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Q&A

Dropout at Harvard

What Todd Rose’s unusual story says about why - and how - we should remake education

“We have a society based on a myth that has put us in this self-imposed death spiral, and that is this myth of the average,” says Todd Rose.

Patricia Saxler

“We have a society based on a myth that has put us in this self-imposed death spiral, and that is this myth of the average,” says Todd Rose.

In 1989, in the town of Hooper, Utah, a seventh-grader named Todd Rose found himself facing a familiar problem in an awfully familiar place. The place was the school principal’s office, and the problem was another weeklong suspension, this time for throwing vials of ammonium sulfide gas—stink bombs, as generations of pranksters know them—at the blackboard during art class.

On that day, nobody—not the teacher, the principal, or the classmates who egged him on—would have been surprised to learn that Rose became a high-school dropout, with a 0.9 GPA and a $4.25-per-hour job stocking shelves. They might do a double take to see him now though: a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and a leader in the field of educational neuroscience.

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Like millions of kids in American classrooms, Rose was a “misfit” learner, he recounts in a new book, “Square Peg: My Story and What It Means for Raising Innovators, Visionaries, & Out-of-the-Box Thinkers.” Today he’s at the forefront of a movement to reimagine the education system around what he calls the science of the individual—a growing body of research that points to our brain networks, hormones, and even gene expression as being in a constant state of interplay with our surroundings, not predetermined or fixed. As schools increasingly abandon textbooks and move into an era of digital-based curriculums, Rose argues, educators have a rare opportunity to transform learning and create rich, highly flexible environments that can adapt to each child’s natural variability.

“We have a society based on a myth that has put us in this self-imposed death spiral, and that is this myth of the average,” says Rose, who credits dedicated college mentors and his own hard work for graduating from Utah’s Weber State University with a 3.97 GPA, and getting into Harvard’s PhD program in 2000. “If you take a kid like me—I was a little more impulsive, a little overactive—how in the world that should be a predictor of failure is beyond me....When we create rigid environments that teach to the average, everyone loses.”

Rose spoke with Ideas by phone from his office at Harvard.

IDEAS: You write about your parents’ struggle to raise you. Did they ever doubt themselves?

ROSE: My mom set the tone the right way. She said, “It’s fine enough to group you and call you ADHD, but that’s not you.” She instantly homed in on the idea that at the end of the day, I’m an individual, and if we let the term come to define me that I would end up losing.

IDEAS: How did you go from throwing stink bombs to taking school seriously enough to get into Harvard?

ROSE: I dropped out of high school my senior year, the same time I found out that my girlfriend, who is now my wife, was pregnant. When my son was born, that was the first turning point for me in the sense of realizing that I was about to mess up my kid’s life if I didn’t do something....It just so happens that my dad and I had started to develop a close relationship for the first time after I got married....He knew things weren’t going well, and he said, “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I don’t think you’re lazy. I just think you have to be challenged all the time.” That was a gift that instantly reframed everything about the way I thought about myself.

IDEAS: A lot has been written about learning differences among children. What’s new about the idea of “variability” that you want education to embrace?

ROSE: The thing that’s been neglected until recently is that the most important kind of variability is not how I compare to you, but how I change in different contexts and the pathways I am pursuing toward an outcome. When I say variability, it’s really about how the individual changes in different situations and also over time.

IDEAS: You write about the phenomenon of stereotype threat, which is typically understood in terms of race or gender. How does it apply to kids with learning challenges?

ROSE: Stereotype threat kicks in whenever we classify someone as part of a group and that group is consistently associated with a negative outcome. So, when we say women are worse at spatial ability, it isn’t really true, but because it’s a widely held belief, your brain says, “Uh-oh, I’m in trouble in this environment,” and you get this anticipation of threat. We can show that simply by reminding kids they’re ­ADHD or dyslexic and they’re going to have a hard time with something, it triggers a cortisol stress response and it affects their performance. Once they start to have that kind of failure, just waking up in the morning and knowing that they have to go to school makes their cortisol levels shoot through the roof. By the time they get to school, they’re usually in a full threat response, and their cognitive abilities plummet.

IDEAS: Isn’t there an irony in teaching at an elite institution like Harvard, which rewards kids who excel in the cookie-cutter model?

ROSE: When I got to Harvard, I sort of expected it to be a place that was very elitist. But what I’ve been consistently surprised at—I mean really surprised at—is when you actually look at the people who are doing the admissions decisions, how hard they work to actually look past test scores and get a holistic view of the kid.

IDEAS: But Harvard does kind of epitomize this problem in higher education, which was once the great equalizer in American society and now seems more and more out of reach.

ROSE: Absolutely.... If anything, I want to expand our talent pool and make these decisions even harder for Harvard. But also, it comes down to that American dream. We’re supposed to be the country of [virologist] Jonas Salk, right? Jonas Salk’s parents immigrated, and he went to the City College of New York, which doesn’t charge tuition. We made that bet as a public: If you went to school on the taxpayers’ dime, you could succeed. And then Jonas Salk cured polio, and he gave that cure away. The impact of that one innovation changed the world. So for me it’s about, if our cure for cancer is probably a Latina sitting in a classroom in Oakland, how do we take advantage of this opportunity right now to reimagine the medium of public education, so that it doesn’t come down to everyone fighting for smaller and smaller numbers of spots at Ivy League schools?

Francie Latour, a Boston-based writer, has written about the education achievement gap for Essence magazine.
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