Education Canada Magazine

EdCan Network, Promising Practices

The Signal: The average is nobody

A Slew of Signals


We are leaving out the majority when we design and implement curricula to meet the needs of the average student and the average teacher. This is the opposite of what most people believe about being average. We use the phrase “average Joe” to mean just about anybody but it actually describes virtually nobody. As Lori Hough wrote,

Schools were designed during the industrial age by people who were ‘absolutely obsessed’ with averages because averages worked so well in managing factories. The goal wasn’t to nurture creativity and develop individuality. The system mostly accomplished what it set out to do: prepare students for standardized jobs in an industrial economy. Since then, we have continued to think that the average — a human invention — represents everyone or that any deviation from the average is what defines you.2

So what?

If we are truly going to design education to meet the needs of all students, we need to start thinking about individuals. Who is our audience? Who are the primary benefactors of teachers’ work? In answering this question, we need to consider a paradigm shift in our thinking about what we are teaching and how we teach it. This is important to our work in developing an education system to support universal design for learning. The word “universal” might make some of us leery, thinking that it’s just another way of describing average. But it really means recognizing and celebrating diversity in our schools and in our curricula.

Now what?

To quote Bernie Sanders, “Change happens from the bottom up.” So it starts in the classroom with teachers and students. We need to ask: Is the way I’m teaching in the best interests of the students or in my own best interests? The answer to this question may lead us to advocate for more flexibility and autonomy. And this means we need to be prepared to be flexible, which is much easier said than done. It is much easier to keep doing things the way we have always done them. Change is hard but once there is evidence of a few individuals engaged in open, safe, collaborative dialogue about what we are doing in the classroom, momentum will grow. We can prepare for the challenges of change by inviting these classroom leaders to share their experiences at school board and government levels. Check out Shelley Moore’s bowling analogy3 about teaching for a great perspective: “We have to change our aim.”


Participant reflections on signals of change

Participants at the 2016 EdCan Network Regional Exchanges discussed more signals of change than we could possibly cover — but we wanted to share a sense of their range and significance. We invited a number of participants to write a short piece reflecting on one of the signals they brought to the Exchange.


Discover more signals at:


We want to know what you think. Join the conversation @EdCanPub #EdCan!

Photos: Max Cooke and Yolande Nantel

First published in Education Canada, March 2018


2 L. Hough, “Beyond Average” (2015).

3 S. Moore, “Transforming Inclusive Education” (2014).

Meet the Expert(s)

Jill Handrigan


Jill Handrigan is a grade 7-12 teacher in St. John’s, NL currently working with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Learning. She is primarily responsible for developing curriculum in language arts and religious education as well as associated professional learning for teachers K-12.

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