In the late 1940s, the US Air Force experienced an epidemic of crashes involving several different types of aircraft. Many of the accidents were attributed to pilot error and, in the course of investigating the causes, Air Force officials re-examined the design of the cockpit itself, which had been based on the average physical dimensions of pilots from 1926. In 1950, the Air Force hired researcher Gilbert Daniels from Harvard to ascertain the degree of fit between pilots and the cockpit dimensions, which he defined as a pilot whose measurements across 10 physical characteristics were within the middle 30 percent of the range.
Gilbert's findings were astonishing – of the 4,063 pilots studied not a single one fell within the average range across all ten dimensions (Rose, 2016, p. 4). This was despite the Air Force already filtering pilot selection according to its own concept of the average, eliminating pilots from consideration who were either too tall or too short. The moral of the story, according to author Todd Rose (2016), is: Any system designed around the average person is doomed to fail (p. 8). This is the counterintuitive conclusion of his book, The End of Average – How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness.
The idea of the average has been a fundamental organising principle of the systems that underpinned 20th-century society, from how factories were organised, to how civic policies and social rank operated, to how school systems and curricula were designed. The notion of average was critical to the quest for standardisation. In this context, the understanding of the individual lay not in the recognition of their unique talents and strengths; rather, it was arrived at by comparing them to the average and determining how far below or above the standard they measured (Rose, 2016, p. 37). It is an idea that holds little credibility any longer in the social sciences.
The ramifications of the average in educational systems has been far reaching. As public education became more widespread in the early part of the last century, much of it was based on standardisation, ensuring a common experience for students through common resources with common outcomes. It was largely a one-size-fits-all model. This notion of education has been supplanted in the last 20-30 years by an increased focus on personalisation, an attractive alternative to an inflexible and indiscriminate school experience.
The term personalisation, however, has become problematic in its application. Its ubiquity and overuse as a catch-all phrase to describe a raft of developments in education has blurred our understanding of it. Carol Ann Tomlinson (2017, March), a leading author on differentiated instruction, notes that "Personalisation is written about as... personal learning plans, portfolio demonstration of learning, small schools, blended learning, community-based learning, increasing student voice and responsibility, project-based learning, inquiry learning, computer-based learning through adaptive technologies, dual enrollment, and anything-anywhere-anytime student-designed learning." Educational Leadership, 12. The result is that personalisation - like any term that suffers from overuse – has become indistinct, imprecise and inconstant.
The lack of clarity leads inevitably to more radical interpretations of personalisation. For example, the notion of students learning what they want, when they want, wherever they want, and at whatever pace they want is no longer an expression of personalisation (Bray and McClaskey, n.d.). This type of approach has morphed into strict individualisation of learning, an approach with questionable merits and a thin research base that flies in the face of cognitive science. As Benjamin Riley (2017, March) points out, the novelty involved in a self-selected, self-paced learning programme is in conflict with the science of learning around effortful thinking and working memory versus long-term memory. He remarks on the irony that schools "often find they need to create 'guardrails' or frameworks around the content students are supposed to learn and the pace at which they learn in it... schools start to converge on a model not all that different from longstanding education models with a scope and sequence." Educational Leadership, 71.
Schools need to be clear about they mean when they promulgate personalisation as a means to an end – enhancing student learning. At Mulgrave, personalisation is defined as the personalisation of learning, support and curriculum. Learning becomes personalised when teachers empower student voice in participating in the design of their learning, in choosing topics and selecting resources, and in demonstrating learning through competency-based assessments with live time feedback. Support becomes personalised when teachers begin with the learner - and not the content – and guide students to set objectives specific to themselves. They help students build a network of teachers, peers and others who can support and strengthen their learning. And curriculum becomes personalised through expanded programme offerings and choice. The Grade 5 Exhibition, the LEAP programme and the addition of new courses in Design, Economics and Philosophy in the Senior School are prime examples of the increased personalisation of curriculum available to Mulgrave students.
Personalisation is a fine ideal. It holds the potential to inspire students, strengthen their motivation and deepen their learning. It is fundamentally about creating classrooms that honour the individual, that help students achieve their personal best. If Todd Rose is indeed correct and no one fits the definition of average, then we ought to be clear about how we personalise learning to help students maximize their potential. At Mulgrave, personalisation is a cornerstone of the school's strategic plan to provide students with a more enriched, extended, applied and international education. It is fundamental to achieving our mission, Inspiring Excellence in Education and Life.