The Average Student Doesn’t Exist

Here’s another inappropriate way to use average …

The Bell Curve – In Theory it Puts Most People in the Middle or Average

Way back in my teacher training days we were taught about the ‘bell-curve’ and the importance of designing our lessons to the ‘average’. In theory, by doing so you reach the largest number of students in your classroom — not a bad idea in theory. The problem, however, is that one couldn’t really teach to the average when there is no such thing as an average student.

Let me stop here for a moment and introduce you to Shelley Moore …

Shelley Moore

Shelley is a widely respected BC educator who works out of UBC. You can find her all over YouTube discussing one of her favourite topics — inclusion. Her videos are succinct, impactful and relevant. One that I particularly enjoy is her video below on ending average — see you back here in 5 minutes:

Isn’t she fun? And she makes a ton of sense.

Shelley paints an interesting picture of why ‘average’ must end — specifically when we’re talking about comparing an individual learner to a larger group. The reason? Individuals are multi-dimensional and don’t compare well along a single dimension or measure.

She doesn’t have a problem with comparing things that are uni-dimensional and large in number — things like comparing the height of the average Canadian to the average American — that’s a great use of average — or my example at the beginning of this blog about average global temperatures. The problem for us in education is that we sometimes want to measure students against an average of something, and when we do this we lose the “multi-dimensionality” (my own word) or complexity of our learners.

And yet, many educators (including myself) were trained this way. By comparing students to some mystical average we were missing the point. Our goal is to move students forward, but using an average isn’t the way to do this.

So, if we all want our students to become better at things, how do we do this if we can’t compare them against an average? If every student is a unique combination of a multitude of characteristics, do we need to individualize every lesson for every child?

Try to imagine a teacher working to individualize each lesson for every child in their care — it would be an impossible task. But what IS possible, and the point that Shelley is making, is that we should be empowering each student as co-designers of their own learning — empowering each of them them to use their strengths and abilities to improve.

We can do so by having students:

  • choosing from a variety of assessment forms to showcase their learning (e.g. oral report, essay, written test, video)
  • being advocates for what they need in terms of accessing curricular content (e.g. extra time, a different location, their own essay topic)
Discovering our Inner Strengths and Needs can Drive Personal Success

So, ending average is really about empowering our learners in their own learning — giving them the opportunities to understand their learning needs and being drivers of their own education. If we do this, the personalization and individualization of learning can happen — student success improves.

And an added bonus is that our students become better advocates for themselves and have a deeper understanding of what works best for them. And, after all, isn’t personal understanding and advocacy a skill we want our students to have as they leave our system after Grade 12?

2 thoughts on “The Average Student Doesn’t Exist

  1. Great piece Dave. I really like how the student graphic also illustrates that students aren’t uni-dimensional. They don’t often come with uniformly strong ability profiles. Because of these two facts everything needs to be presented in ways that allow for learning by diverse profiles both across a group and within individuals.


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