The Matthew Effect

numeracy leaders teachers Aug 24, 2022

One of the lovely things about moving into a new house is seeing our garden move through the different seasons.

As we move into spring in Melbourne, our beautiful Magnolia tree has started to bloom- every day we all admire its beauty. 

Last week my 3 old said “mum what’s ‘wrong’ with that one?” (see photo of the one not blooming)


I replied “nothing… it is just taking a little longer than the others to bloom.”

Being a typical 3 year old… he replied “why?”

I explained that everyone/ thing grows at its own rate. Some flowers bloomed a week ago, some like “Matthew Magnolia” (the name we gave this particular flower) started later, but if given the same opportunities to grow, would eventually get there”.

We decided to watch the flower over the next week, every morning we took a photo of Matthew and celebrated his small daily growth (I have a video of this at the end of this blog).

This simple conversation started me thinking about a book I read earlier this year.

It is by Malcolm Gladwell and called ‘Outliers.’

Outliers presents research and stories that explores what makes people succeed in life. It is a fabulous read!

Something that fascinated me was called the Matthew Effect.

I hadn’t heard of this before, but the idea behind was what led me to name the ‘slow’ flower on our tree, ‘Matthew Magnolia’.

The book shares research that found the majority of major league baseball players in Canada were born in certain months of the year.

So, if you were born from January to March, you were more likely to ‘make it’, compared to being born in the later months of the year…why?

Because the cut off date for age groups in Junior hockey is January 1.

This means that a child born on 2nd of January could be playing against a child who is almost 12 months younger (if, for example, they were born on the 31st of December.)

This resonated with me because my eldest daughter was born on the 31st of December and I remember my mum (in jest) suggesting it would be better for her ‘sporting career’ if I ‘held on’ until the 1st of January (mum is also born on the 31st of December, so she had first hand experience of always competing against older players). We laughed at the time, but having read this research- I can now see mum was correct (not that I ever doubted her!).

Often it is the older children in an age group who seem stronger, better and more skilled than others. They are then selected for representative teams where they receive higher level coaching, play more matches, develop confidence in their own ability, and the gap, which was not really significant when they were, for example, 8 years old, becomes wider and wider until

suddenly it becomes the difference between ‘making it’ as a professional or not.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are other factors at play here of course (practice, hard work etc), and people who are born in later months do become professional athletes, but statistically the results are very clear. In the 1980’s Canadian Psychologist Roger Barnsley research found that in any elite group of hockey players in Canada, 40% were born between January and March, while only 10% between October and December. This holds true for many elite sports and is a pretty staggering finding!

This phenomenon is known as the Matthew Effect as it is based on Chapter 25 Verse 29 of Matthew’s gospel in the New Testament:

For whoever has, will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have, will be taken from them. (25:29)

Or in other words, those who are seen as talented will be given more opportunities to shine.

As always, my mind jumped to the maths classroom.

If we consider the students in a Foundation classroom (the first year of school)- there are some who are almost a year younger than their classmates.

As teachers, we know this age gap can make a HUGE difference physically, emotionally, and academically.

Students who are a year younger, by no fault of their own, come to school with a year less of critical mathematical experiences like counting, sorting, classifying. This all adds up (pardon the pun!)

As a result, when we complete assessments on the ‘younger’ students, they may appear to be ‘less capable’ in mathematics than their older classmates.

In reality, they may have exactly the same ability as the older students in the class. It is just that we are assessing them 12 months earlier in their lives!

As Gladwell points out, by doing this we may actually be

confusing maturity with ability (p.31).

The younger students may then be labelled as ‘strugglers’, placed in lower groups, have limited access to challenging tasks and as a result, their confidence, self efficacy and engagement in maths plummets. They fall into a pattern of low achievement in maths that then continues for years (sometimes all of their schooling). On the other hand, the older (more ‘able’) students are praised, which develops their confidence, are given more challenging tasks, and may be afforded opportunities such as being invited to join enrichment classes. This sees the gap between the ’haves’ and the ‘have nots’ widen- the Matthew Effect in action!

Research by Bedard and Dhuey looked at the TIMSS data of Year 4 students and found the older students scored 4-12 percentile points better than the youngest children. This means if you take two Year 4 students of equal intellectual ability, but with birthdays at opposite ends of the year, the older one could score in the 8th percentile while the younger the 68th- simply because of when they are born!! This is clearly not just a ‘first year of school problem’- it can cause ripples for the rest of a student’s schooling.

I can hear you thinking- I can’t change the age of my students! So what use is this information?!

That is true. This is largely an issue for policy makers and school leaders regarding school enrolment dates, however I do think it is worthwhile taking a moment to look at your class list and the date of birth of your students. Who is the youngest? Who is the oldest? (remember there are always exceptions to every rule), but could ‘maturity’ be a factor in your any of your student's mathematical achievement or lack of achievement?

This knowledge might not change anything. But it might make you approach a student in your class in a slightly different way, and this simple change could give them the support/confidence they need.

Remember there was nothing ‘wrong’ with ‘Matthew Magnolia’

he was just on his own timeline, and in the end he was able to bloom just like all the other flowers! If you are interested, here is a video I made of Matthew Magnolia’s progress- it is called ‘The slow magnolia flower’.


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