The Birthday Effect: Firm Cut-off Age for School Admission May Impose a Lifetime Disadvantage

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This is a picture of Bedford School, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The school, located in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, was built in 1915. Picture credit: Andrew Postell, 2014, Creative Commons Attribution license.

Educational program design would likely not be controversial if children were interchangeable parts, if they were like components on a factory assembly line.  In that case, different children could be placed in the same seat every year and have  a predictable and consistent outcome.  Traditional educational models seem to be predicated on the assembly line model. Children are expected to bend to the system; the system does not accommodate the individual.  One area where inflexibility has apparently resulted in measurable harm is in age cut-offs for kindergarten admission. Longitudinal studies show that younger students, as a group, perform more poorly on achievement assessments than their older classmates.  Called the  ‘birthday effect’, a strict age cut-off policy results in a kind of age lottery. Winners of the lottery are rewarded with lifetime benefits, benefits that are evident in areas outside the academic sphere.

study out of England, for example, demonstrates the disadvantage suffered by younger children in early school years and in their later academic careers.  Members of the younger group are less likely to attend university than their older peers; if they do go to a university, it is likely that they will matriculate at a low-tier institution. The age cut-off in England is fixed firmly at September 1, which is the beginning of the school year.  Consequently, the youngest children in a grade are those born in August. Called ‘August children’, these students statistically perform more poorly than their older classmates in tests that look at academic achievement and ‘happiness’.

There are educators who do not find these study results persuasive. The former Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Chris Woodhead, for example, believes it would be wrong to make all children”‘comfortable”.  In commenting on the  findings about firm age cut-offs, Sir Woodhead declared, “If kids are always completely confident and comfortable, they aren’t going to make much progress.”

A debate about the ‘birthday effect’ has been examined by systems outside of England.  Norway, for example, also has a firm cut-off age for school admission. In a paper presented at Harvard University in 2004, Bjarne Strøm, a researcher from the Norwegian University of Technology and Science, discusses the birthday effect on 16 and 17 year-old students.  Professor Strom provides a detailed analysis of how early disadvantage endures throughout the academic careers of the younger student.  Professor Strom concludes, “These results suggest that more flexible enrollment rules should be considered to equalize the opportunities of the children”.

Yet another study, cited on NeuroNet, addresses the impact of the ‘birthday effect’  on grade retention. This study demonstrates that the youngest children in a kindergarten class are five times more likely than their older peers to be held back in a grade. The experience of being retained in grade can have a devastating effect on the child’s psyche and future achievement.

Advocates for student discontent aside (i.e., Sir Woodhead), a growing body of research indicates that rigid adherence to age cut-offs is likely not in the best interest of children. Studies suggest that children should be evaluated, individually, for school readiness.  While this may not suit a structured, one-size-fits-all educational model, it may suit very nicely the student for whom the educational system is presumed to exist.

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One child bullying another. Studies show younger children in a class more likely to be bullied by their older and larger classmates. Public Domain Photo

Creative Writing and the Brain

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These pictures show magnetic imaging impressions of brain activity. These reflect responses to specific visual stimuli. On the left, the subject was looking at faces. On the right the subject was looking at houses. The MRI frames were provided by the National Institutes of Health.

Just about everyone agrees that writing is an essential skill.  Even the most frugal educators include at least some writing instruction in their curriculum.  What modern science is teaching us is that writing is not only a skill; it is also important in brain development.

Neurologists, with the aid of imaging technology, have been able to pinpoint the areas of the brain that are activated during specific creative activity. This applies not only to writing, but also to music, drawing and even “brainstorming”, which is preparatory to creative work.

During  creative writing activity, the right and left hemispheres of the brain interact with each other.  Although creativity is considered to be  ‘right brain’ centered, it seems that to complete the creative act, the left brain has to kick in.  This phenomenon was observed not only during the writing phase, but also during the period preparatory to writing, when ‘brainstorming’ takes place.  Visualizing, imagining material to be written, precipitates  coordination of different parts of the brain.

A study from the University of Greifswald, Germany looked at brain function in experienced writers.  The individuals in this group had highly developed writing skills.  The brain images of the writers showed increased prefrontal and basal ganglia activation. Also noted in the images was an increased development in the right cuneus, which is involved in reading processes.

Another  study at the University of  Greifswald looked at the creative writing processes during various stages of the work.   The authors of the study noted changes  in brain activity as the work progressed.   In the planning, or brainstorming phase, “cognitive, linguistic, and creative brain functions mainly represented in a parieto-frontal-temporal network” were activated.  During the actual writing phase,  “motor and visual brain areas for handwriting and additionally, cognitive and linguistic areas” were activated.   The authors of the second Greifswald study were careful to distinguish between groups that engaged in creative writing  and those that merely copied material.  The verbal association and integration patterns evident in the creative writing group were not evident in the brain images of the copiers.

Traditionally, creative writing has been part of many school programs because basic writing skills are important and creative writing is considered to be a nice extra curricular activity.  Perhaps it is time to reexamine the importance placed on writing and other creative activities.  Science seems to show that brain development is enhanced by exposure to creative exercise, whether that exercise is in writing, music or art.  Each of these areas seems to activate different parts of the brain.   Educators–and that certainly includes parents–should consider the evidence and think about considering creative activity to be as essential as the established pillars of education: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

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Master of one of the three Rs, John Chippendall Montesquieu Bellew. Here Mr. Bellew is giving a public reading. He enjoyed a reputation for being a great orator. Image derived from a cartoon, 1873. Copyright expired.

Marie Curie on Education

Theories about education don’t evolve; they erupt.  Most people understand that childhood offers an irreplaceable opportunity to influence minds for a lifetime.   Maybe that explains the furor surrounding the roll-out of the Common Core in communities across the US. While the trend toward rigid standards, uniform curriculum and increased formal instruction seems sound to some, to others it seems a travesty, a squandering of childhood’s most precious gifts:  play, imagination and exploration. Included in this camp would surely be Marie Curie, if she were alive today to express a view.

In a book she wrote about her mother, Marie Curie’s youngest daughter, Eve, described Marie’s views on education.  Eve explained that Marie dreaded sending her children into the sterile, confined atmosphere of a structured classroom.  Marie regarded formal schooling as  “hours of attendance”.  Her philosophy was that children should be encouraged to find their talent through exploration.  It was in this way that Irene, the older daughter, discovered an early interest in mathematics; and Eve, the younger daughter, learned through experimentation that she was fascinated with music.

Essential to the daily regimen of both Curie children was vigorous physical activity.  Marie installed gym equipment at home and took the girls on camping trips. Together the family trekked through the countryside on extensive biking trips.  “Formal” instruction was put off as long as possible.  In its place, Marie devised a scheme with her  colleagues at the Sorbonne.

The girls, and several other children, would be exposed to the finest minds, in a congenial atmosphere.  Each day the children would spend hours with a professor from a specific discipline.  The weeks would be passed in this way, with a casual rotation between specialties and a cheerful approach toward learning.

Eventually Marie’s daughters were obliged to go to formal classes, but not until this was absolutely necessary.  Irene eventually earned a Doctor of Science degree and Eve earned two bachelor degrees, one in philosophy and one in music.

Irene went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1935 and later continued to do groundbreaking research in nuclear physics.  Eve was for a time a concert pianist. She was also a journalist, diplomat and humanitarian.

Irene died in 1956, Eve in 2007. I would be hard to imagine two more accomplished women.  Whether their mother’s approach to education enabled a lifetime of accomplishment, it would be hard to say.  But their lives and achievements certainly make a good argument for those who believe that a a rigid curriculum may not be the path to a great mind.