Home > Early Toddler Education, Family, Parenting, Public Education > Snowflakes, the Outliers and Malcolm Gladwell

Snowflakes, the Outliers and Malcolm Gladwell

Do you remember your first grade teacher telling you that no two snowflakes were the same? Our teacher gave us scissors and white paper. We folded the paper in half many times and then did cutouts with our scissors. I unfolded the paper and there it would be, my ‘snowflake’. As hard as I tried no two were ever the same, and as many as I would cut, each would be different in some way. I also tried to catch them when they fell so I could see their differences, but they melted in my hand. This snowflake mystery was one of life’s conundrums for me.

We do know for certain that, like snowflakes, no two humans are the same. There is an abundance of research published to substantiate this. Yet we educate our children as if they were all the same, ready for  identical educational experiences at the same age.

I am reading Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Even though I knew the educational requirements for entry into kindergarten for children, I had not thought about the negative ramifications that Gladwell presents in his book. I home schooled our sons and did not have to face these challenges.

Now think about this for a moment! Kindergarten accepts children at age 6. Gladwell says, “Parents with a child born at the end of the calendar year often think of holding their child back before the start of kindergarten: it’s hard for a five-year-old to keep up with a child born many months earlier. But most parents, one suspects, think that whatever disadvantages a younger child faces in kindergarten eventually goes away. But it doesn’t. It’s just like hockey. The small initial advantage the child born in the early part of the year has over the child born at the end of the year persists. It locks children into patterns of under achievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years.”

Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey, two economists, studied the relationships between scores and birth month among 4th graders in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test (TIMSS), which is given to children in many countries every four years. They found that the oldest children by birth month scored somewhere between 4 and 12 percentile points better than the youngest children. That, as Dhuey explains, “is a huge effect”. Gladwell goes on to say, “It means that if you take two intellectually equivalent fourth graders with birthdays at opposite ends of the cutoff date, the older student could score in the eightieth percentile, while the younger one could score in the sixty-eighth percentile. That’s the difference between qualifying for a gifted program or not.”

The only country that does not place students in advanced groupings by ‘ability’ is Denmark. They have a national policy of no grouping by ability until the age of ten. By this time maturity differences by age have evened out. The US educational system confuses maturity with ability. Birth month is crucial for our children when entering the school systems in America. How tragic and unfortunate for those children who are destined to endure patterns of under achievement throughout their educational experiences. Someone, somewhere decided long ago that all our children would enter the system at a certain age, regardless of maturity and ability.

Dhuey emphatically states in Outliers, “I mean, it’s ridiculous. It’s outlandish that our arbitrary choice of cutoff dates is causing these long-lasting effects, and no one seems to care about them.”

Who did this and why do we tolerate it? Where are the champions for children? Why do parents continue to allow this to continue?

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