A quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book ‘Black Swans’ describing our tendency to avoid randomness

Technology offers many opportunities. The challenge is sometimes how to make the most of these. Thinking of things from a system perspective, the desire to scale is often in contrast the reality of each school context.


Todd Rose opens his book, End of Average, with a discussion of the early fighter jets and the design of the cockpit around the ‘average’ pilot. He tells the story of Gilbert Daniels, a researcher who explored this problem in the 1950’s. Daniels measured ten dimensions, including height, chest and sleeve length. What he found, once he had averaged out all the measurements, was that an average pilot does not exist.

The tendency to think in terms of the ‘average man’ is a pitfall into which many persons blunder … It is virtually impossible to find an average airman not because of any unique traits in this group but because of the great variability of bodily dimensions which is characteristic of all men.source

Rose’s book unpacks this further, but again and again he comes back to the principal;

If you want to design something for an individual, then the average is completely useless.


Lately, my work has been focused on supporting schools with reporting and assessment. The application I support is very flexible, utilising Crystal Reports to produce the final product. Usually it is set up on a school-by-school basis, however we are deploying a multi-tenanted environment. With this comes the opportunity to create a solution that can be used for each of our schools, without having to go through the rigmarole of development from scratch each time.

My work has focused on creating a template that acts as a starting template of subjects and assessment items that feeds into the Crystal Reports. This was built on-top of the standardised configuration. The thought was that this would save users time in setting up their reports. It was easier to start with something, rather than build from scratch. However, the learning that has stemmed from setting up a number of schools is that no one has used this average starting point. There is nothing wrong with the underlying configuration, but it is often easier and quicker to build from the various solutions from scratch.

My first response to this was to create a second starting point that was dependent on the style of reporting that particular school was after. Although this alleviated the challenges associated with some of the differences, this still required somebody to add and delete various elements.

This all reminded me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s discussion of anchoring in his book Black Swans. Anchoring is a bias used for working around unknown possibilities. It involves reducing complexity by focusing on a particular object:

A classical mental mechanism, called anchoring, seems to be at work here. You lower your anxiety about uncertainty by producing a number, then you “anchor” on it, like an object to hold on to in the middle of a vacuum.

In my case, this object was the initial setup. We have since started exploring a different approach, which instead focuses on users working with the various dimensions. The hope is to provide some constraint, but also flexibility within this, rather than assuming that all schools are alike.


This all has me thinking. Too often the conversation around technology is around efficiency – replacing work and saving time. However, my experience with supporting schools with setting up reports, timetables and attendance, and technology in general, has me feeling it often changes things. This touches on the reality that technology is a system. In saving in once spot, it often adds to another. As always, comments welcomes.


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