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Opinion & Essays - July, 2002 Issue #95 

By Lon Woodbury, C.E.P.

Has anyone ever met an average child? Of course not - every child on earth has a uniqueness unshared with anyone else. But, researchers talk about the average child all the time. Public policy is determined, law enforcement is instructed, schools systems are funded and administered, and large amounts of money are transferred, based primarily on perceptions developed through scientific studies of what this "average" child needs and wants. This "average" child is a creation largely of statistics to provide what is called in economics, a macro view, which is our attempt at translating real people into numbers. The goal is to manipulate those numbers to tease out knowledge that would not be obvious through what could be called a microanalysis, which would involve viewing each child as a unique individual. The application of statistical analysis to social problems is probably one of the most important accomplishments of our modern civilization, and its value cannot be overstated.

However, there is a cultural divide that sows misunderstanding of the real meaning of these statistically-based scientific conclusions. Researchers don't speak the same language as a layperson, or often even other professionals. Their “filters” are different.

Where the researcher might use sophisticated techniques to describe the average child, or some norm in the subject being studied, as an abstract concept, other professionals will frequently interpret that average as a direct correlation with his/her friends and associates or students. The researcher might qualify a statistical analysis by pointing out limitations, but that cautionary statement about its limitations often gets lost by others. Laymen, or other professionals, often interpret the conclusion as applying directly to their associates and students. The fact that a macro conclusion might not apply at all to a specific individual is then often ignored.

In dealing with students, or any person for that matter, it is important to keep in mind there are two commonly accepted and useful ways of viewing people. Each view taken alone can lead administrators in a school to make radically different conclusions about the same children. One view, the macro viewpoint, is reached through statistical analysis, which describes the average, or deviation from the average. The other view results from viewing each person as a complete and unique whole individual, which would be the micro viewpoint. While the first view provides patterns and commonalities, the second view is best used to see the unique differences and needs of students.

In order to have a good, effective and safe school, administrators must master both views, and exercise good judgment as to which viewpoint is most appropriate to use in different circumstances. It’s a question of balance, and students can be the losers if the educators emphasize one at the expense of the other.

The limitations of a micro view, which regards each student primarily as a whole person in a school of more than about a dozen students, are obvious. In the micro view of a larger student body, there will be too much detail for one person to adequately understand. It can lead to dealing with individual students in a vacuum, which can lead to inconsistent decisions between students. The inconsistencies of treatment would create a lack of safety, and a feeling of resentment among those students who believe they are being treated unfairly. As a result, there has to be a way of also viewing commonalities among students, which comes from a macro view. This is where most scientific studies gain their value, when they are used as an additional important source of the truth.

Using a macro view as the primary viewpoint, untempered by a micro viewpoint, has the reverse problem. The unique individuality of each student can become lost, and the educator would then probably overlook the unique needs of each student. A student will be seen only as a cipher in a category, and treated as if that category accurately describes everything important about the individual student. Exclusive reliance on the DSMR-IV or SAT tests can create this macro myopia. For example, when the checklist for a student indicates Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), an all too frequent reaction is to prescribe Ritalin or another drug. Unless tempered by a solid micro assessment, including a complete social history, there would be no consideration of the possibility that the attention deficit was caused by: environmental factors such as parents arguing, student upset over a divorce, serious adjustment difficulties to a new environment, discouragement caused by an undetected Learning Difference, or any number of other causes that might become apparent from a good micro analysis.

Balance is the important thing to keep in mind. A micro view of a student should usually be done either within the context of a macro view, or macro studies should be used to supplement existing knowledge of students as individuals. This can take advantage of both perspectives, and both truths together can provide a more accurate view of all the students.

Also, the layman, or professional, when reading scientific studies based on an analysis of large numbers of observations, should remember that when applying those conclusions to a specific situation, such as with their friends, associates or students, not only might the conclusions not really apply, they could even be misleading and downright wrong.

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