Almost all of the human development systems on planet earth–from preschool to job training–are based on a century-old view of the average person. And they’re wrong.
In his 2013 book, Square Peg, Todd Rose tells the story of how a high school dropout became a Harvard professor in educational neuroscience. He learned four things along the way:
- variability is the rule: perceptions and reactions are much more dynamic and diverse than previously thought;
- emotions are important: emotional states influence learning;
- context is key: circumstances affect the behavior; and
- feedback loops determine success or failure: small changes making a difference.
In his 2016 bestseller, The End of Average, Rose poured gasoline on the personalized learning wildfire sweeping American education. He illustrated that we are frequently measured against the “average person,” judged according to how closely we resemble the norm. “The assumption that average-based yardsticks like academic GPAs, personality tests, and annual performance reviews reveal something meaningful about our ability is so ingrained in our consciousness that we never question it.” But, as Rose argues, the assumption is spectacularly wrong.
“We’re headed for an era of radical personalization,” said Rose. “We’re moving away from feeling anonymous, towards a “me” that matters, in every field,” said Rose.
Rose recognized that with the rise of artificial intelligence we’ve entered a new era. He worries about the transition. He asks “Who will get the benefits?”
To make the case for individuality, Todd Rose and Parisa Rouhani cofounded Populace, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that the shift to personalization truly benefits all of society by equipping the public to participate in the change and driving transformation in social systems. In addition to large-scale public engagement work, they also pick projects with partner organizations, typically one or two years in duration, that “will produce bright spots for the public and help drive systems change.”
As part of the partnership, Populace provides these organizations with scientific, practical, and communications support. The well-funded new nonprofit brings investment and capacity to the work.
Rose and Rouhani have been listening to America, crisscrossing the country, surveying, and holding focus groups. They’ve made some interesting observations.
“Everyone wants individual patients to benefit from personalized medicine,” said Rose. “Yet when you talk about education and human potential, they get that their kids would benefit but when asked if everybody would benefit, responses plummet, most people don’t believe that all kids wouldn’t benefit.”
There are two likely reasons for this disturbing belief about other people’s children. First, speculates Rose, most people don’t think that everyone is capable. And, second, the current social system is perceived to be zero sum (e.g., there is one valedictorian and entrance to the best universities is highly limited).
Like the big social platforms, Rose and Rouhani are “obsessed about the promise and pitfalls of using data to understand individuals.” What makes them different, said Rose, is that they come down firmly on the side of people. “We are not interested in using data and insights from the science of individuality simply to make systems smarter about individuals; we want to put this knowledge directly in the hands of the public so that they have greater control over their own lives.”
The listening tour yielded shifting views on success. Sixty years ago, when researchers starting studying this stuff, American’s held an industrial model of success based on wealth, status, and power. But people today want more meaning, purpose, and fulfillment–a broader conception of success. What parents want most for their children is a sense of confidence. This is particularly true of parents with middle-grade children.
Personal Success Project
In addition to his listening tour, through his laboratory at Harvard Rose and his research director, Ogi Ogas have been studying iconoclastic success stories, people that charted their own path to impact. These dark horses achieved unexpected success.
Rose and Ogas discovered a reliable path to excellence that is rooted in your own individuality. It begins by knowing what personally drives you, making choices around that priority, and building a pattern of strength around the things you care about most. Like the survey results, these dark horses prioritized fulfillment.
A new book by Rose and Ogas, Dark Horse (HarperCollins, 10/18), summarizes hundreds of these stories of success. They conclude that a fulfilling life is not dependent on connections, money, or standardized test scores. The secret is consistently making choices that complement their unique interests and abilities. In other words, it is not the pursuit of excellence that leads to fulfillment but rather the pursuit of fulfillment that leads to excellence.
Rose and I advise a couple important initiatives including the Digital Promise Learner Positioning System (see background paper) and the recently announced Whittle School & Studio, a global effort to personalize learning for future leaders.
Todd is the most important advocate of appreciating individuality. He has helped millions of parents and teachers understand how to better help children learn and grow–and helping a generation of young people become more aware of their talents and passions. His new research suggests this is not just important for learning but the key to a life of purpose, authenticity, and achievement.
For more see
- Starting Over With Personalized Learning
- Nobody is Average, Every Student Deserves Personalized Learning
This post was originally published on Forbes.
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