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.

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2 comments on “The End of Average: Jagged Brain

  1. kcecelia says:

    My IQ was high and I was always tracked into the gifted classes. I never liked this method, which I felt was exclusionary and limiting. There was an op-ed piece by an East Coast college professor on this subject a few years ago. He was suggesting that it makes no sense to demand a one-size fits all educational background for each college student. I agree. Math befuddled me; I did not need it for the things I was interested in. If the teaching style had been different, I now know I could have loved math in a way I could not as a child, but mastering it was necessary to be accepted into a university. Ironically, my eventual work field was in the communications part of high tech startups. I discovered that everything I needed to do, including learning a programming language, could be done without the knowledge of mathematics that was a presupposed necessity.

    • Sylvia says:

      Yes, and the nice thing about a more flexible educational approach is that if you suddenly find you need to know the quadratic equation you can always take an online course and learn it. I think people learn better when they have a real practical need for it anyway.

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