Today we have much scientific knowledge that didn’t exist when many of the systems that serve children, in and out of school, were designed. For example, today we know that talent is not distributed along a bell curve. What if we were to apply this new knowledge in new ways? What untapped potential might we see and unleash?
As the global workforce undergoes a once in a century transformation wouldn’t it make sense to also reconsider our inputs into that workforce: The way we recognize talent and help all children grow and learn?
The 180 Podcast presents a conversation with Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he also leads the laboratory for the science of the individual. He’s also the co-founder of Populace, a non-partisan think tank dedicated to equipping all people to live fulfilling lives in an open, and thriving society. Rose is author of the End of Average, and most recently, Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment.
Transcript: Todd Rose, Talent is Everywhere
Chris Riback: Todd, thanks for joining me, I appreciate your time.
Todd Rose: Thanks for having me.
Chris Riback: I’ll start with a question that essentially asks you to wrap up your lifetime of research into one response – that shouldn’t be too difficult: What is talent, and what makes you believe we all have it?
Todd Rose: I think talent is a person’s ability to convert their motives and values along with their aptitudes into something that is meaningful and valuable to society. And the reason I think everybody has it is, from the science I’m a part of, which is the science of individuality, it’s really clear, not only how diverse the skillset and value set is that people bring to the table, but that when you look at how that can be converted into value for society, there’s so many diverse ways for that to be true that it’s hard to imagine that any particular individual doesn’t have a combination of values and skills that can’t be put to use for society in a meaningful way. And I think that the only reason it doesn’t look like that is that we’ve decided in advance that talent is a bell curve, and that there’s one standardized way to develop it. And when you do that, surprise, surprise, talent looks like a bell curve.
Chris Riback: And are systems aligned… and not even just aligned, but designed to look at talent that way, and to measure it and then reward it and deliver the next level of opportunities?
Todd Rose: It’s more fundamental. So, I think the most important thing, it’s part of what I’ve worked on in the books that I’ve written, are largely about, where did this idea of talent scarcity come from? How did we get here? And it’s really based on, we made a set of assumptions about 150 years ago that human beings could be stacked in terms of a bell curve and on any characteristic you cared about. And importantly, the idea that the average person was a meaningful thing, and that we just compare ourselves to the average person.
And so, we’ve done that in all of our society. We do it in education to this day. We do it when we hire people. We even do it in healthcare.
What made people get off on these individual paths is that they prioritize personal fulfillment. That’s their view of success. It’s very personal… They know who they are. They use this as part of what matters to me, and then they go after it.
So, now we have this average based world that is standardized to have one right way. There’s one right way to educate, there’s one right way. There’s a career ladder. Like literally. One way forward. Well guess what? We know those assumptions weren’t true. We know it scientifically; we know it mathematically. It’s just not true. There’s no average person. It doesn’t work that way. But what you notice in fields that have had to make this jump already… So let’s say medicine. Nobody’s doing average based medical research anymore. That doesn’t work; we know it doesn’t work. And so you get all this improvement in personalized medicine, personalized nutrition, these kinds of things.
But it wasn’t just as simple as like, maybe cancer looks different than this average pathway. You had to get rid of these flawed assumptions that underpin that. And when you did, then you got all the breakthroughs. And I think that in the space of education specifically, but then talent in general, we haven’t made that jump yet.
So on the one hand you can say, look, there’s some cool things going on, and if only we just have a better example or a better test. But as long as people hold these assumptions about talent and about potential, those little small wins are never going to combine into that avalanche you need to sort of tip the scales and have a whole different system.
Chris Riback: There is, as you know and as you have written, a standard formula for success. And then there is a dark horse formula. What’s the standard… What are those two?
Todd Rose: People have no problem saying, first of all it’s comparative. You’re successful because you’re better than somebody else. And then it’s like zero sum, right? So for me to win, you have to lose, or somebody has to lose. So the formula for that is sort of like, be the same as everyone else, only better. Like, I have to play by the same rules, do these things, take the same tests. I just have to do a little better than you.
