such as IQ or GPA, gives us the wrong answer because their shining talents get obscured by their mediocrities. No one expects an artist to be good at math or an astronaut to be a talented singer (Chris Hadfield notwithstanding), but we somehow expect students to be good at everything and dock marks when they are not. Is that fair?

Todd Rose proposes a system of higher education where students pursue the competencies they desire for their chosen career, and receive certificates for each subject area they master. So, instead of a single degree and a single GPA, you get a portfolio of proven abilities tailored to your interests and ambitions. This must be music to the ears of every student who wondered why they had to learn algebra to become an English teacher. It might also take some of the guesswork out of hiring motivated employees. When students are simply following a required course of study, it’s hard to know what they are really jazzed about. An à la carte education makes a lot of sense, especially if it can be extended as required without signing up for a whole degree program. Rose points to MOOCs and the Khan Academy as examples of this new paradigm of education. The Internet makes self-paced, self-directed education viable for almost anyone in a wide variety of fields. This is a good time to chart your own course, and learn what you need to know.

The End of Average: Take All the Time You Need

When I was in public school, classmates would often remark on my good grades and said I must be way smarter than them. Instead of taking it as a compliment, these sorts of comments made me uncomfortable. I refused to believe that I was mentally superior, but always said that it just was a matter of paying attention and doing the homework. Later on when my IQ was measured and I read a bit about IQ testing, I had to admit that some people seem to have more brainpower than others. But now I am reading a book, The End of Average, that takes me right back to my conviction that most people are capable of anything they set their minds to. It seems that the key ingredient is time. Every brain takes its own time for each particular task, but they can all get there in the end.

[Benjamin] Bloom and his colleague randombly assigned students to two groups. All students were taught a subject they had not learned before, such as probability theory. The first group—the “fixed-pace group”—was taught the material in the traditional manner: in a classroom during fixed periods of instruction. The second group—the “self-paced” group—was taught the same material and given the same total amount of instruction time, but they were provided with a tutor who allowed them to move through the material at their own pace, sometimes going fast, sometimes slow, taking as much or as little time as they needed to learn each new concept.

When Bloom compared the performance of students in each group, the results were astounding. Students in the traditional classroom performed exactly like you would expect if you believed in the notion that faster equals smarter: by the end of the course, roughtly 20 percent achieved mastery of the material (which Bloom defined as scoring 85 percent or higher on a final exam), a similarly small percentage did very poorly, while the majority of students scored somewhere in the middle. In contrast, more than 90 percent of the self-paced students achieved mastery.

Bloom showed that when students were allowed a little flexibility in the pace of their learning, the vast majority of students ended up performing extremely well. Bloom’s data also revealed that students’ individual pace varied depending on exactly what they were learning. One student might breeze through material on fractions, for instance, but grind through material on decimals; another student might fly through decimals, but take extra time for fractions. There was no such thing as a “fast” learner or a “slow” learner. These two insights—that speed does not equal ability, and that there are no universally fast or slow learners—had actually been recognized several decades before Bloom’s pioneering study, and have been replicated many times since, using different students and different content, but always producing similar results. Equating learning speed with learning ability is irrefutably wrong.

Of course, the conclusion that logically follows from this is both obvious and terrible: by demanding that our students learn at one fixed pace, we are artifically impairing the ability of many to learn and succeed. What one person can learn, most people can learn if they are allowed to adjust their pacing. Yet the architecture of our education is simply not designed to accommodate such individuality, and it therefore fails to nurture the potential and talent of all its students.

—Todd Rose, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

Reading this filled me with great sadness for my friends and all the other people who thought they were not smart and hated school and learning as a result. The fact is they simply did not fit the assembly-line model of standardized schooling, and indeed neither did I. I instinctively shied away from certain subjects, like English and Social Studies, where I knew I would be “slow,” and so I came away looking “smart,” when in fact I was only smart in subjects that my brain could take in during the time allotted. If I had taken those other classes, I likely would have resembled Lucy Ricardo in the chocolate factory, unable to keep up with the speeding conveyor belt of information. I was lucky to escape those GPA-destroying courses, but not everyone is. To think of the opportunities, and worse, the self-confidence, that is denied to most students because they are not allowed to learn in their own time, is truly tragic. Changes are being made, such as eliminating grades and grade levels in elementary school, but if students at every level are not allowed to take their time, most of them will be left behind. That’s simply not good enough if we want to build a smarter society for the future.

Luckiest kids in the world

I stumbled across this video of Jay Walker’s library in which two lucky little blighters get a personal tour of my personal version of Heaven. If there was a grown-up version of Make A Wish, I’d ask to go there. But it’s just as well I can’t go because they’d probably have to call the SWAT team to get me out and I wouldn’t want any of the books to get damaged in the ensuing fracas.

The Beginning of Average

I just started reading “The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness” by Todd Rose. I am both enjoying it greatly and getting freaked out by it. The author tells the story of Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874), a Belgian astronomer who started applying mathematics to human beings after his observatory (and country) was taken over by rebels. He wanted to understand humanity, and thought measuring them would help. But he went further than merely crunching numbers.

Quetelet developed the view that the “Average Man” was perfect, as God and/or Nature intended, and any variation was a “deformity” or “monstrosity.” What he ended up doing was putting a scientific seal of approval on racial, criminal, and psychological stereotyping, and mid-19th century Europe lapped it up. It fit right in with their program of subjugating the rest of the world and keeping everyone in their place at home. We all know how that turned out.

It took the bloodbath of World War II to discredit this kind of “science,” but general discomfort with the diversity of humans remains. The notion of “average” or “normal” human beings (e.g. “we all want the same things”) is so ingrained in our culture that it takes great effort (and years of therapy) to fully accept others and ourselves as we are. Try as we might to celebrate diversity, the Hydra of conformity sprouts another head and we rush to stuff ourselves or someone else into the locker of normalcy. Perhaps knowing exactly where these ideas came from can help us accept more deeply the unique qualities of every human being.