Educating to the Edges

As I mentioned in a recent post, I really enjoy listening to podcasts.  I find some real gems of ideas and resources through some amazing educators through listening to their podcasts. Some of these resources really resonate with me in such a way that makes me NEED to share it with others. Today was one of those days that I listened to a podcast that really touched me.

This morning, I listened to the Edceptional Podcast #046 – Take 2 on the EdReach Network. This is a podcast that is fairly new to me, and I have just loved it!  Today was no exception! In this episode, the hosts Deb, Tricia, and Patrick talked about a recent TEDx Sonoma County Talk that was given by Todd Rose in June, 2013.

US Pacific Air Forces
Flickr Photo from US Pacific Air Forces

As a high school drop out and now Harvard Faculty member, Todd Rose has an interesting and passionate perspective on issues that surround us in education. In his talk, he talks about The Myth of Average. He begins his talk thinking back to 1952 and the difficulty the Airforce is having,


“They have good pilots flying better planes, but they are getting worse results and they don’t know why.”

The Airforce blamed a number of different people and machinery, only to eventually realize that it was the cockpit that was to blame. You see, the cockpit was designed for the “average-sized” pilot. Success of the pilots was determined by their “fit” between the pilot and the cockpit.  In his words, Todd Rose states,

“What good is the best technology in the world if you can’t reach the critical instruments when you need them the most.”

The challenge though: “How do you design one cockpit that could fit the most individuals.” It was assumed, at the time, that they would design the planes for the “average” pilot.  If it fit the average-sized person, then it would likely fit “most” people. This, however, was proven wrong by Airforce researcher, Gilbert Daniels. As it turned out, through his study he found that none of the 4000 pilots were “average” on all the ten dimensions of size he measured them on (including, height, shoulders, chest, waist, hips, legs, reach, torso, neck and thigh). He proved that there was no such thing as an “average” pilot, but that they each have a “jagged size profile”.  No one is the same on every dimension.  Just because you are average height, it does not mean that you are average weight or have an average torso length.

So, the Airforce took a bold move and “banned the average”. They refused to buy fighter jets where the cockpit was  made for the “average” pilot. Instead, they demanded that the companies who produced these planes, build these planes not on the “average”, but designed them “to the edges” of dimensions of size.

Flickr Photo by Cali4Beach
Flickr Photo by Cali4Beach

Todd Rose boldly compares those cockpits to the seats in our classrooms of today.

“We still design our learning environments, like our textbooks, for the average student. No kidding. We call it age-appropriate and we think it’s good enough, but it’s not.”

Todd Rose goes on to talk about the varying dimensions of learning of our students (just like the varying dimensions of size of the fighter pilots).

“And just like size, each student, every single one of them, has a jagged learning profile, meaning they have strengths, they’re average at some things and they have weaknesses. We all do. Even geniuses have weaknesses.”

“If you design those learning environments on average, odds are you’ve designed them for nobody. So no wonder we have a problem. We’ve created learning environments that because they are designed on average cannot possibly do what we expected them to do which is nurture individual potential.”

We want to nurture all of our student’s talents. Their genius.  All our students have them. We need to knock down those barriers to truly see what our students are capable of – ALL our students. It can not be okay any longer for this not to be the case. We have the technology to make it happen.  As Todd states, even the simplest of solutions will have a huge impact on individuals. We need to be open and make those solutions a reality for ALL students in our classrooms.

In an emotional ending, Todd states,

“We are wasting so much talent at every single level. And the thing is for every one person like me, there are millions who worked as hard, who had the ability, but were unable to overcome the drag of an educational environment designed on average and their talent is forever lost to us.”

Seriously, this was one of the most passionate, spot-on Talks I have heard.

Here is Todd Rose’s TEDx Talk for you to see.

Do you think this is possible?

I would argue, that it is not just about the companies who sell their educational products to our schools.  It is not just about companies developing products that meet the needs of the individuals on the edges.  It is about the pedagogy that needs to be the basis of change in education.  If the material evolves, is it guaranteed that the pedagogy will evolve as well? Hmmmmm….  not sure about that.

Above all, it is also about pedagogy of individual teachers.  That pedagogy must evolve.  All educators need to see the individual strengths and weaknesses of their students. They need to learn to promote individual strengths and work to limit the impact of individual weaknesses. Teachers need to be reflective and understand their own strengths and weaknesses as well.  We all have them.  As Todd says, even geniuses have weaknesses.  It is how we use our networks to help us and how we leverage the strengths in the room to move us forward, to help lessen our own weaknesses.  We need to teach our students to do the same. To do that though, we need to model that ourselves.

What are your thoughts?

Published by Tia M. Dawson

There are many things that define who I am as a person. First of all, I am a mother of 3 wonderful children! I can not express how fortunate we are to have our children in our life! Secondly, I am an elementary educator who recently returned to the classroom after 12+ years as an elementary school administrator. Lastly, I am passionate about helping others, learning about abuse, helping others in abusive relationships, and helping others understand their worth.

6 thoughts on “Educating to the Edges

  1. Thank you for sharing this TEDTalk video. It was filmed in my own backyard (well, not literally…). One of the many downfalls of standardization is that the individual is not acknowledged. You’re right. Our pedagogy needs to reflect this kind of flexibility. It was about “nurturing individual potential.” The consequences of not doing this is simply too great. Great post!

    1. Hi Jennie,

      I loved that video when I saw it! I am so glad I listened to that podcast where I learned about it.
      Yes! “Nurturing Individual potential” <– Love it! Yes, we need to remember that is what our focus should be. It is not a "one-size fits all". It just doesn't work anymore. Actually, I'd argue that it never really did. We are just way more aware and knowledgable now about student motivation, needs, learning, etc.. than in the past.

      Thanks for your kind words,

  2. Tia,

    I totally agree that the average student doesn’t exist. Each is an individual, with strengths, weaknesses, interests etc.
    As such, designing learning for the ‘average’ student is obviously going to be I’ll-suited for each student in some way or another.

    In ‘Making Learning Whole’ David Perkins talks about practicing the hard parts. This is what I believe each student should be focussing their learning on, his or her own ‘hard parts’. I think this is especially true at the younger ages when students are building basic, foundation skills.

    As children grow older, their exposure to different experiences at school and outside of school will lead them to developing interests and passions. How we provide students the freedom and opportunity to explore their passions, yet maintain some standard expectations is quite a challenge. And I guess this is why there is such tension between personalization and standardization. I’m more questions than answers when it comes to this but two things I realize we need to be promoting is learning through inquiry and the leveraging of learning opportunities outside of the formal walls and times of the school day.

    Thanks for posting!


    1. Hi Aaron,

      Thanks for the book recommendation! I’ve added it to my Wish List. I love the idea of focusing on the ‘hard parts’. I think that everyone, not just young children, but even adults, teachers, administrators, etc.. should also focus on the ‘hard parts’. How our system would change if that were the case!

      I agree whole-heartedly with you about focusing more on inquiry and learning opportunities outside of school. It is not just what happens inside the school that is important. In fact, there is so much that can be learned, real-life learning, learning that really matters, outside of our schools. It is my hope that these opportunities continue to expand in our schools.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope you are enjoying your summer,

  3. Hi Tia,
    Does your site take guest posts? I’d love to contribute – I can’t find your email address but if you let me know what the best way to reach out is, I’ll pass along my pitch idea. Thanks, and really look forward to speaking with you!

    All the best,

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