How the Cockpit of a Fighter Jet Inspired an Education Revolution

Insights from an unlikely source show why we need to lean into learning built on strengths, rather than standardization.

Jane Drake Centre for Systems Awareness, MIT

We hear about averages constantly – when talking about height, weight, salary or even how long a marriage might last.

So deeply entrenched is our reliance on comparing ourselves to the average, that when we hear about averages we cannot help but figure out how we stack up. You may end up feeling briefly superior if above, disheartened if below, and utterly unremarkable if you land smack dab on the average itself.

But what if the very idea of average is fundamentally flawed?

Take our education systems — they’re designed for the average. Not only is this ineffective, but it also hurts our society by discarding valuable human potential and damaging our collective wellbeing. It encourages you to view everything unique about you as a defect or an anomaly, rather than a strength. It encourages competition rather than collaboration, but in our increasingly fragile and disrupted world, collaboration is what we need most.

Together, it’s possible to re-think the idea of average. Together we can create change and take action in our schools and our homes to re-write this story.

The System Isn’t Broken

I am a mother, scientist, teacher, school leader, and curriculum designer for holistic education in over 150 countries around the world. Most recently, I’ve been working through my organization (Generative Education) to develop holistic wellbeing in our schools.

To me, the single most important purpose for schools is to unlock potential, enable growth and empower students to make our future world a better place.

Notice I’m not talking about preparing people for the world we live in today. So much of our world is failing – I see inequality, climate crisis, pandemic, war, terror. I see the rapid depletion of every resource we have available to us. We often hear urgent calls to fix the system, but the system isn’t broken! The system is producing exactly what it was designed to produce.

Rather than fix a broken system, we need to envision what we want to grow and then design a new system capable of holistically bringing that vision into reality.

When a child walks into school, I want to be able to look them in the eye and say, “You belong in our world and have something important to bring. We now need to discover what you can become. How can we work together to build your knowledge and skills to strengthen what makes you unique and to find your way to live a meaningful life?”

That’s not what happens today. Today, we have a system that wants me to audit each child and measure them against a standard – then tell them all the ways that they fail to meet that standard. To cast aside all that is unique in the pursuit of becoming the same.

That is what I work every day to change. For a lesson on how we can begin doing so, let’s talk about the Air Force.

The Average Fits No One

In his book “The End of Average”, Todd Rose explains that the Air Force had a serious problem. The billions invested in advanced aircraft and training pilots was yielding worse results. First, there was blame – blame the pilots, the technology, even the trainers of the pilots. This blame game only ended when one technician took the time to examine the cockpit design.

Like all things, it was designed for the average. The average size of a pilot. His study measured multiple dimensions of pilot size against the cockpit design to see how many pilots would fit within this standard. You might expect the average would kind of fit most pilots. What he found was the cockpit did not fit one single pilot – zero.

Rose explains how the Air Force switched gears and began demanding that cockpits be designed not for the average, for but for the edges – to fit most extremes. Impossible became achievable because they were unshakeable in their demand. When you refuse to accept design for the average and demand design to the edges instead, you get something magical. But it didn’t stop there.

Todd took his example of the adjustable cockpit chair – designed for the edges – and he asked, where else are we designing for the average that we should be demanding design for the edges?

This idea of the average permeates every aspect of school. It’s built into our schedules, league tables, grading, student evaluations and teacher evaluations. Constant use of the average in the way we design education creates barriers to learning and makes failure more likely – we end up like the Airforce, with a design that was supposed to fit everyone, but fits no one, instead.

Everyone tries to cut away the unique in favor of the standard. Yet even then, the average is not enough. In a world of ranking and competition, we want to be above average to stand out. However, all the things that might have enabled us to do that have had to be set aside.

How to Grow Beyond Average

To shake free of this average approach to learning, think about different questions you might ask your children.

Focus less on numbers and measures against the ideal and more on personal strengths, identity and passions.

Instead of “What did you score and how did you rank?” ask “What intrigued you today? Did you find something out that was surprising? Did you learn to do something that felt rewarding, fun? Was there something you were grappling with? – great! That is the sign of really learning. How can that happen more often? How do you learn best?”

Take time to think through the implications of average in your own life. Notice the way that your life is currently caught up in the myth, and begin to shift your perspective. You will no longer be driven by the toxicity of failing to measure up to something that does not exist, you’ll be free to see what exactly you bring and how to strengthen and celebrate those gifts.

When you start seeing your strengths instead of focusing on where you don’t measure up, you’ll begin to see how to combine those strengths with others in a collective effort. It won’t always be an easy transition – for adults, it is the process of unlearning that is most difficult. We cling on to familiar ideas and take comfort in predictability and certainty.

But when our society fully embraces the value of diversity, not only will we all experience belonging, we’ll be able to take on the challenges of a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world with the force of our collective potential.

Guest post, originally published by RoundGlass Learning

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