Now, that has dominated the American landscape. And I’m only speaking in the country because that’s where most of our research is. I don’t want to overstate for the rest of the world. But that has been the dominate view of success for most of the industrial era. And the cool thing is, and I’ll get to the dark horse aspect in a second, but we know for a fact, and we’ll be really public about this in September, we have a new success index coming out with Gallup. But a majority of Americans now reject that; they don’t want that. Sixty percent of people across all demographics – it doesn’t have even a huge age skew. It’s like a really remarkably robust shift, where they know this is how society’s built, and they don’t want it anymore.
Chris Riback: Yes, that definition of success is much more based on individual definitions and individual experiences
Todd Rose: So basically, when the American public responds, what they say is like, I got to pay the bill. I just want money. Who doesn’t want that? That’s fine. I want to accomplish things. I don’t want to just sit back. But then they use words like meaning and purpose and fulfillment. It matters that they’re doing things that matter to them.
And so I set that up to say that the dark horse aspect of this… this came off of a project at Harvard that I was doing that serendipitously ends up converging around the same thing.
What I found was I kept running into pretty amazing people, surprise surprise. And these people who were there doing great things often had these really interesting, non-traditional paths to getting there. And I just kind of filed that away as, that’s curious. Right? That’s interesting.
And so after the success of “End of Average,” I was like, well wait a minute, I want to know more about these people. Like, how do they have success? No one really saw them coming, these dark horses. And so we did this really large study. It was my first qualitative research. We get hundreds of people from all walks of life, and I thought… Just full disclosure, I was wrong about what the point of all of it was. I thought that it would be that like, to be a dark horse and follow that view of success, that you would have to be kind of like a Steve Jobs personality. Like, you don’t care what anyone thinks. You kind of like bucking the system, right?
Instead what we found was actually what made people get off on these individual paths is that they prioritize personal fulfillment. That’s their view of success. It’s very personal. Again, they’re fiercely ambitious, right? It’s not like a hippie kind of thing. But it’s like, they know who they are. They use this as part of what matters to me, and then they go after it.
And of course, in a standardized system where there’s no real average person, it’s not surprising that a standardized path is not really going to do it for most people. It is about harnessing your individuality in the pursuit of fulfillment to achieve success.
We teased out, there were four things that they know, very consistently, that allowed fulfillment to be actionable. These are things that we all could know, and help us get out of this status mindset and into a place where we can truly use our individuality to making a contribution to the world.
Education: The standardized approach to success
Chris Riback: The standardized approach to success existed at a time when standardized – and you just talked about the industrial era – that was our system. That was finance. It was trade. That was commerce. That was how the world ran. We seem to be in a different age, and it would seem that a different age calls for a different mindset. What’s your view?
Todd Rose: I don’t think most people wake up and say, “You know, I wish I could give up who I really am, and become a cog.” Right? But if you tell me it’s either mass depressions and unemployment and barely scraping by, or it’s the incredible material wealth we’ve generated through standardization, even I would take that, right? I’ll be the cog, and I’ll go work at Ford factory and I can have a house and a car and retirement, and then I’ll figure out fulfillment on the side, right?
I do think to your point earlier, like as so much of our society has moved with the access to both technology and big data and other things. Notice how every time a field gets disrupted like that, it always moves towards something more personalized, always. Without fail. Because it’s real signal, it’s real information. There’s a reason why Amazon does what they do to generate recommendation engines that are incredibly personalized, right? Because it can convert you into another sale much better than if I treat you as like, what you’re a man and you’re a certain age.
So, I think that the exposure to what’s possible now has allowed people to start to question whether there can be something different. And if we can do it in social media, we do it commerce, we can do it health, we can start to see it in education. Why do I have to be locked into a particular view of success that never felt right to me, but I didn’t know what else?
I think now the breakthrough is, and this is the work that my think tank does, is like, you will not get these systems to tip until that culture realizes there’s a majority that really wants this now. And we can demand it. And as soon as you get that, things will move in a hurry.
Chris Riback: You’re describing a world where the culture is shifting. Maybe you just said it’s not there yet, and it will tip when it gets there. But let’s stipulate that that’s coming. You describe a world where there’s the end of average. Whether that is the size of air force pilots in cockpits in the 1940s, or the way our brains hold memory, and there’s no average brain. You describe a world of dark horse individuality, and the definitions of fulfillment, and the direction that all that’s going. You just mentioned education. When you consider the paradigm that you outlined, this world life view that you talk and write about, and then you look at our current system to educate children, are they aligned?
