Changing the Culture of Sameness: A Track for Everyone

We all want to belong. It is a fundamental human need. Children desire first to fit in with their families and communities, then with their friends as they move into adolescence. Families, communities, and friend groups generally have unique ways of presenting themselves to the world. Different groups have different styles. But there is one place where everyone must present themselves in the same way: the school system. Within the school system, all children must conform to a standardized model of worthiness as measured by their GPA and test scores. We use phrases like “stay on track” or “get back on track” to refer to the predetermined course they are all expected to follow.

But, whose track is it? It belongs to a mythical average student who, according to Todd Rose, Director of Harvard’s Mind, Brain and Education Program, does not exist. In his groundbreaking book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness, Rose shows how it is scientifically impossible for anyone to fit this average. No one is the same. No one.

Rose argues that multidimensional humans cannot be averaged:

What you have instead is what we call a ‘jagged profile.’ Every single person will be on the high end on some things, the middle on others and the low end on other dimensions. This is true about body size, it’s true about character and intelligence, it’s true about any attribute of human beings. At the end of the day, you cannot reduce a person to a single dimension.

Yet, our entire education system is predicated on this average. Even though they are born into the world as unique beings, our children learn through the school system that this uniqueness is not valued. They must become the same as everyone else. They must learn the same thing, at the same age, in the same amount of time, in the same way, and often, in the same environment.  If they don’t measure up to this sameness, as defined by standardized tests, they are considered “off track”.

To determine their place on the track, they will take approximately 112 standardized tests between pre-K and 12th grade, not including class tests, Advanced Placement tests or college entrance exams. While historically we’ve had assessments of reading and math levels, they were not the frequent, stress-filled determinants of who we were. Until the past couple of decades, there was an understanding that children develop at different rates and ages.

Not only are they developmentally different, but research by Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard Graduate School of Education asserts that there is not a single form of intelligence.  He goes on to say:

“There is strong evidence that human beings have a range of intelligences and that strength (or weakness) in one intelligence does not predict strength (or weakness) in any other intelligences. All of us exhibit jagged profiles of intelligences.”

Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences includes eight distinct intelligences:

  • Linguistic (“word smart”)
  • Logical-mathematical (“number/reasoning smart”)
  • Spatial (“picture smart”)
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic (“body smart”)
  • Musical (“music smart”)
  • Interpersonal (“people smart”)
  • Intrapersonal (“self smart”)
  • Naturalist (“nature smart”)

The standardized testing used to measure student progress, rankings and college readiness only focuses on just two of the eight intelligences — those related to language (linguistic intelligence) and math (logical-mathematical intelligence). If those are not the student’s strong suits they can be considered to be learning disabled or have to spend an exorbitant amount of time trying to process the material. This contributes to the exhausting efforts required to keep students on “track”, often through hours of tutoring, special classes or worst of all, medication. Our culture’s collective desire to keep children on this narrow track has done untold damage to the self-worth, individuality, and creativity of a generation.

Additionally, the unspoken focus to “be the same, only better”, as described by Rose, has created a persistently stressful and competitive environment in schools. This focus on competitive sameness highlights and disdains differences. Students are encouraged to vie for coveted top spots that will define them as better than their peers. This is hardly the breeding ground to encourage the most sought-after skills in today’s marketplace: collaboration and teamwork.

The good news is there are signs of change. Schools and districts across the country are recognizing the need to honor the human qualities inherent in our children’s individuality.  Rose, who is also the co-founder of The Center for Individuality notes that there is a stirring in society:

Everything is rejecting our old standardization approaches, and seeking more personalization. That’s the theme of the age we live in and education is not going to escape that broad trend.

We see this in evidence with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which goes into effect this coming 2018-19 school year.  It gives new flexibility to states, districts and schools to decide on improvements. According to an analysis by KnowledgeWorks:

“Nearly every state in the nation has integrated at least one personalized learning concept into its ESSA accountability system. While the result is more transformative in some states than others, ESSA helped usher in a new era where education systems are designed to support the individual success of each student, instead of focusing narrowly on the students most likely to achieve proficiency and increase school accountability scores.”

KnowledgeWorks’ analysis of state ESSA plans also found that “one-third of states have personalization at the core of their vision for K-12 education. These states believe learner-centered systems will best prepare their graduates for college and career success.”

Personalized learning, student-centered learning, self-directed learning and competency-based learning schools and programs are rapidly emerging in public and private domains. In New Hampshire, a new pilot project called NG2 (No Grades, No Grades) is being introduced into six elementary and middle schools. The personalization model will do away with grading scales and age levels and focus instead on competency-based education.  

Another example is Oxford Preparatory Academy, a tuition-free K – 8th public charter school that “incorporates the Theory of Multiple Intelligences (TMI) as the foundation of their school’s philosophy”. Their Southern California locations consistently outperform other district schools and have been chosen as California Distinguished Schools (given to only about 5% of the state’s schools).

Educators, parents, and communities across the country are working together to provide relief from the culture of standardized sameness in our school system. Recognizing that it is the system’s “track” that needs fixing, not our children, is an important first step. Not all of the emerging options will fit all students. But, that’s the point. Our children are not all the same.

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