“Outliers” and the UK education system

Malcolm Gladwell at UofT

Cross-posted from One Night Stanzas.

I just finished reading Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve had so many breathless, near-orgasmic statements foisted on me about this man’s books that I’m genuinely shocked that I never got around to reading him before. I remember my mad flatmate reading The Tipping Point when it came out and practically going into apoplexy about it over breakfast one morning. Five years on and a couple of weeks ago she gave me a book token, and the words “dude, have you still not read any Malcolm Gladwell?”

So, I trotted off to Word Power Books and, as commanded, bought Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book whose blurb had most piqued my interest when I nosed through his various titles. And yes, it is a damn fine book. I got through it so fast and so hungrily that it was more like inhaling a book than reading it. He’s a great, great writer — probably (I feel unqualified to really comment, having only read one of his books) deserving of all the praise heaped at his feet — “global phenomenon” (The Observer), “the best kind of writer” (The Times), “the world’s most influential thinker” (GQ), and so on. And the book itself is full of fascinating stuff — I was shocked, enlightened and inspired. Usually, nothing puts me off more than a soc-sci book with a ton of tables inset to illustrate points. This book is the exception to that rule — the tables and diagrams were almost always the book’s biggest “no way?!” moments.

However, as well as greatly enjoying the book, and coming out of it feeling like I’d learned heaps, I also felt deeply troubled by it. In chapter after chapter, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Gladwell’s examples of “lucky” (as opposed to “gifted”) or “disadvantaged” people and scenarios, and my own experiences both as a student and a teacher in the UK education system. Gladwell points out perceptively and highly persuasively the ways in which seemingly minor idiosyncracies of a country’s bureaucratic policy or national psyche can make huge differences to the ways in which different people within that country behave and progress. And although he drew largely on examples from Canada, North America and Asia in his exploration of these concepts, I feel like Outliers might have a lot to tell us about the way we talk to, think about and educate our kids here in Scotland.

I daresay you’re raising a skeptical eyebrow right now, but hopefully you’re still with me.

Gladwell talks about Canadian all-star hockey players (I’ll try and chop the entire chapter he devotes to a phenomenon called relative age advantage down as much as possible). Basically, if you want to be a famous hockey player in Canada, you have to start as a kid and work your way up through various club leagues, and your eligibility for these is based on your age. All the recognised clubs set their age eligibility cut-off date at January 1st. Gladwell argues, examining various jaw-droppingly convincing studies as he goes, that this gives a huge advantage to players born at the start of the year. After all, he says, if you’re born in early January, you have the advantage of eleven months’ emotional and physical growth over your team mate who was born in December. And when you’re a six-year-old, that means a hell of a lot. The stronger and more mature kids get picked for extra coaching, and progress through the ranks and leagues. The effect is cumulative, and the result is that the vast majority of star adult hockey players in Canada were born between early January and late March.

It’s not a great leap, then, to the Scottish education system, whose age eligibility cut-off is the end of February, as opposed to the beginning of August or September in England. I began my primary school education in England. I was born on March 10th, and was among the younger kids in my class group. My sister Helen, who was born in late January, was two years below me and smack-bang in the middle of her class group. We both performed at a level best described as “OK” academically, but I did not get on at all well socially. Helen was a fabulous mover-and-shaker, loved by all. I was — and to an extent, still am — chronically terrible at forming platonic relationships.
When I was eight, my family moved to Scotland. Because of the change in eligibility cut-off date, I went from being one of the youngest in my class group to the very oldest. My sister went from being right in the middle of her year, age-wise, to being the very youngest. The cut-off date also meant that we ended up only one academic year apart from one another — we went from Year 3 and Year 1 respectively to Primary 4 and Primary 3.
And something weird happened: I shot to the top of my class. Suddenly, I was outperforming everyone else in my year group. Helen, meanwhile, began to suffer academically. Concerns were raised by some teachers about her “bad” spelling and daydreamy manner in classes. Within one academic year we went from being pretty similar in our academic performances to being at opposite ends of the scale.

People have offered various explanations for this. I’m a classic first child, Helen is a classic second child, for example. I’m more like my maternal family, the Robinsons — self-confident and unapologetic (so, successful but not very likeable) — while Helen is more like our paternal family, the Askews — quieter and more introspective. It’s even been suggested that it’s down to me being a Piscean and Helen being a Capricorn-Aquarius cusp child. However, reading Outliers has made me think: wait a second. Is this actually all about totally arbitrary school year eligibility start dates?