Todd Rose: No. I mean, you almost couldn’t design a system to be worse at what we want now. I know why we have the system we have, and the truth is, is again, back in the day, this was a question of, did we do really personal education for a few people, or were we willing to mass educate everyone? If you’re going to do that, then how do you do that scale? And you’ve got skill through deep personalization.
So, I’m grateful for what it’s done and where it got us, but now it is an incredible barrier to people being able to live good lives. I don’t think anyone’s satisfied with the state of education right now.
For me, I come at it from a systems change perspective. That’s my training, and I think that for me, the kind of change that this calls for is not reform. It’s actually… Like we’re aiming to transform these systems, meaning we want a different purpose. We’re not okay with… the goal has always been to batch process and rank kids. And if you lean a little left, you say, “Well, make sure we do it as fair as possible.” But no one ever questioned that only some people have talent, and we need to rank everyone, because not everyone can be developed.
I think what we’re calling for right now is the transformation of public education to be about developing each and every kid. And when you acknowledge that, it has this incredible set of ramifications for the structure and function of schools as they exist.
The Structure & Function of Schools
Chris Riback: Can you start to describe what that structure and function might look like? Maybe early childhood learning, what does this look like? Elementary school, what does it look like? High school? Tell me what it looks like.
Todd Rose: Sure, sure. So, there’s a handful of things that will be true no matter what. So, if you want a system that develops every kid, the first thing that has to go is the way we measure… Like right now in education, it’s seat time – it’s literally called the Carnegie unit – that’s how everything’s measured. And what’s variable is learning, right? Like, fixed amount of time, and then that time is up, and it’s kind of arbitrary, right? Who picked how long you get to do this, and then we give you a grade? And if you don’t fail, we make you go on.
But like, the best predictor of how you’ll do in any one subject is how well you did with the subject before. So background knowledge matters a lot. So a kid that gets like a C- is just going to have trouble in the next class.
There’s a whole approach to learning called “mastery based learning.” We’ve got 40 years of research on it. We know how to do it. It’s setting high standards, and then embedding as much flexibility and time and approach as you can. It’s not unlimited; there are real constraints. But when you do that, when you make time the variable, what happens is learning becomes the fixed thing. It’s pretty remarkable that what one kid can do, most kids can do academically given the right highly variable environment.
This shift toward true mastery based learning is like, non-negotiable. It’s just unacceptable to give a fixed amount of time and then rate kids. It just doesn’t make any sense. And no parent is really okay with that. My kid’s in college right now, and like, in the class they’re like, “Oh, I’m not learning very much, but I have to sit through this.” Then they give them the forced curve, and I’m like, “Wait, I’m paying for this. All I want to know is did you master the material? So you cannot live in my basement when you’re done.”
So, mastery based learning, non-negotiable. The other thing is that whether we like it or not, we’re going to have to cede some control to the kids. And I don’t mean like “Lord of the Flies,” kids get to do whatever they want. What I mean is, part of what you want kids to look like when they’re graduated, is they’ve got to be self-directed, right? They have to be able to be in charge of their lives. They’ve got to make decisions for themselves.
Well, it would then stand to reason that one of the goals of education would be to help kids learn how to do that. Right? But that’s not at all what we do. We’re really obsessed about trying to eke out better performance on narrow metrics we’ve decided matter, but like, if all you care about is test scores, helping kids be more self-directed, having more autonomy, is not a very good idea, right? Like, take as much control as you can from them, probably put them in front of a computer, an adaptive algorithm, and you get better test scores.
There’s an aspect of autonomy where we have to think about, and that differs at different ages, but look, we’ve got to give kids some control.
The third thing is really about the design of the environment itself. So, you kind of referenced some of my early work, and the past work on flexible design. And the Air Force figures out that you can’t design cockpits for an average person. Well, you can’t design classrooms that way either. You can’t design textbooks that way, but we do.
Education is still the last industry that it actually incentivizes averaged based design. Nobody else does. So, all the money we spend, I mean massive amounts of money on textbooks and curricular materials. They literally, they call it age appropriate, or developmentally appropriate, and all it means is, if it’s a fourth-grade piece of material, well what’s the reading level of an average fourth grader? And how much vocabulary do they know? And they assume that about every kid, which is just insane.
