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The Myth of the Normal Curve

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Edited By Curt Dudley-Marling and Alex Gurn

It is generally taken for granted that human behavior distributes along the lines of a bell-shaped, normal curve. This idea underpins much educational theory, research, and practice. There is, however, a considerable body of research demonstrating that the normal curve grossly misrepresents the human experience. Yet the acceptance of the normal curve continues to be used to pathologize children and adults with disabilities by positioning them as abnormal. Collectively, the contributors to this volume critique the ideology of the normal curve. Some explicitly challenge the assumptions that underpin the normal curve. Others indirectly critique notions of normality by examining the impact of normal curve thinking on educational policies and practices. Many contributors go beyond critiquing the normal curve to propose alternative ways to imagine human differences. All contributors agree that the hegemony of the normal curve has had a devastating effect on those presumed to live on the boundaries of normal.

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4 Decentralizations and Redistributions: A Complex Reading of Normality - Brent Davis & Dennis Sumara 39

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Not-Normal Distributions What’s the magnitude of an average earthquake? The wealth of an average person? The “size” of an average war? The population of an average com- munity? The connectivity of an average Internet hub? The impact of an average idea? On the surface, it might seem as though there are reasonable and accurate answers to at least some of these questions. But, in fact, none actually makes sense. On the matter of earthquakes, for instance, it turns out that minor tremors are so frequent and numerous that if they were to be pooled and averaged with more major events, a normal or representative quake would be imperceptible to unaided senses. Similarly, the statistic obtained by dividing all of the world’s capital by its human population is utterly meaningless—indeed, worse than meaningless, many have argued. Such a datum conceals the obscene wealth of a few and the intense poverty of so many. The same reasoning can be used to critique and discard con- structs such as average disputes, average cities, average hubs, and average ideas. Statisticians realized the impossibility of some of these constructs early on, recommending alternatives to the mean as a “measure of central tendency” for phenomena that have a skewed-from-normal distribution. For example, at first glance, it would seem that the notion of median—the middle point when all of a set’s data are sequenced according to magnitude—would be useful to character- ize average wars and communities. Or perhaps the mode—the most frequently occurring...

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