MR AVERAGE

Have you any idea how many spiders you swallowed while you slept last year? Do you dream a lot while you sleep?

How much time have you spent recently looking for a sock?

If you are like me, you may well not have given much thought to any of the above before – and may well not give any thought to them in the future either! But it is interesting though because I can now reveal, through a renowned overseas newspaper, that the average person swallows EIGHT spiders a year while sleeping. You did not know that, did you? The average person has over 1460 dreams a year. And during their lifetime a male spends one month of his life looking for a missing sock. Of course, you will be quick to point out that these must be British people, so what else would we expect? I confess I want to ask the question how on earth we know how many spiders we swallow while we sleep and how do we know how many dreams we have! Does someone count them for us, every night of the year or does someone work out how many dreams they had one night and multiply that by 365? (1460 dreams during 365 nights works out at 4 a night – but you had worked that out already! Do YOU have four dreams a night…?)

Of course, the real question we should ask is: who cares? Does it really matter? Do the Olympic committee announce the average times of all their races? Do job interviewers declare the average marks of candidates who applied for the job? We might also want to turn it around and ask: is there a Mr Average? Does anyone fit the bill? The article mentioned above did indeed set out to find out Mr Average in the UK and, what is more, claimed to have found him! The strange thing, for me, was that he was proud to be Mr Average. Do we want to be average? The Kaiser Chiefs, an erstwhile successful band, had a song with the title, “Everything is average nowadays” (“Oh, everything is average nowadays. Everything is average nowadays; When everyone would do it if they can, When everything is going down the pan, When everyone is following the craze, When everything is average nowadays”) and there is a lot of truth in that – an awful lot of things produced or performed are little more than average (including that song perhaps).

People talk about the Law of Averages. In the Law of Averages, one in ten people suffers from a sleep disorder – in your workplace, how many of your staff have a sleep disorder? We are told that one in ten people in Africa have Aids – but does that mean that in a school of 650 pupils here in Africa 65 of our pupils will have Aids?

Why do we become so obsessed with class averages therefore?

Are averages helpful? The average amount of money spent by one hundred teenagers a week might be said to be $10 – but if one of those hundred spent $901 and the other ninety-nine all spent $1, would that average be all that relevant. It is the same with percentages – if one person takes an exam and fails it, the percentage pass rate is 0%, yet if one person out of one hundred people who sat an exam fails it then the pass rate is 99%. The same one person fails an exam – fact; but does the number of other people doing the exam alter that fact? So, what do percentage pass rates really tell you?

So what if my child is above the class average? If my child is above average but the average is very low, is that going to comfort me? If my child is below average (85%) but the average is very high (90%), will I still be upset? And so what if my child is above or below average? We might be tempted to think as the comedian George Carlin said rather bluntly and ungraciously: “Think of how stupid the average person is and realise that half of them are stupider than that!” It does not need a mathematician (or a George Carlin) to work out that not everyone can be above average. Is it somehow safer to be on the right side of the average line?

What that highlights for me really is the sin of comparison. Can you compare an apple to an orange? In certain ways they are similar (fruit; round) but other than that they are very different – you cannot say that one is better than theother (you might prefer one to another but that is not the  issue). We cannot compare children (parents, never compare one of your children to another); we cannot compare classes; we cannot compare results. Averaging things is lumping them together and dividing them up – is that really what you want for your child? Lump your child with everyone else’s and then cut it in half?

We as parents are often no better than our children. When a child gets their work back, the first question they ask is “What did I get?” (meaning “Am I going to be in trouble?”) The second question they ask is “What did you get?” (meaning “Am I better than him?” Note though that they will never ask someone they know will be better than them!). When the parent asks “What is the class average?” they are asking “Is he going to be in trouble?” The real questions they should both be asking are “Where did I go wrong? What lessons can be learnt from this?” Education, after all, is not about results.

It leads me, in conclusion, to ask this question: Why do we desire to be average? Why do we measure our child against the average? Surely we should desire to know the actual not the average? Why do we desire to be above average? (Do we want to swallow more than eight spiders a year while we sleep…?) Do we not want to excel? Weare not to be good, above or below average, better than someone else, but to be the best we can be. There is noaverage child – every child is special. Do not compare them. Do not label them. And get back to looking for that sock!