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What Can The Dangers Of Averages In Education Teach Us?

With the boom in available data and the computing power to analyse it, we need to introduce data collection, management and even governance more firmly into the education system. However, we need to go further; we need an education system that is not based on the very problem we have with data in defining our transport needs: the use and abuse of averages!  

Building learning processes around the concept of the average student has suppressed many talented people, and similarly building infrastructure based on our perceptions of “typical” trips is just as limiting. 

A better education system is not only good for raising young people who will contribute to our profession, but it will also create an environment which will incorporate diversity into our thinking because pursuing a broader understanding of what is going on needs to be at the heart of the data we collect and how we use it. 

Education Is A Classic Example 

In a recent blog post, I mentioned the example of the US Air in the early 1950s that was having a catastrophic number of crashes. The cause was eventually identified as the cockpits that were a fixed design based on calculating the dimension of an average pilot, thus creating a situation that suited nobody. 

Todd Rose is the person mainly responsible for bringing this example to our attention, including a TED talk and his book with the great title: “The End Of Average: How To Succeed In A World That Values Sameness”. 

He has taken his concern to the education system. Rose noted that 5,000 children drop out of school in America each year who are intellectually gifted. 

A young person who struggles to keep up with the average reading standard falls behind in all areas because most courses are taught out of written textbooks. He gives the example of a child who was falling behind in everything, but with the introduction of interactive computer programs, his gift of being good at science came to the fore. He became a leader to other students in helping them learn. Rose recorded that he had become the de facto “smartest kid in the glass”. 

Transport - Stepping Beyond The Averages  

The advent of household surveys (rather than just counting vehicles on the road) has highlighted facts such as many trips are multipurpose; trips for purposes other than journey-to-work dominate our desire to travel, and people have many reasons why they choose to use a particular mode of transport. 

The media and political commentary typically wallow in the myth that most trips are to the CBD although recent discussion of the 30-minute city has provided some opportunity  

Years ago, we used to do surveys comparing the travel times by various modes to and from the city centre.  This expanded, a bit, by considered several major centres. However, centres still only generate a minority of work trips.  

Two relatively recent developments are encouraging: 

  1. We have actively introduced the concept of the “Whole-of-Journey” ensuring we understand and help people getting to and from transport hubs not just considering their trip once they are on a bus or train.  This is especially important for people with disabilities; and  

  1. We are embracing a more informed understanding of freight transport. 

Making simple measurements to confirm our ideas about what a typical person chooses to do, or how a train, light rail, bus, rideshare or private car will be used is just floundering in averages. 

In a future blog, I will elaborate on some of the issues I have raised in social media posts, including those who have used transport data to highlight social issues. 

PS Todd Rose was a high school dropout who is now a faculty member at Harvard. 

What are your thoughts?

You can join the conversation via our Anything But Average LinkedIn Page.


John Reid

Managing Director, Austraffic

From the beginning of his career in local government and then when he established Austraffic in 1983, John realised that data collection is not just about numbers but about understanding people and the activities that serve the community's needs.  Poor or even bad data is counter-productive.  Even if results fit our preconceived ideas that doesn’t mean it is accurate. John has seen how good data expands our perceptions and thinking and can be surprising in its results. Connect with John on LinkedIn.

John Reid