Now, that flexible design, we already know how to do it. There’s a thing called “the universal design for learning.” It’s a federal law. You can do it.
But it extends – even that design – even more into stuff that my friend Pam Cantor is a leader on too, which is, as we realize how profoundly important context is, that these kids don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s nice to pretend that they have some innate stuff inside them, and it doesn’t matter where they come from. It’s just not true. And that when we think about what highly favorable conditions look like, you know we have to think about things like trauma and adversity and other factors that we tend to think are really just about some kids. And we don’t really think about what goes into those great environments.
So, I know that sounds like a mouthful. Mastery, autonomy, like these better designed environments. The good news is, while it’s not easy, nothing I’ve said is brand new. Nothing is waiting for a new innovation. We actually know how to do all of those things. And so, if the public wanted it, and enough of the public spoke up, you could have these schools tomorrow.
Education Solutions that Scale
Chris Riback: Let me ask two pushback questions, and this issue and this idea of personalized learning experiences. First one, how in the world do you do that at scale?
Todd Rose: So, here’s what’s great. Whenever we carry over… Whenever we think about the stuff I just talked about, it seems like, “Well that sounds nice, but it’s definitely not practical, and it’s certainly not doable, because you would you scale it?” This is the important thing about technology.
So, technology’s not the solution, but it is a tool, and it is the limiting factor on almost everything you can do, like ever, right? Textbooks are a technology; so are pencils. The beauty of digital technologies is their ability to be precise at the individual level, and incredibly flexible at scale.
So, you think about well, if you would have told me not too long ago that we could bring everybody in the world together to have communications and be able to translate their language in real-time through Google Translate, that seems impossible. That just seems like a fairytale. But we can.
The beautiful thing about this, especially in education, is if you design a really good, flexible environment, a curriculum, whatever, scale is pretty cheap. I mean, it’s not nothing, but it’s not… It’s not like a textbook, where basically there’s just fixed costs. It just costs a certain amount to do this.
And I will say, I think the best example of this is frankly the work with Summit Learning, the things that CZI is investing it, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Chris Riback: In California and Washington, yes.
Todd Rose: Yes, and here’s the thing: Those Summit learning tools which are phenomenal, like I would put my kid in one in a heartbeat, they embody everything we’re talking about. So, when they partnered with Chan Zuckerberg, what they’re building is this backend technology with all the curricular materials for free. And I think for like 40 states right now, but this idea is that any school who wants to do this will be able to do it they want to.
When we think about this new view of what equal opportunity really means in an age of personalization, you have to have access. But it has to be access to equal fit.
Chris Riback: That segues to my second pushback question. You mentioned that education was the last industry to kind of come to an acceptance of personalization and individual approach. Why? What is it about education where the factors are so entrenched? The revolution that you’re looking for, is it just too much?
Todd Rose: So, no. But I’ll tell you why I’m super hopeful. I might sound overly optimistic, but I think I’m actually a realist. I just think positively. First of all, the reason that education is the last to go, in my mind, has more to do with market forces. It’s not a market. It’s a state-run monopoly. Like K-12, you’ve got some private schools. But you don’t have the market forces that are so important to pick up on changing preferences and changing interests.
Think about all the places that have already gone. So, social media, fine whatever. But commerce, why? Why do these places invest so heavily in this? Well, first of all, because it works. Even if you treated education as a business, you lose money for every customer you have. A lot of these things don’t really work there in the same way.
Even if you want to do, say, a charter school, you’re still tied to the outcomes that the system cares about. At the end of the day, no matter what else you do, you still have to produce outcomes that they value. And so, I think it limits the potential for innovation.
I also think that education is the industry that’s closet tied to our views of success. It’s really, really value laden.
The way you get change, this transformative change, it can’t be enough for me to selfishly just want it. Because you’re asking to change public systems. Which means that what matters is how I see other people. Like, if I see you as a competitor, and I see you as maybe not worth investing in. For me to say, yes, let’s change the system. I’m like, no, I’m going to figure how to get my thing. There’s always a better way.
