The History and Future of Bell-curve thinking

The latest issue of Educational Theory, 58(1), includes an article examining the idea of “normal.”

Bell-curve thinking, as a model of distribution of success and failure in society, enjoys a perennial (ahistorical, objective, and law-like) status in education. As such it provides a rationale for sorting (tracking or streaming) practices in education, which has led many educators to criticize both bell-curve thinking and associated sorting practices. In this essay, Lynn Fendler and Irfan Muzaffar argue that the existing critiques of bell-curve thinking ring true for people who believe that the purpose of schooling is to promote a more equitable redistribution of resources in society; however, these arguments do not criticize the law-like character assumed for a bell curve as a representation of social reality. To extend these critiques, Fendler and Muzaffar focus on the history of the bell curve, from a representation of binomial probability, to a bearer of real things in nature, and finally to a set of expectations about how people should behave. They ultimately argue that the acceptance of bell-curve thinking in education is part of a recursive project of governance and normalization.

In related news, the latest podcast to become available free via iTunes from NPR — Intelligence Squared, which features formal Oxford-style debate on controversial subjects — recently zeroed in on Bell-curve thinking as it pertains to race, gender, and equality: the resolution, Is it time to end Affirmative Action?, catalyzed a fascinating discussion.

Taken together, the two media forms present different approaches of a single very difficult problem: How to characterize the realities of achievement. Get more details about the article here; get the debate on mp3 here. They complement each other nicely.

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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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