Saying that a student is “average” sounds almost like an insult, but it shouldn’t. All children are special and unique in their own ways, but that doesn’t mean they are entirely dissimilar from other children. Saying a student is average is a shorthand way of indicating there are many other children of comparable abilities and learning styles. In the bell curve of academics, the designation ‘average’ is a convenient way to identify the largest population of students.
As educators, parents, and librarians, we can let average become just another label that chains kids to a rigid educational life of fitting into boxes created for them, or we can harness the power of volume to produce spot-on tools and strategies that help vast quantities of kids.
We don’t have the time, money, or manpower to create personalized lessons for each and every child on each and every point. But by understanding how most kids learn, we can make sure we are maximizing the impact of education. That’s the power of “average.”
Take motivation, for example. Did you know that according to University of South Carolina researchers “average” students believe that their effort, more than their innate abilities, helps them to get ahead (Holland, National Middle School Association, 2003)? In one experiment, teachers shared with students what their reading levels were, as well as specific steps for improvement. Early in the semester, teachers’ first tests were designed to help every student score well. After two tests, teachers sent home notes to boost students’ self confidence by congratulating them for having A averages. The difficulty of subsequent tests was gradually increased. In the end, threats of bad grades were ineffective with average students, but success motivated them.
This and other studies allow us to sketch a profile of the average student. He or she is a hard worker who likes to please teachers and parents. Average students are cooperative and well-behaved. They don’t call attention to themselves, but quietly go about their tasks to the best of their abilities.
The average student is motivated by interesting and important material. They are spurred on by discussions, cooperative learning, and research projects. They long for teachers who care about them and communicate high expectations. They are driven by success and not threats. They need realistic targets and achievable standards.
They respond when their efforts are recognized.
Go back and re-read those last few paragraphs. The average student is a pretty great kid. Children on the margins capture much of our attention, because they stand out. It goes without saying that special needs on both extremes require extra effort and creativity. We can’t let that hold us back from appreciating the vast majority of kids who are average, however.
The average kid is exactly the kind of person you want to work with, be friends with, and hire for your company. The world is built on the backs of average kids. Taking what we know about the vast majority of children can help us to tailor our educational strategies for maximum impact.
Average doesn’t mean boring. It doesn’t mean ordinary. In this context it means numerous. And when you study just how cool the average kid can be, it means wonderful too.