So it’s really ultimately about how we’re going to come to see each other, and that view of talent and potential. If we see each other as worth investing it, and if it’s better for us that you win, like better for me that you win, then we can get something. We know from our own data that that 60% has some really remarkable characteristics to them.
First among them is, they have a very positive sum view of success. Meaning when we ask them, does somebody have to lose for you to win? Not only do they say no, but they actually think that they benefit if other people live fulfilling lives. And when we ask them about talent, this is where it gets just really cool. We ask people in multiple survey after multiple survey, what percentage of the American public do you think is even innately capable of being successful in their lifetime? There’s a zero sum group; hat little group is tiny. The one that you think is everybody is like 17%. It’s a tiny group, it’s incredible. That group, when you ask them, what percentage of the public can be successful? They say 10%.
I mean, like holy cow. Then yes, if you thought only 10% of people can be successful, then build the system we built. It’s about selection, right? And you should. The fulfillment group, remember that 60%, that solid majority, puts that number at 80%. They believe 80% of their fellow citizens can be successful, and when we ask them why only 80%, and we ask the zero sum group why only 10%, they said, “It’s only 10% because of talent. People just aren’t talented.” So we’re kind of done, right? If that’s why you think there can only be 10%.
The fulfillment group, that 60% who thinks that 80% of people are talented, the number one barrier for them is opportunity. That’s why they think it’s only 80%. So, why that matters, why all those kind of numbers matter is, you’ve got a majority of Americans who believe in a different view of success that’s more about fulfillment and making a contribution, and they believe that other people are capable as well. That group is also the most frustrated with education of any group, no matter how you cut it. There’s no demographic that is actually more frustrated with public education than people who have a fulfillment view of success.
Why does this excite me? If 60% of the American public believes this new view of success, and we live in a democracy and a market economy, why is this not the public view? Really? That’s a fair question, right?
So we dug into that. That 60%, we asked them what percentage of their fellow citizens do you think also share your view of success? They think they’re a 5% minority. They think 95% of their fellow citizens still want the zero sum view, and so they’re unwilling to even say it out loud. Like, they won’t even tell their best friends what their view is, because they don’t think people understand. They’ll think you’re soft, you can’t compete.
Now, the reason that’s actually good is, there’s a whole field of economics and social theory called preference falsification, which is when public opinion is different than private opinion. That gap, if it were the case that right now, everybody wanted zero sum, well this game is over. Like, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t change culture. It’s like converting them to a new religion. But, the fact that we know that a majority of Americans are not saying out loud the thing they most deeply, deeply want, means that the game is basically, how do we use social proof to show them that actually they are a majority? And as they start to say out loud… Like as you say it publicly, there’s this bandwagoning effect. Where other people are like, “Oh wait, that’s me too.” And it just snowballs.
So, our work is largely about socializing this. We’re working with Hollywood to put this language into TV shows and movies. We’re building the success metrics. That’s why I’m excited. If you get the American public to realize that the majority actually wants this, and you work with these systems to try to start moving toward this direction, it’s possible. It’s not guaranteed, but I look at this and think, there’s no new invention that we need. We have all the pieces. Now we’ve just got to put them together.
Chris Riback: You’re describing a revolutionary social movement.
Todd Rose: Yes, absolutely. And you know what’s great? We live in a democracy and a market economy. The majority gets what they want, if they can say it with one voice. And so let’s do it.
Chris Riback: It all forces you to rethink everything. All of a sudden, colors look different than they did before. And one of the ideas that you really made me think about redefining is equal opportunity. And that the whole concept of equal opportunity historically has meant equal access. We could probably have a whole conversation on the old definition, the existing definition of meritocracy and all the things that the people who have made it through are doing to reduce actual access to meritocracy and pulling up the ladders. As opposed to the concept that you talked about of equal fit.
Todd Rose: Equal access is always important. So, if you don’t have access to something, it’s over. And let’s just use the cockpit sort of analogy. So, when you designed us a system on an average, the first thing you figured was that a lot of women just simply couldn’t fit, they just couldn’t. And so we realized, look, it’s not our fault, we just designed this thing, and you don’t fit. We’re not discriminating; it just doesn’t fit.
