Book Review: The End of Average, How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness by Harvard scientist Todd Rose

By Becky Sipos

You might think a book about the story of “average” would be arcane and uninteresting, but I was hooked from the opening anecdote. The book begins with the story of the Air Force in its early days when planes kept crashing. In fact, 17 planes crashed on a single day. Investigators kept saying “pilot error.” But one researcher kept digging. The cockpits had been designed for the average dimensions of pilots, but researcher Lt. Gilbert Daniels found that out of the 4,063 pilots, none had all the “average measurements,” not one. Even if you took only three of the measurements, less than 3.5 percent of the pilots were “average.” That may not seem significant, but taking a split second longer to reach a control or to make an adjustment to a piece of equipment just slightly out of reach could make the difference between flying or crashing. To their credit, the Air Force took that knowledge and created flexible cockpits—adjustable seat belts, mirrors, helmet straps and foot pedals—things that we take for granted in our vehicles today. The Air Force created a radical plan: to design environments to fit the individual.

Today that concept of individual fit is being applied to medicine as oncologists, neuroscientists, geneticists and more try to design medicine and treatments best suited to match an individual’s DNA. Some successful businesses also have begun to implement these principles. Google found relying on standard measurements did not help them find the creative employees they sought. There is even a new interdisciplinary field of science known as the science of the individual. With the “average” philosophy, we aggregate and then analyze; the science of the individual says analyze and then aggregate

And yet, this mindset is not everywhere. It is not widespread in schools. The age of average persists.  

I started reading the book because of a recent Gallup Poll event that event presented the results of their 2015 student engagement poll results. Once again the poll found that students’ engagement in school peaks in fifth grade and then steadily declines. How can we prevent that decline? A panel of educators suggested ways we can keep students engaged and gave some amazing school examples. One of the panelists, Sam Chaltain, referenced the book, and his comments inspired me to start reading. I found it was the perfect book to review this month as we have been focusing on principle 11: using assessment and data to inform your practice.

The book is not written as a how-to for educators. It is written to stimulate your thinking and make you question what we’ve taken for granted. We measure our students with metrics that compare them to an average—standardized test results, personality assessments, report card grades and so on.  “He graduated first in his class,” or “She is an introvert.” These statements seem true because they appear to be based on a mathematical standard and they make for a quick process in making decisions. We assume they reveal something meaningful.

That assumption is wrong, Rose emphatically states. He argues that no one is average and the book explains why and shows how we should be doing things differently.

Rose acknowledges that the concept of average did indeed solve some problems of its time. It shaped the Industrial Age and led to an education environment that helped millions of immigrants become Americans, and it increased the percentage of high school graduates from 6% to 81%.

But it did cost us something. “We have lost the dignity of our individuality,” Rose writes. “We all strive to be like everyone else—or even more accurately, we all strive to be like everyone else, only better.

Our schools are still fulfilling the need of the Industrial Age where workers were designed to be interchangeable. But we have much more knowledge and computing power today, so we do not need to remain stuck with the limits of standardization. And the jobs on the assembly line have mostly disappeared.

So what does that mean for educators? Rose spends the second half of his book explaining three principles drawn from the science of the individual that can help us replace our reliance on the average: the jaggedness principle, the context principle, and the pathways principle. For each principle, Rose gives lots of examples to explain. You will want to read the book to fully understand.

  • The jaggedness principle—talent is never one dimensional.
  • The context principle—personality traits do not exist. (e.g. You might be introverted in one context but not in another.)
  • The pathways principle (we all walk the road less traveled.)

I highly recommend this book. It will definitely challenge your thinking, but the fascinating stories Rose provides are convincing.  His own journey from dropping out of high school with a .9 GPA to becoming a Harvard scientist who now directs the Mind, Brain and Education center made me wonder how many students we’ve lost who didn’t discover their individual potential as Rose did. The comparison of Walmart and Costco was also very revealing. Walmart maintained the “average” philosophy treating its employees as “average joes” who were interchangeable. Costco focused on the individual. The books goes into many comparisons showing the difference, but suffice it to say that Costco has become more profitable despite paying its employees more and offering more benefits.

Rose’s examples were interesting, but I was also fascinated by the history of how the concept of average came to be applied to people and how it became a major influence in just about every field.  I honestly had no idea that the concept of average was a human invention, created by two European scientists to solve the social problems of their era. And I had no idea that at first, average was considered perfection and every deviation from the average was considered a flaw.

The book goes beyond anecdotes and history as Rose offers lots of data to support his stories, but it is his bold ideas that will help educators unlock the potential of every student and break away from the one-dimensional thinking of “average.” I’d love to hear what you think.

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