The Big Jewish Question on My Mind:
How do we NOT teach to the average?

By Lianne Heller

[This is the fifth in a five-part series on “Big Questions on Our Jewish Minds,” featuring alumni of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), part of the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS. You can join our series’ authors in conversation at the “Big Jewish Questions on Our Minds” session during the Prizmah Jewish Day School Conference coming up in March in Atlanta, Georgia.]

Todd Rose, the author of The End of Average, and director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, argues that there is no such thing as an average student, and continuing to perpetuate the myth of the average results in a flawed education system that damages many students.

In his book, Rose writes, “Historically, education has been about batch processing: standardize everything against the average, rank kids, sort them to see who gets more and who really doesn’t deserve to be there. The problem … is we’re not producing the talent we need.”

While categorization makes quick and simple work of understanding potential hazards and threats, when it extends to categorizing learners into simplistic groups such as average, below average, or above average, we lose sight of the diverse learning profile of each child. Worse, many groups of students become marginalized by a curriculum designed to teach to the average. By categorizing students, we obscure their unique learning capabilities and underestimate them, and that’s how we lose the opportunity to nurture enormous human potential.

Jewish day schools are not immune to the systemized categorization of students, and the belief of educators that the average student does, indeed, exist. Too much frontal teaching can be a learning barrier for visual learners, written assessments can mask the true knowledge of students with writing challenges, and timed tests don’t allow students whose processing speed is slower to show what they know. This is not to say that all teaching and all assessments should always be provided according to a student’s learning style. It is to say that we can and should vary what we do to get accurate data on students so that we can “teach them according to their way.”

But what is a teacher supposed to do? And here is a frightening thought: if there is no such thing as the average learner, and we shouldn’t be using curriculum designed for the average, how can we possibly teach to the very wide variability of students within each classroom, not to mention the variability of learning within each student?

This is a question not unlike the one asked by the United States Air Force in 1952. In his TED talk, Todd Rose notes that cockpits were originally designed using standard measurements thought to accommodate the average-sized pilot. However, upon measuring over 4,000 pilots, it was found that there were ZERO average pilots. Cockpits designed for the average were essentially designed for no one! Despite much protest of the impossibility of the Air Force’s request, a flexible cockpit was designed and a diverse pool of fighter pilots can now be accommodated. (We take for granted the adjustable seats in our cars, which are a direct result of this design challenge.)

The question of whether we can design education to the outer edges and be flexible enough to fit all types of learners is a necessary one considering the theory that there is no such thing as an average student. It is a question that must have a solution because we are losing human potential by continuing to teach to the nonexistent average. Yet it is not possible to customize education for every individual student, just as it was not possible to customize every cockpit for every pilot.

Or is it? In 1984 the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) considered this question and began working on a solution. The members of CAST shifted their focus to “the disabilities of schools, rather than students.” This new and radical approach became the foundation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Today UDL draws upon neuroscience and education research to create school environments that fit the jagged learning profile of individual students as well as that of the group. The result: a much wider range of students can be successful in the general education classroom that incorporates the UDL framework, rather than forcing students to fit the education. (Think about the cockpit metaphor.)

In special education we talk about Universal Design in the same way that architects talk about architecture. In order to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, architects must include accessibility into their buildings. Rather than retrofit ramps and special doors into a building as an afterthought, architects design these features at the outset into the plan, thus making them intrinsic to the building. The result is a beautiful and seamless construction that is all inclusive. An unexpected outcome of Universal Design is that more people benefit from these features than originally anticipated. Moms with strollers and people with bicycles or shopping carts began using the ramps originally designed for wheelchairs. People carrying heavy parcels were happy when doors automatically opened for them.

Many schools are still trying to retrofit students into their educational structures, yet they don’t yet realize that what has been built is not designed for anyone at all. The population of students with additional learning needs grows exponentially at these schools and well-meaning education support service departments struggle to meet those needs. Jewish schools, with the extra demand for Judaic learning, are constantly struggling with the forces of time, content that needs to be covered, and goals that need to be reached. All the while, educators have a growing suspicion that we are somehow just not doing enough. We watch as an increasing number of students develop anxiety, depression, and other social and emotional challenges, and we recommend therapy, parent education, and medication. But somehow, we feel stuck teaching to the average and using curriculum and assessments that don’t address the variability of learning in our groups and in individual students. I struggle with this daily.

A bright spot though: In response to this challenge, an increasing number of schools and entire school districts, both nationally and internationally, have recognized the power of UDL and its transformative effect on students. As community schools that uphold the Torah value of inclusivity, Jewish day schools are ideal candidates for UDL. In order to successfully implement the framework, deep and profound professional development for teachers is a necessity. It is the type of professional development that, like the cycle of the Torah, is ongoing, circling back repeatedly and each time adding new depth of understanding that guides our practice. Research tells us that teachers who model learning produce students who learn.

If our Jewish day schools would adopt this framework, our students would flourish, becoming expert learners who understand their own learning styles and use their creativity, resilience, perseverance, and love of learning to become critical thinkers who will use their God-given talents to make a difference in the world. Teaching NOT to the average may be transformational change in how we think about Jewish day school education, but it’s a change that I think we must be willing to take on.

Lianne Heller is executive director of Sulam, a special-education inclusion program that serves students with learning differences and provides in-depth training in Universal Design for Learning at schools in the Greater Washington area and beyond. She is an alumna of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) at the Leadership Commons of the William Davidson Schoo of JTS.