"The Flaw of Averages"


I recently read an excerpt from Todd Rose’s new book called “The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness” published this year by Harper Collins. The title of this excerpt, appearing in my local newspaper, The Toronto Star, was “The Flaw of Averages” and it immediately garnered my interest even though the sub-headline was about a lieutenant in the 1950s discovering a fatal problem in the design of the cockpit of U.S. air force jets. I wasn’t disappointed.

Rose told the story of how in the 1940s an untoward number of jet crashes occurred despite the fact that there were no apparent mechanical malfunctions. At one point, the design of the cockpit was considered and this is where the data crunching began. It seems that the cockpits had been designed to fit the size of the average pilot of 1926, without variation--in other words, the average arm length, the average leg length, the average torso length…well, you get the picture. A new study of 140 dimensions of 4000 pilots was undertaken to see if “average” had changed from the year 1926. But one person, Lt. Gilbert S. Daniels, began an investigation with a different question in mind, “How many people were really average?” He took the data from over 4000 pilots and found the average of 10 different dimensions. He was careful and said that someone would be called average if they fit within a range rather than having to hit a specific point. Predictions were that most pilots would fall within this average range. How many actually did fit within the average range on all 10 dimensions?

NONE!

So for instance, a pilot might fall below average on leg-length but average on chest size. To illustrate that the non-existence of “the average” pilot was not just a happenstance kind of finding, Rose also tells the tale of a similar episode involving a contest in Cleveland focussed on which woman’s physical dimensions would match those of a statue on display at the Cleveland museum. The statue was the creation of a gynecologist who created the figure based on averaging data from 15,000 women. Nine dimensions were involved this time and guess what…no one did (though a contest prize was awarded).

Rose’s work intrigues me and I am off to the bookstore to get a copy of this book to read more…it may be better or worse than I imagine but I am intrigued. Regardless of what the whole book holds out as a world view, I am fascinated by the glimpse his excerpt offered and the overall argument posited. For instance, consider applying this argument to education. Is there an average reader?....an average writer? Would it not be the case that the so-labelled “average” people actually aren’t average at all but, like the pilots and women in Rose’s recount, they vary considerably on the dimensions of reading and writing even though they end up with this label of average? Like numbers, categories can make life convenient and sometimes we think we can “see” something but, as I have argued elsewhere (Murphy, 2009), categories can conceal as much as they reveal. They encode our world in a different way than numbers but it still must be recognized that they encode our world. Our goal in education must always be to be open and to push back at categories that can lead to false assumptions, and perhaps, problematic pedagogical decisions.

Rose ends his tale with comments about how the world of cockpit design solved the problem of the non-averageness of pilots by coming up with more flexible hardware….things like adjustable seatbelts, foot pedals and so on. I immediately thought how much this idea of flexibility in design ought to be extended to curriculum and pedagogy, in recognition of the multi-dimensionality of the students we teach…students who, like the pilots and women in Rose’s tale, aren’t ever average.

Reference

Murphy, S. (2009). Matters of goodness: Knowing well and doing well in the assessment of critical thinking. In J. Sobocan & L. Groarke (Eds.), Critical thinking education and assessment: Can higher order thinking be tested? (pp. 331-339) London, ON: Althouse Press.

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