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Section 1 Foundations of Doctoral Study / Chapter 6 Critical Thinking: The Means to Inquire

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Critical Thinker: Malcolm Gladwell


 One need not be an internationally acknowledged genius, mathematician, or scientist to ask questions based on observations in contemporary, every day settings. Over the course of several published works, writer Malcolm Gladwell has examined information sources and pathways linking human behavior and exchanges. Among other questions, Gladwell (2008) has examined whether people are lucky in business or were in the right time and place to learn and act upon access to information networks and learning resources. What were the circumstances that lent themselves to success? Was former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates simply a genius or were there inherent advantages he was privy to in the way of geography, proximity, and access to learning resources? (Gladwell, 2008). The short answer for Bill Gates, it appears, was a little bit of all these characteristics set in motion by relatively few, key relational circumstances that lent themselves to his becoming one of the best programmers in the world at a young age.


 Another of Gladwell’s (2008) examinations involved linking youth hockey teams in Canada to wider education policy and practice. Gladwell was interested in understanding if being placed on an advanced hockey team was an anomaly reserved for a talented few (parallel to students deemed gifted and talented in education settings) or factors such as age or the amount of extra work played in a role in athletic success (or academic success in the case of gifted and talented).


 After conducting a few cursory examinations across age groups, Gladwell (2008) observed that advanced hockey players were born earlier in the year, between January and March. Why is this important? Two children born in the same year—one in January and one in June—fall in to the same age category with respect to participation in athletics or academics. So the advantage afforded a child born earlier in a given year comes down to their being more physically advanced than a child born later in the year. In the context of academics, the same child could be expected, by some measures, to be cognitively more advanced simply by having been born a few months earlier and their bodies having that much more time to develop and adapt to learning conditions. How is this linked to education policy?


 Differences in age between a young person born in January and a young person born six months later, for instance, mean an additional six months of physical development. This extra development becomes an inherent advantage for the young person born early in the year. This carries over to education settings in the way gifted and talented students are identified and placed. Applying the same approach to gifted and talented, the rapid changes that occur early in life, given a six month head start potentially creates the false appearance of one child being smarter or more advanced than their peers. In the case of two learners in a classroom, the difference in assessed performance may be less a function of ability as it is a function of physical development. This is important in terms of an inherent advantage created institutionally, in the way of access to learning resources when a child is labeled gifted and talented. Presented in terms of empirical examination and potential doctoral research, learners might seek to understand ways academic outcomes might be affected by institutional profiling of learner proficiencies as a function of age.