If it is, the implications are serious. It’s not just a case of “hey, that’s weird, isn’t it?” Follow Helen and I through the rest of our compulsory education: after my rocky first few years I stormed through school. At Standard Grade I got seven Grade 1s and one Grade 2 (Maths, which I hated with a passion). At Higher I got five As and as a result, unconditional offers to study English Literature at five of my six chosen universities, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool. (The one who turned me down was York, but that may have had something to do with the fact that the course I applied for, English and Writing for Media, took only 20 students per academic year). Helen got a mixed bag of 1, 2 and 3 results in her Standard Grades, and at Higher her results were ABCCC. She originally applied to study Drama after school, but after getting called for some auditions, decided she couldn’t hack the snotty theatrical types. She ended up getting into Carlisle Institute of the Arts (now part of the University of Cumbria) to do a Foundation Degree in Fine Art via clearing.

Follow us even further, to the present day. I have a MA, a MSc that I won a scholarship to study, and I am about to graduate with a PhD at the age of 26. I work as a lecturer for the largest Further Education college in Edinburgh, as well as tutoring at my alma mater. I’m also a published writer.
Helen has completed a BTEC in Art and Design, a year out working in a kilt store and a hard-won BA in Graphic Design. She currently works part time in Paperchase.

Why am I writing this? Do I hate my sister and want to humiliate her, and have a good brag about my own abilities? Absolutely not. I’m one of those sickening people who thinks of their sibling as their best friend — she is the person who means the most to me in the whole world. Nope, I’m writing this because, as a result of reading Outliers, I’ve begun to think that maybe I am not as “academically gifted” as all my school reports would have had my parents and I believe, and that maybe Helen is not the “supermassive failure” she is sometimes wont to apologise for (don’t worry, I always tell her to shut the hell up).

The whole point of Gladwell’s book is to point out that actually, there is no such thing as “gifted”. There is only lucky versus unlucky. He talks at length about the cumulative nature of advantages — that once a person gains an advantage over their peers, they are thrown into the path of further advantages, while those same advantages slip further and further our of reach for the folk who didn’t get that first, minor boost. Helen and I are a great example of that. I genuinely believe that I am no more “smart” or “intelligent” or “gifted” than she is. She knows a hell of a lot about stuff that I’m clueless about. She can hold her own in a fierce intellectual debate much better than I can (I have a tendency to get cross). She is still far and away better at forming platonic relationships and handling social situations than I am. If anything, she is far more confident — she’s also a realist, where I’m a dreamer and a procrastinator. Her vocabulary is every bit as varied as mine. Helen and I had an identical start in life, outside of education, and I’ve often wondered why our paths have been so very different. Now I’m left wondering if getting bumped to the top of my year age-wise gave me the academic boost I needed to get good grades in high school, which in turn opened up better opportunities for me in the worlds of employment and post-compulsory education. Helen, meanwhile, seemingly took a step backward with the change in cut-off date — suddenly her supposedly “bad” spelling was being compared to the performance of kids almost twelve months her senior. At the age of just six years old, Helen was being given messages of “you’re not good enough” by her teachers. I’m no child psychologist, but what kind of snowball effect could that potentially set in motion?

Malcolm Gladwell points out that if there were two cut-off dates for kid hockey players, one in January and one in June, Canada would have twice the number of all-star adult hockey players; that, or the birth months of those who made it to the big leagues would be much more diverse. “Hey, how weird,” we say, and close the book and think about other things. It’s just hockey, after all (OK sorry, I know that’s blasphemy to a Canadian). But what about our education system? The principle is the same, and if my experiences are anything to go by, the result is the same too. Therefore, the way our education system is organised is instrinsically unfair. Yes, in Scotland parents have the opportunity to defer younger kids from starting school for a year if they feel they’re not ready, and yes, there’s always the opportunity for your child to repeat or “stay back” a year if their young age is seen to be a problem. But how often is age identified as the cause of a child’s difficulties? How often do parents and teachers alike just assume that the kid in question is “just a classic second child”, or “just more like their dad”, or “just a typical Aquarius” (gah!), or hey, “maybe they’re just Not That Bright”? Furthermore, what parent wouldn’t hesitate before keeping their kid back a year? What might that do to the socialisation of a child — after all, some of the fiercest friendships you ever see are between individuals under the age of ten?

I shudder to think about how many kids are potentially losing out on academic (and other) opportunities because of something as arbitrary as their birth date. Particularly when I think that my sister might be carrying the legacy of this bureaucratic quirk in the system around with her for her entire adult life. That is damn scary.

(Photo by hyfen)


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