30 Jul 2009


As usual, LS complained bitterly about the difficulty in getting her son in a decent primary school. Since both of our children were born at the end of the calendar year, our discussion shifted to Malcolm Gladwell’s new ideas in Outliers. JN, an expectant mother, said she had not heard about this and asked us to elaborate.

Gladwell’s book started with the observation that most top hockey players in Canada are born in January, February and March. The difference is too great to be explained by chance alone. He pointed out that the official cutoff line of admitting children players is January. In other words, among junior players in the same class, those born in January are the oldest while those born in December would be the youngest. In young children, a one-year difference in age means a significant difference in physique and skills. Even though they might not really be cleverer or more talented, this difference is enough to convince the coaches. These older children would be selected for more intensive training and given more encouragement. Because of this, the original spurious difference becomes a real and tremendous difference – that is, a self-fulfilling prophesy comes true.

Reflecting upon my childhood, I cannot help thinking how true the theory is and how lucky I am. I entered primary school at the age of five as the youngest student. In fact, my mother wrote a fake birthday in the application form to get me in school. I could hardly follow my classmates to do any arts and crafts, and I always finished last in races. I still vividly remembered how my arts teacher tore and threw away my drawing. This killed my remaining interest in arts.

Fortunately, I was granted other chances. When I entered secondary school, there was an entrance exam. The test selected the best and worst students and put them into different classes. I did fairly and was assigned to a so-so class. In most other schools, this would be the end of the story. Amazingly, in my school the whole purpose of the selection system was to provide more resources to students in need. The top students did not get more teaching. If anything, they had more free time to read books, play bridge, or do anything they liked. Looking back, I am always grateful that our school allowed us to develop our talents to the fullest.

P.S. My mother always supports the response of my arts teacher because I basically painted the whole picture in black (sometimes dark blue). Years later, I learned about Adolph Reinhardt's black paintings. This is unfair! I was just doing abstract expressionism precociously.

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