A few days ago I wrote a post about the advantages to being the oldest kid on your little league baseball team. Apparently the same is true of soccer:
In one study published in the June 2005 Journal of Sport Sciences, researchers from Leuven, Belgium, and Liverpool, England, found that a disproportionate number of World Cup soccer players are born in January, February and March, meaning they were old relative to peers on youth soccer teams.
A while back Half Sigma linked to an interesting article in the New York Times about, among other things, the academic advantages of being the oldest kid in your class and how parents are trying to take advantage of this:
However, more recent research by labor economists takes advantage of new, very large data sets and has produced different results. A few labor economists do concur with the education scholarship, but most have found that while absolute age (how many days a child has been alive) is not so important, relative age (how old that child is in comparison to his classmates) shapes performance long after those few months of maturity should have ceased to matter.
The article is interesting as is the topic as a whole. My oldest brother Ollie was held back into my older brother Mitch’s grade and even though Mitch is the smartest of the three of us, Ollie outperformed Mitch in elementary school (getting into the honors program while Mitch didn’t) and did comparably well until they went off to college where Mitch excelled and Ollie didn’t. My sister-in-law was young in her class and struggled for a while as well, though she ended up with a full-ride scholarship and is now a lawyer.
But what this really got me thinking about is the increasing gender gap between young men and young women. Some have suggested that the problem is that schools are increasingly geared more towards natural female behavior with the kids being told to sit down and be quiet and games of tag and dodgeball being banned and all that. I do think that there may be something to that theory. There are also some that believe that female teachers are overly concerned about the female students to the detriment of the male students that just seem to annoy them. That theory is not completely without merit either, though I don’t think that attitude is widespread enough to come close to approaching the problem.
What I thought about as I read the article was if comparative age makes such a difference, what about comparative maturity? It’s somewhat well known that girls are more likely to be ahead of the maturity curve and boys behind it in the early years. What if the issue isn’t so much teacher bias or feminine rule systems but simply a function of teachers teaching at the maturity level of their more mature, predominantly female, students? Then again, is that any different from a curriculum aimed more towards females than males on the whole?
I think that it is. If the study the NYT cites is sound, then that represents a structural problem for boys. One that can’t simply be addressed by making boys less like boys or diagnosing them with behavioral disorders and drugging them. It’s not so much a matter of boys being boys when they need to behave but rather of boys being held to a higher standard of maturity than they are comfortably capable of. Boys may decline to express the maturity and lose out that way or they may try to meet these expectations and expend mental/emotional energy doing so that they might otherwise be dedicating to classwork.
It also means that there may be some solutions to the problems. Half Sigma suggests cutting grades into 6-month groups rather than 1-year, which may help somewhat but wouldn’t address the gender disparity. Single-sex education might be a better example of a remedy. Put the boys all together and there should be less of a maturity gap. Plus you can play around with with more active learning that some believe is more conducive to the ways that boys prefer to learn. Alternately, you could consider different age cut-offs for boys and girls, putting the boys’ cutoff in July and the girls’ in December.
On the other hand, if it is all so comparative, maybe it’s pointless to even try. There’s always going to be a bottom half. A youngest boy as well as an oldest. Would taking these measures simply be shuffling the same deck? Perhaps so, though it would seem to me that the gap between the most mature girl and least mature boy would be less than the gap between the most and least mature boys. You can’t eliminate the problem, but perhaps lessen the effects.