The Average Student Myth: A New Study Focuses on the Importance of the Individual in Education
By Sheri Smith
In his book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, Harvard scientist Dr. Todd Rose examines the idea that there is no average person and that by ignoring individual differences – and what makes us each distinctive – we overlook potential and talent. The End of Average not only shows that there is no average person but also demonstrates the importance of nurturing traits that define each of us.
Dr. Rose’s work is part of a new field – the science of individuality— that looks for solutions to social problems by studying individuals rather than group averages. It is a recognition that each person has diverse talents. As the CEO of Indigo Education, I was curious to see if our own research would support Dr. Rose’s findings. I wanted to answer for myself whether the idea of the average student is really a myth.
The Indigo Assessment captured 150 dimensions of students – covering behaviors, motivators, soft skills, and perceptions. The survey included four well-known corporate tools that have been used for the past 35 years.
The results were striking. Out of 15,012 students, not one fell into the average. Our analysis supported that the average student is indeed a myth.
Yet the education system is built on the myth that you can and should teach to the “average.” If a student does not fit into a very narrow mold measuring only academic performance, he or she is considered deficient. Students have little time for learning what matters: relationship building, developing soft skills, tapping into self-knowledge, and understanding how to exercise their constitutional right for the pursuit of happiness.
Ending average in education changes teacher training programs, what we spend our money and time on, how our schools look, how we measure success, how we define ourselves, and perhaps most importantly, how we give people the opportunity for leading a fulfilling life.
The real change that needs to happen in education is not 1-to-1 laptops, some amazing new common core, or the perfect super school – it’s a mindset shift from the system to the individual.
 Behaviors are measured by TTI’s DISC. DISC is a behavior assessment tool based on the DISC theory of psychologist William Moulton Marston, which centers on four different behavioral traits: dominance, influencing, steadiness, and compliance. This theory was then developed into a behavioral assessment tool by industrial psychologist Walter Vernon Clarke.
 The Indigo Motivators Assessment is based on the research of Dr. Eduard Spranger and Gordon Allport and their study of human value, motivation and drive.
 Soft Skills are measured using a Likert scale survey developed by Target Training International based on the most important soft skills for workplace success.
 Perceptions are measured with TTI’s version of the Hartman Value Profile. It is based on the science of formal axiology, developed by Robert S. Hartman, providing rational answers to many of our questions about human values. Our values are the keys to our personalities, to self-knowledge, and to understanding others.
A big part of the work Indigo does is providing schools ‘non-academic data’ that can be used to connect better with students and personalize education. But this begs an obvious question: what the heck is ‘non-academic data’?
It’s a question we get a lot at Indigo, and we understand. The phrase ‘non-academic data’ sounds like it should be in the small print of a nutrition facts next to words like ‘Dietary Fiber’ or ‘Vitamin B2’. It’s not the kind of term that gets thrown around in everyday life.
Here’s how we like to think about it at Indigo. Remember the buzzword ‘Big Data’ that took off a few years ago? What we do is human big data. We look at the behaviors, motivators, skills, and strengths of students, teachers, and administrators to identify trends that are going on in classrooms, schools, and districts.
So there’s academic data like grades, scholarship dollars, and ACT scores; and then there’s everything else. At Indigo, we focus on everything else.
But again, it begs yet another question: what can you do with non-academic data?
The short answer: *a lot*
The long answer: we’re still learning all the ways it intersects with education, and we’re looking to some of our most innovative schools to work with us in discovering them. Here’s just a few ways Indigo is leveraging non-academic data to make a big impact:
1. Classroom Analytics
If you’re a teacher, then you get it: some years, you get that fifth period class that seems to be full of troublemakers. What makes them different than your second period students who are always kind, polite, and write assignments in legible handwriting?
With Indigo data, teachers can see what makes each classroom unique and understand how the students in the room perceive their own behaviors and motivators. It gives teachers the ‘in’ to learn about their students faster and troubleshoot ways to make each class a success.
2. Mentor Pairing
We all love mentor-mentee programs. It’s just cool to see a senior pouring into a freshman’s life. Imagine if you could match students even more intelligently?
By looking at motivators, educators can find students who connect with each other. Instead of just pairing up a senior and a freshman because they are both in the yearbook club, what if you could pair them up because of a shared, mutual desire to find balance and harmony in the world?
3. Grade Correlations
We’ve been doing a lot of exciting work on the university level with this. We all want to know why certain students ace, and others drop out. Student success is an ever-evolving Rubik’s Cube, and there is no copy-and-paste answer that meets all schools and cultures. But what if you could diagnose the symptoms of success in your school?
By lining up Indigo data with grades, we can look for trends in academic success. For example, the students who are getting the most A’s may be the students who are high in Compliance (detail-oriented, logical, cautious), while students who are getting mostly C’s and D’s may be higher in Influencing (talkative, relationship-focused, easily distracted).
From there, helping the high Influencing students succeed is just a matter of reorienting the lesson plans to involve more group discussion and collaboration. Educators using Indigo can make smarter, faster bets on how to improve failing students.
4. Teacher Coaching
We’re always growing and learning as adults. We want to find new ways to succeed using our strengths. Some of our best schools are using Indigo to have positive, teacher-initiated conversations about how Indigo can be used to help teachers continue growing.
Here’s an easy example: one teacher we worked with was 98 out of 100 in Dominance (direct, competitive, blunt). This teacher realized they had a gift at teaching in front of large groups, and that they should seek out more opportunities to get in front of larger groups of students. Even a conversation as simple as that can help orient an educator toward their strengths.