You can’t even access it, right? But now, let’s take a step further and realize, if our goal is to allow you to have the best chance, so it’s purely about effort and ability, if that’s the thing we’re after, then just allowing you to get into a cockpit that you can barely reach the pedals. We didn’t kick you out. And then for somebody who it is like literally the snuggest, perfect fit, right? Like, the person with the good fit, it really is about effort and ability now. That is the driver of how far you’re going to go. And the person that literally has to have like blocks on their feet to reach them… And that’s a real thing, women who were trying to be pilots. Like, you’re having to overcome an obstacle that’s artificial.
And so, for me, when we think about this new view of what equal opportunity really means in an age of personalization, you have to have access. But it has to be access to equal fit. Let’s go into education. So, okay, a kid comes in, and through no fault of their own, whatever, they’re behind a grade in reading. And we’re like yes, but it’s third grade, and this is the reading level.
Well, how is that “equal fit?” And now you’re in a science class. We already know you’re a struggling reader. And it’s like, we don’t feel any obligation to create an adaptive system that’s like, look, we can meet you where you’re at. We know you’re a struggling reader, but that doesn’t have to impair your ability to learn science.
So there are tools, there’s stuff already available, and I’ve been lucky to be a part of building some of them in the past – that for free, we were able to create multiple reading levels, adaptive, stuff, language translation, text to speech, everything. So that no matter what your background, no matter what I call your jagged profile, we can create the exact same fit for every kid and make it about effort, ability and interest.
Chris Riback: Todd, I want to close by asking about you, because you are not just a researcher, scientist asking questions of others, but you got here, to a great extent, through your own personal journey. If I were talking to the 17-year-old you, the one who dropped out of high school, or the 20 year old, the one who had two kids already, would that person have believed that you do what you do now? That you think the way you think now? What would that person think about the person I’m talking to right now?
Todd Rose: It would be unrecognizable. And in many ways, that’s great. And you know, I think about it a lot, really. Because most of my early stuff was just grim necessity, like I’ve got to figure out how to have a better life. But you know, early on because things had gone so poorly for me in school, I had a 0.9 GPA when they kicked me out. I mean, you have to work really hard to be that bad. But I knew something was wrong, and I just assumed it was me. I just assumed I was dumb and, whatever, things didn’t work out.
And what’s really remarkable to me, is I think about, my mentor Kurt Fischer once told me, he said, “You know it’s not true. We design systems that guarantee this would be the case for some people.” It’s just guaranteed that it’s going to be a bad fit. And I remember I was a doctoral student when he told me this. I was so angry, because I was like… You mean the awful sort of heartache and struggle that I went through, that some of that was just by design?
For me, I always think – I ask myself a different question, but similar to what you said. I always think about what would I tell the 17 year old me? I think it is probably improbable, I’m not going to pretend I wouldn’t go back and roll the dice. There’s a lot of luck too involved, and it’s probably not the most stable path for everyone. It’s back to theme we’ve been talking about. Your individuality matters. It’s not individualism, it’s not selfishness, but the distinctiveness of who you are matters. And if you don’t know those things, then you cannot make the choices that you need to make that will give you the best chance to live the life you want to live.
A lot of stuff you don’t want to know about yourself, right? It’s not necessarily always good. But the sooner you can actually have an honest, accurate understanding of who you are, what motivates you, what your aptitudes are, and you use that. Stay close to that your whole life, because it’s not going to fail you. Because the truth is that even though society has told you that there’s only a small number of things that are meaningful and successful and worthy of your pursuit, it’s not true.
And if you make choices based on who you are really, there are so many pathways that can be richly rewarding and fulfilling. And that’s a life worth living. And so I think it’s optimistic, but it does start with this understanding of who you are.
Chris Riback: Well, that’s terrific. And not only would the 17 year old you surely benefit from those insights, but the people that you reach now and that you reach going forward will even more. Well, you’re working with Hollywood, so maybe you’ll figure out a way on film. Back To The Future IV, I guess. Maybe it’ll be the Todd Rose story.
Todd Rose: The next Marty McFly!
Chris Riback: Exactly. Todd, thank you. Thank you for you time, and the work that you’re doing.
Todd Rose: My pleasure, thanks for having me.