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.


4 comments on “The End of Average: Take All the Time You Need

  1. kcecelia says:

    Fascinating to think about. The results of the study you describe here do not surprise me. The problem lies, at least in the United States, in the lack of support we give our public schools. We have teachers trying to teach a variety of students in groups that are too large to support any kind of individual learning, with the expectation that all of the students will be able to move on to the next grade in a fixed time. The more outside of the expected norm the student’s learning style is, the smaller the chance they will be supported. It astonishes me that we never seem to learn that children, whether our own or not, will be the people who run our world, and supporting them correctly is in our best interest.

    • Sylvia says:

      The great thing about this research is that you don’t necessarily need to change class size or composition, but teaching materials and methods. Tutoring instead of lecturing seems to be a lot more efficient and effective. I hope it’s the wave of the future.

  2. Stefanie says:

    Ah, but it is good enough if what you really want is a nation of sheep to complacently work low-paying jobs and not complain about it; if the government thinks the only purpose of education is to prepare people to work. It’s a sad, sad, world right now.

    • Sylvia says:

      Yes, if everyone was given the opportunity to fulfill their potential at school, I don’t think a certain person would be POTUS-elect right now…

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