Defined by a number

A recent heartfelt post about accelerating gifted kids up a grade caused a veritable tidal wave of responses. My innocuous little blog went crazy. In the first couple of days the post had around 600 views, and then it went really wild. In less than a week that post has had over two thousand two hundred views. Ten times my usual readership.

And not only were people reading it, but they were commenting, both on the blog and on facebook. Many of the comments were along the same lines: “Thank GOODNESS somebody finally said it!” “Thank you so much! This is why our son/daughter skipped a grade, and it was the best thing we ever did! But, Man! Everyone said we were crazy!”

The posts that receive the strongest reactions always seem to be the ones where people feel unheard and misunderstood. And heaven knows there are enough myths out there about gifted kids and their education to fertilize a million mushroom farms. But what interests me most is that the few negative responses I got were all along on the one theme:

“Yes, but accelerated kids will wind up socializing with kids who are up to two years older than them.”

As though this statement is enough. Because heaven knows we wouldn’t want our children to associate with anyone who wasn’t precisely their own age. But the more I think about it, the more absurd it seems that we seem to have swallowed this assumption – hook, line, and toxic sinker.

As adults, when we meet someone we instinctively like and relate to, we don’t conduct a background check and verify their year of birth before we can allow ourselves to be friends. One of my all time closest friends was 40 years older than me. I have others who are 10, 20, even 25 years younger, and some whose age I could honestly not even begin to guess at. Because I choose my friends based on shared interests, gut feeling, and most importantly whether we get each other or not. Not based on close inspection of their birth certificates.

And it’s not just an adult thing, explained away because we have all crossed the magical 18 line. My 11 year old’s best friend is 9, and she has a close friend who is 18. When we were at a party a couple of weeks ago with a host of other families, my 7 year old bonded fast and firmly with a girl who is 10, and my 11 year old spent most of the time with a 7 year old. They did not pause to check the age of their new friends before deciding to hang out with them.

Our schools, though, are rigidly structured by age. Especially our government schools. Thou shalt not start school before 5 years of age, nor after 6. Thou shalt progress unto the next year regardless of academic readiness. Thou shalt do year 8 maths at 13 years of age, regardless of whether even year 10 work is already too easy.

Sure, kids are developing fast, and a year can make an enormous difference to social and emotional development. But in our reverence for the data that shows what the average 10 year old can do, we forget that no 10 year old is actually average. We ignore the 10 year olds who have the average maturity of an 8 year old, and likewise those with the average maturity of a teenager. We rule out the outliers, the statistical anomalies, and the kids who are more developed in one area, but less in another. We bury differences under the rug and pretend that kids relate best to other kids the same age, rather than to other kids who have shared interests and similar abilities. And we pretend that kids progress in all areas at the same rate.

People often write about the fact that schooling hasn’t changed radically in a hundred years, and pose various changes that might bring us “up to date”, but I have never yet seen a proposal that suggests kids could go in to classes according to readiness. Imagine a school where a single child could be in a year 8 English class, year 11 Maths, year 10 Science, and year 6 Music. Because that’s where she’s up to. Because that’s the level of instruction she needs. Where a boy could be doing year 12 English, year 10 German, and year 9 Maths. Where the level of work a child was given was pitched according to that child’s readiness and ability in each subject, not according to the date on her birth certificate.

As to the horror some people express about kids socialising with others who are 2 years older than them, I find that deeply puzzling. School, where kids are sorted by age, is a highly artificial construct. Out in the real world kids will be hanging out with a wide range of ages: cousins, neighbours, members of clubs. Almost no other environment is so rigidly age segregated as schools, yet we seem deeply wedded to the idea that this segregation is both normal and vital to our children’s well being.

Segregation is almost universally condemned now, in all areas but age. Perhaps it’s time to condemn it for that, too.

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