I entered school as one of the youngest kids in my class. Born at the beginning of October, I began my kindergarten year standing a little shorter, arriving a little less seasoned in the ways of the world, and a little less able to do some of the basic things that many others in my class seemed to do rather effortlessly. Although I eventually caught up with my grade level peers (I can now tie my own shoe laces!), it was clear from reading some of my early report cards that I was being measured against an external standard of what children at various ages should be able to do by the end of the school year. Unfortunately, when you talk about catching up, I really didn’t start to excel at school until it was almost time to leave the system. My high school marks were barely high enough to gain acceptance into the Ontario university system, and my first year results at the University of Toronto were really nothing to write home about.
Something happened, however, in my second and third years of post-secondary schooling. First, I found the campus pub and I started to have a good time, fitting into a social scene that was more determined by interest than it was by age. Second, I started to earn consistently higher marks and this encouraged me to take a deeper look at what I was studying, spend more time in the library and consider extending my educational journey.
Interestingly enough, other people appeared to have more confidence in my intellectual abilities than I did, myself. In fact, when I asked one of my philosphy professors for a letter of reference in support of my application to theology school, he took the opportunity to express his disappointment that I wasn’t considering grad school in his particular discipline. He felt that I was selling myself short and that I could definitely handle the greater intellectual demands involved in being a philosopher, as opposed to a priest. I remember leaving his office on a late winter afternoon thinking to myself, “Wow, after all these years of being in school, this is the first time that I heard someone say that I could actually do more than I had learned to assume.”
As Sir Ken Robinson points out, one of the beliefs around which our current systems of education are organized is that kids enter school stamped with a best before date. Parents and teachers are made keenly aware of how children are doing in relation to others in the class, even though a student born in January may differ in “real development age” by an entire year when compared to the student born at the end of December. Convenient for registration and processing purposes, but questionable for many aspects of learning and development.
Notwithstanding my personal story, it wasn’t until many years later that I became aware of the advantage afforded to children who are born earlier in the calendar year. From school admission to registration in a hockey program, birth date matters a whole lot, and according to folks like Malcolm Gladwell, creates a playing field that is, from the very beginning, uneven.
To be sure, schools can have a mitigating effect on many of the factors that are at play in the life of a child as they enter formal schooling. The seemingly universal movement of students based primarily on date of birth, however, is a factor that is almost completely within our locus of control.
Although I have some ideas regarding how we might re-imagine our current approach to student progress, I would first like to hear about your stories and ideas.
How was your own experience of school affected by your birthdate? Are you aware of being advantaged/disadvantaged by your age? Has your school district found creative ways to rethink the way that schools move through the system? As a parent, teacher or administrator, do you think about birthdate as a factor in school success? Are there other questions or thoughts you have about the issue of the age-grade dimension of our current schooling practices?