It doesn’t matter how old you are – we all can benefit from honest conversations about ways to use our strengths!
5. College and Career Counseling
You want to push forward your college and career advising game into the next century? Use Indigo data. If you can help students identify what type of environments fit their communication styles (Dominance, Influencing, Steadiness, Compliance) and what gets them excited in life (Motivators), you can radically change the effectiveness of your advising center.
Not only can it help students find out faster what they want to do (shortening the amount of time it takes counselors to get students to that “aha!” moment), but it can help students get placed in future paths that they’ll stick with (increasing retention and success at the next step). Our Director of Training and Advising works with dozens of counselors across the United States to help them make the transition into using Indigo’s non-academic data as a cutting edge college and career tool.
So what really is ‘non-academic data’? It’s part of the solution to modernizing education. It’s the foundation of what the Whole Child Initiative will one day lead us into as country. Successful education will always be relationship based, and human big data will help educators reach more students better, faster, with a lasting impact.
To learn more about how Indigo can work with your school to bring human big data to your school, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
New Research Spots Critical Gap Among Low-Income Students
January 28th 2015, Written by Marie Campbell
Today’s educators are beginning to understand that student success—that is, the kind of success that carries into all of adult life—has less to do with skills in vocabulary, mathematics, or the sciences, and more to do with basic, personal skills such as emotional control and the ability to plan for the future. As Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed (2012), declares in an interview, “We don’t teach the most important skills”—skills like “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence” (qtd. Vander Ark). These non-academic competencies enable students to one day apply for and hold jobs, foster healthy relationships, and participate in politics. Here at Indigo, we call these competencies “21st century skills,” and we believe they affect every area of students’ lives, both academic and personal. It is lack of these skills, more than any other factor, that creates a false divide between low- and high-income students.
Indigo is continually seeking solutions to income disparity in secondary and post-secondary education. It is our hope that through the use of non-academic data, we will enable educators to close the rich/poor gap currently affecting college attendance and completion rates. In pursuit of this goal, Indigo researchers recently administered the Indigo Assessment to two high schools, one a suburban charter school and the other an inner-city charter school in Denver.
While these controlled groups cannot be considered indicative of all high schools across the nation—at least until further research is performed—initial findings suggest an extreme disparity between low- and high-income students when it comes to non-academic skills.
As seen in the chart below, areas of weakness for low-income students include Persuasion, Problem Solving, Self-Management, and Creativity—all basic skills necessary for academic success. In these areas, suburban students score almost a full standard deviation ahead of their inner-city peers.
Resiliency represents another area of concern for inner-city students. As the following chart displays, inner-city students fall two full standard deviations below national average. While adults score an average of 7.2 for Resiliency, inner-city students score only 5.3.
In fact, both high schools rank significantly lower than the national (adult) average, suggesting that high school students may have a harder time recovering from adversity than adults. (Please note: This claim requires more research to become verifiable.)
Resiliency has long been on the educational radar as a critical skill for student success. Bonnie Benard, in a 1995 edition of the ERIC Digest, defines resiliency as the internal property “by which we are able to develop social competence, problem-solving skills, a critical consciousness, autonomy, and a sense of purpose.” Benard argues that healthy school environments can contribute powerfully to the development of student resiliency, encouraging schools to “establish high expectations for all youth” and foster caring student-teacher relationships. Indigo’s findings fully support these long-established claims while highlighting one vital element: the acute lack of Resiliency among underprivileged students.
While specific curriculum interventions have not yet been developed for increasing scores in non-academic competencies, Indigo does see a correlation between student success and the ability of educators to focus on students’ strengths. For example, eight high-school students in a pilot program went from 30 failing grades to 3 in just ten weeks—all from simple, weekly lunch meetings. These students took the Indigo Assessment during the first lunch meeting; in the second meeting, Indigo staff explained their reports. The remaining 8 sessions used a group-discussion forum to highlight specific strengths for each student, never once mentioning students’ weaknesses or attempting remediation. At the end of this 10-week period, all of the students’ grades had gone up.
According to a recent New York Times article, this type of intervention is also seeing positive results among first-generation college students at University of Texas Austin. Chemistry professor David Laude found that many of his low-performing students—students with scores of D or F—came from low-income families (Tough, “Who Gets to Graduate?”). Laude believed these students were capable of success; they simply lacked self-confidence. He therefore formed smaller class sections for low-performing students, hoping to foster a sense of belonging and battle self-doubt. Laude soon saw low-income students rise to the level of their high-income peers (Tough). Thanks to Laude, U.T. has developed a scholarship program called Dashboard. The central strategy: “Select the students who are least likely to do well, but in all your communications with them, convey the idea that you . . . are confident they can succeed” (Tough). Through group discussions, lectures, and community service projects (Tough), Dashboard sees low-performing students become confident, successful student leaders.
Indigo hopes to continue working with the inner-city school measured above, developing new curricula to foster critical 21st century skills.
Benard, Bonnie. “Fostering Resilience in Children.” ERIC Digest (Aug. 1995): n. pag. Web. 21
Tough, Paul. “Who Gets to Graduate?” The New York Times. N.p., 15 May 2014. Web. 12 Nov.
Vander Ark, Tom. “How Children Succeed: Attachment, Advisory & Adversity.” Getting
Smart. N.p., 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.