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.
One thought on “The History and Future of Bell-curve thinking”
Comments are closed.