For over a century education has been the great equalizer in society-the institution responsible for ensuring opportunity and social mobility, regardless of background or circumstances. However, in the 21st century, despite spending more money than ever before, it has become increasingly hard to make good on the promise of opportunity. Case in point: In the United States today the single best predictor of success in life is not your intelligence or your work ethic; it's your ZIP code. Clearly something is wrong. The question is, how do we fix it? In order to ensure that education remains a lever of opportunity in modern society, the individual must be at the center of the experience, and education must become an incubator of talent of the broadest kind, rather than a sorting mechanism for a society that no longer exists.
The importance of the individual in education has been recognized for almost a century (Dewey, 1916). So the real question is this: What is holding us back? Obviously money has been a factor-historically, it was expensive to create educational environments that "fit" individuals, and therefore it was a luxury reserved for a privileged few. But with the emergence of digital technologies this is increasingly no longer true. In my mind, the biggest obstacle to re-imagining education is a myth: the myth of the average student. Even though we live in the 21st century, and even though we are one of the most diverse countries in the history of the world, we still design educational environments for the average student. No kidding. We call it "age appropriate" and we assume that by designing for the average, we are supporting most individuals.
There's just one problem: the average student doesn't exist. Modern science is crystal clear on this point: When it comes learning, there we are radically individual. Of course, anyone who has been in a classroom knows how variable students are, that the boy who is gifted at math isn't necessarily a strong reader; that the girl who performs well on a science project may not show that same level of ability on a standardized test. But therein lies the problem: We've created educational environments that, because they are designed on average, struggle to deal with human individuality, and cannot possibly be expected to nurture the broader spectrum of talent we need to be competitive in the 21st century. And we are paying the price in terms of lost potential and squandered talent.
Importantly, while the average hurts everyone, I believe that it has a disproportionately negative impact on boys, who by any measure are failing to thrive in our educational system. Why would boys be at greater risk? Obviously, many factors play a role, but let me offer one that I think has been overlooked: Boys are struggling, in part, because as a group they are highly variable. On a range of measures, including intelligence and academic performance, boys are overrepresented in the extremes of the distribution (CEP, 2010; Hyde et al., 2008; Machin & Pekkarinen, 2008; McCarthy et al, 2012). We don't need to understand the cause of this variability to appreciate the consequences: In an education system designed on average, the more variable you are the worse the fit, and the worse the fit the less likely we will be able to nurture your potential. But note that while the problem may be skewed toward boys, the solution is universal: if you design environments to nurture individuals you benefit boys and girls alike.
Even if you accept the importance of the individual in education, it can seem like an overwhelming task to implement. If everyone is radically individual, how is it possible to deal with that in one learning environment? It's not easy, but it is simpler than you think. There are many different ways to nurture individual potential, however; in my work I've found two things that successful efforts have in common. The first is flexibility: We can, and should, hold students to high standards; watering down expectations does not help. That said, we should be flexible in the means of meeting expectations. For example, by designing environments that have multiple ways to process information, engage with materials, and demonstrate knowledge (e.g., math textbooks that support variability in reading and language, since those are not the goals of math class). Flexible design eliminates artificial barriers and provides a quality opportunity for all individuals.
The second is breadth: We have the most diverse and dynamic economy in the history of the world. Because of this diversity and accelerated pace of change, we don't know what skills and talents will be valuable twenty years from now (any more than we knew the importance of computer science thirty years ago). Given this, it is shortsighted for education to narrow the experiences students have in order to prepare them for society as it exists today. We need an education system that produces well-balanced individuals who have been exposed to a wider range of experiences, and have been taught not just content, but skills, character, and values. By ensuring breadth of experience, we have the best chance for individuals not only to discover their unique talents, but also to be in a position to use them to make a difference in the world.
In summary, we struggle to nurture the potential of individuals because we ignore the individuality of our students. But the good news is that it doesn't have to be this way any more. We have the opportunity right now to re-imagine our educational system in ways that nurture the potential of every single individual and expand our talent pool. However, all the science and technology in the world will not amount to much if we do not understand what we value. The first step in transforming our education system is to recognize that the individual matters; after all, no amount of incremental improvement, on average, in science test scores can ever make up for losing the next Jonas Salk.
Our future as a country depends on our ability to support a broader spectrum of talent. Education, therefore, must be an incubator of individual potential, and should measure success and failure accordingly.
Center on Educational Policy (2010). SAT test score trends: Are there differences in achievement between boys and girls? Washington, DC: Author.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: WLC Books.
Hyde, J. S., Lindberg, S. M., Linn, M. C., Ellis, A. B., & Williams, C. C. (2008)."Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance." Science, 321(5888), 494-495.
Machin, S., & Pekkarinen, T. (2008). "Global sex differences in test score variability." Science 322 (5906): 1331-1332.
McCarthy, M.M., Arnold, A.P., Ball, G.F., Blaustein, J.D., & DeVries, G.J. (20012)."Sex differences in the brain: The not so inconvenient truth." The Journal of Neuroscience, 32(7), 2241-2247.
Todd Rose (B.S. Weber State University; M.Ed. and D.Ed. Harvard) is co-founder and president of Project Variability, which is dedicated to providing leadership around the emerging new science of the individual and its implications for education, the workforce, and society. He is a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of Square Peg.