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Not Your Average Student

The new science of the individual can help us build an education system that delivers success for each person
Todd Rose

Until recently, whenever researchers wanted to look at the characteristics of an individual in a group, they would compare the individual to the group average. But how close is any one individual to the average? It’s increasingly clear that the answer is not very, said Todd Rose, speaking at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Bold Ideas & Critical Conversations event on September 19.

Across disciplines, Rose said, scientists are realizing that if they want to learn something about an individual, studying the average is unhelpful and potentially misleading. “In every field that studies individuals, we’ve found the same thing,” said Rose, Ed.M.’01, Ed.D.’07, a lecturer at HGSE. “There’s no such thing as an average cell, there’s no such thing as an average genome, there’s no such thing as average cancer — and there’s no such thing as an average student.”

And yet our system of education — in everything from textbook design to assessments to curricular materials and their sequencing — is built on the opposite premise. It was created during an era when the goal was to prepare students for standardized jobs in an industrial economy. And it worked, more or less, Rose said. But the world has changed, as have obligations of education.

“If our goal is to prepare students for a diverse and changing world,” Rose said, “[and] to help each student become the very best that they can possibly be, then it’s no longer good enough to think about students on average, to teach students on average, and to rank students against an average. Instead, we absolutely must be able to understand and treat students as individuals.”

Rose acknowledged that it’s a tall order, but he said we now know how to do it. “We actually have a science that is specialized in understanding individuals. The science of the individual is highly interdisciplinary, it’s deeply rooted in the mathematics of dynamic systems, and it completely upends the way we’ve thought about individuals and groups. Even though it’s young, this new science has already led to major breakthroughs in everything from cancer research to the study of human development to the treatment of diabetes, and to our understanding of human memory. We can use this new science to build an education system that is capable of treating students as individuals.”

Where do we start? First, by acknowledging that we can’t meet the needs of individual students if we keep relying on group averages. “I think we have an incredibly important choice to make about the future of education,” Rose said. “We can choose to double down on a 19th-century view of an average student, or we can choose to follow in the path of fields like oncology, biology, and neuroscience, and shift our focus to the individual.”


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