Why teaching to middle doesn’t work


Today, I inquired about why people are saying that teaching with the ‘middle’ student in mind does not work anymore. I set out researching a scientist for the Harvard Graduate school, Todd Rose who has been known to avidly support the idea of not teaching to the ‘middle’ student and have teachers look at differentiating lessons to reach every student. After googling the term, “problems with teaching towards the middle”, I eventually stumbled across his famous TED video on him talking about this issue. He has also brought out a book, “The end of average” in 2016.


What struck me immediately is that he started with a story on the American airforce and how they saw in the 1940s having a cockpit in a fighter plane that was designed for the average pilot didn’t work. He mentioned that the Airforce found that there was no average pilot and returned immediately banned the average, and refuse to buy fighter jets with standard-sized cockpits and only bought fighter planes that were designed with an adjustable cockpit to suit all pilots, using what he called a “jaggered size profile”. The industry fought back, but in the end, the airforce not only improved the performance of the fighter but now have the most diverse pool of fighter pilots ever.

Size characteristics of fighter pilots

I loved the way he connected this problem with education. He said that most of us have not sat in the cockpit of a 150Million dollar fighter jet, but we’ve all sat in a classroom, and he argues that these are the cockpits of a nation’s economy and that nations are spending a lot more money on schooling and the results are not what is to be expected. Everyone knows we have a problem, but no one knows why. He says that it’s just bad design. Even though we are in the 21st Century we still design our learning environments like textbooks for the average student which is called age-appropriate. He stressed that everyone thinks it’s good enough to design our learning environments to teach to the middle, but the problem though is that there is no middle!

He talked about the ‘Jaggered edge learning profile’ which shows that all students have individual needs and vary on many dimensions of learning just like fighter pilots vary on size. This means that students have strengths and they have weaknesses. Quote, “even geniuses have weaknesses”, unquote!

He finishes off by saying what if we ban the average in education and start designing our learning environments to the edges?

The example was to the point and drove the meaning of why it is important to design learning in a way that can accommodate all student variances.



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