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Articles > Life December, 20, 2011

By The Time I’m Your Age, I’ll Still Have Beaten Your Donkey Kong High Score

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Is it a really a tougher ride for the “youngest” in the class? Does birth month affect academic success and future achievement? Are summer babies at a disadvantage when compared to the “future CEOs” of the world? The BBC seems to think so, and a recent survey of high achievers shows that many of them were indeed the “oldest” in their class.

Developmental lag? Just watch me whoop you at Donkey Kong. Photo by Graham Campbell

But let’s get real. Let’s forget the statistical anomaly of a small sample of “Top CEOs”, and consider the notion of classing children by year group, which is what most schools in the world do. Since we don’t assess and distribute children according to an objective standard when they enter school, which admittedly would be heartbreakingly difficult, we “class” them into age-differentiated classrooms. Most children remain in these “classes” until they leave school. This is not a good thing.

For children at a very young age, it is quite likely they will have a developmental advantage over still younger children: so in primary school, for example, the summer children would seem to suffer the “developmental lag”, the “cognitive hold-up” that the autumn or winter children don’t have. In other words, the older ones read and write better, count and calculate better, play better, learn more, and display stronger self-assurance: the cool kids of the class, looking down their future CEO noses at the summer twits – even though they are all only five, six, or seven. But actually, this is nonsense.

It’s nonsense because even though we insist on classing children by year group, children’s ability is a fluctuating, complex and chaotic mix of nature and nurture, social dynamics, socioeconomics and actual teaching… lest we forget about the role of the teacher in the child’s development – at any age.

So even though I agree with Ken Robinson that the paradigm of the “year group” is an outmoded throwback to the industrial-age, assembly-line model of schooling (and Henry Ford’s “industrial engineering” legacy) I accept the realities of primary school system: in my future teaching career I will undoubtedly face the problem of developmental lag, cognitive hold-up in the year group and the question of the “smarter, cooler older” kids and the “slower, dumber” youngsters. But my experience tells me that the younger ones are just as capable in many cases – and often hungrier for power that the future fat cats. This is why, when I was a child – and always younger than my classmates – I felt no disadvantage, but rather a strange, smug, satisfaction that even though I was several months younger than the class genius, I was operating at par: functioning at his level, able to beat his Donkey Kong high score, beat him at ping pong (and Pong), run faster, use a ninja rope with more dexterity, style and panache, and even occasionally beat him in a spelling test: the ultimate score. I was definitely not a victim of age differentiation and I don’t believe that most children are even aware of their own developmental lag if it even exists. Many of the children I have worked with are much younger than their peers and still know how to compete, how to achieve, how to progress, and how to give an older kid a good whipping on the Wii.

As a trainee teacher I have been interested in the question of developmental lag because I’m passionate about learning and I want to discover how to make kids smarter. That’s what it comes down to. It doesn’t matter how many months apart they are. Ofsted’s new chief has been vocal about teachers claiming special educational needs as a cover for poor teaching; and while I’m not sure if I have experienced this or even agree with it, I have definitely heard teachers tell me that a child just can’t get it because he or she is a summer baby or too young for the class. That is crazy talk. We should not attempt to explain pupil progress through Fordian “levels” of quality assurance, batch numbers and release dates. That’s okay for manufacturing; not for education.

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  1. Zoe Cheale

    im a summer/spring baby and ive always achieved well i think actually ur learning from a earlier stage than older students, so your brain is being trained into a way of thinking form a earlier point – surely thats an advantage?

  2. Anthony Church

    Jonathan, what you say is very true and is something that has been researched and already in the first term of my training we have looked at the advantages of mixed ability groups so those of lower ability can be pulled up by the more able by by “borrowing their intelligence”. However- as with everything- every teacher has their own opinion on the best way to group children but your opinion is recognised!

  3. Jonathan Dunn

    Don’t assume that the teacher knows best. Teachers always like to place children into groups and often limit the child’s expectations by their placement. If a child is placed in a high achieving group, irrespective of their age, they will do better than one in a lower achieving group not always because they are inherently smarter but because their expectation of achievement is enhanced. A child’sdemise into mediocrity is often due to not being given the opportunity to show how clever they really are. I experienced having a primary teacher telling my parents that “she despaired” about my ability. It is attitudes like this that do more harm than the age of a child.