If there’s one thing Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, feels strongly about overhauling, it’s the education system’s adherence to the almighty bell curve.
The bell curve grading system says that most students will fall somewhere within the average percentile, which means most students will be C students, and the outliers (A and F students) will receive either the most praise or the most admonishment.
“The bell curve is destructive,” Shelton said, while speaking at TEDxMidAtlantic on Oct. 27. “The world doesn’t need to work that way.”
The TEDxMidAtlantic conference is a Washington, D.C. area offshoot of the main TED Conference that takes place every year in Long Beach, Calif. It unites innovators, experts and leaders in technology, science, education and the humanities.
One of the ways to turn C students into A students is through one-to-one tutoring, which the Navy implemented with its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Shelton said.
Thanks to DARPA’s overhauled training system, the agency has seen its new recruits at 16 weeks perform as well as its five- to seven-year experts.
“We need to teach people not to just be proficient but to be true masters,” Shelton said. “We can build new structures and virtual sites that are highly instrumented to see not only what students are doing but what the teachers are doing to impact outcomes.”
But making such a change isn’t without costs. It’s time, he said, for us to invest in a new way of education. Shelton said the Department of Defense spends $75 billion on research and development, while the Department of Education spends less than $1 billion.
The payoff, however, in turning C students into A students is more than worth the investment. When students are transformed by one-to-one tutoring, they gain a new “swagger,” Shelton said.
In closing, Shelton recounted the tale of one recruit who underwent the new DARPA training. One day, she sat at the help desk stunned and in tears. When her trainer came over to ask what was wrong, she replied that she was able to solve a problem that had taken others three weeks to solve, and she didn’t understand why or how she did it.
“I don’t understand. I’ve never been smart,” she said.
That’s because she was judging her self-worth exclusively on the bell curve, and by simply learning differently, she went from average to excellent, Shelton said.