Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Minor Tweaks

Over the course of the summer, I have had a bit more time to catch up on my reading.  And while I did manage to toss in a John Grisham and a sequel to the Bourne Trilogy, I also had the opportunity to read a couple of great books that were more germane to education.  One of those books was The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

The basic premise Gladwell makes in the book is that "achievement is based less on talent than it is on opportunity".  He cites numerous examples of this with individuals he calls 'outliers', from Bill Gates and Paul Allen having been given free computer time at the University of Washington during their formative years to the Beatles becoming outstanding performers because of a set of marathon gigs they accepted in Hamburg.  In each of these instances, the individuals had talent, make no mistake.  However, they also had and took advantage of opportunities to hone that talent to the level that has made them recognized for it today.

Gladwell also talks about the advantages that are conferred on individuals that are born closer to arbitrary registration cutoffs and deadlines.  He highlights several examples that illustrate this point: rep hockey players tend to be born in the months of January through April (registration deadlined in January), soccer players on the English National squad are all born in September, October, or November (registration deadline in September).  Gladwell also indicates that students that are born earlier in the year (closer to the January registration deadline) can tend to be treated differently than their peer group that is born later in the year.  The reason, Gladwell cites, is that developmentally, a hockey player, a soccer player, a student that is born closer to that arbitrary cutoff date tends to be developmentally more advanced than their peers who are born months later, especially at an early age.  As a result, Gladwell contends, these more developed children can be seen as more talented and get more specialized training than the younger members of their cohort group.

Gladwell makes the point that we are neglecting the talent pool in the other 'half' of the year.  Imagine, he says, how talented our Canadian hockey teams would be if we had a hockey registration date and league for those children born in January AND another league for those born after June, complete with separate rep teams and specialized coaching for each of the different groups?  He goes on to wonder why we don't do something like this in schools.
While I don't agree with all of the points that Gladwell makes in his book, his observations about the registration deadline determining the grade cohort for children in schools made me think.  Why do we have one registration date for children?  Moreover, why do we organize schools according to age?  I know this is being general, and there are many exceptions, but are we able to accomodate the developmental differences between a kindergarten student born on January 2nd and another born on December 20th?  Could we re-organize schools to enable us to meet the needs of children more effectively, by perhaps having asynchronous starting points for our young students to meet them where they are at developmentally?  Are there other changes to schedules, reporting methods, or other small, subtle, technical parts of education that we are overlooking that could have notable effects on student learning?

I believe that meeting the diverse needs of our learners is foundational to the movement towards personalized, 21st Century learning.  I also believe that discovering a student's talents and then providing them with opportunities to hone and showcase those talents is another cornerstone of personalized learning.  But without oversimplifying the issue, I often wonder if there are not some simpler steps that we can take (such as those that Gladwell suggests) that might help us cultivate the talents of each of the students in our school.  To provide them with those exceptional opportunities afforded those like the Beatles, Paul Allen, and Bill Gates.  Are there easier ways that we can make all of our students "outliers"?

I enjoy thinking about big picture ideas for education, and trying to implement major, multifaceted initiatives that will positively impact each of our partner groups.  Yet sometimes I wonder if we overlook some of the minor tweaks we could make to day-to-day operational items that could have a major and positive impact on our students.

I think it is worth a peek.


  1. I like how Sir Ken puts it: "We sort our kids by their date of manufacture". My daughters were born in December 2010 and when I tell people that they will be in the same grade as our friend's daughter, born in February, it blows people's minds. I know that the gap is relative and narrows over time but at the age of 5' there will be children almost 20% older than my girls.

    Interesting points that Gladwell and many others raise... Not sure there will ever be a great way to sort kids but the idea of multi age, heterogenous groupings (ie. Montessori) is something worth looking into.

  2. Isn't the job of a good teacher to meet the needs of the students at where they are regardless of when during the year they were born? This past year my oldest grade one girl was my least advanced, while my second oldest girl was my most advanced. My tallest was my youngest, and my oldest was my shortest. It didn't really matter though as my job was to meet their individual needs.

  3. I think the reason we have schools organized by age is because of a factory model we had when we were first developing public education. We've moved out of the industrial age: our schools should definitely follow suit, or our children will be left behind!

    Unrelatedly, do you accept guest posts for your blog? I would've emailed you but I can't seem to find your contact info. Drop me a line at nataliehntr86 at gmail, thanks!

  4. Well done, Cale.

    Now a challenge for you: Track the performance of students in your school by their proximity to your district's arbitrary cutoff date for kindergarten admission.

    I'd really be interested in knowing whether the percentages of students earning top academic honors mirror the percentages of students who are born closest to the cutoff.

    And if they do, I'd really be interested in the steps your school might take to address that reality.

    (BTW: I'm trying to get my learning team to run the same test. I'll share what we find when we get 'er done.)

    Rock on,


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