Majoring in elementary school

Starting in second grade, children will be placed in an “interest stream” — the arts, scientific inquiry, sports, humanitarian/environment — at an Alberta elementary school, reports The National Post.  Surveys in kindergarten and first grade and input from parents and teachers will determine the grouping. Students will be taught the provincial curriculum through the “lens” of their “stream.”

For the humanitarian/environment stream, for example, Grade 3 teacher Carla Pierce, plans to teach graphing from a humanitarian perspective by having students chart various countries’ wealth. A math class might involve an assignment in which kids calculate waste accumulation, while a big-picture view will be provided by such guest speakers as the social-change organization Me to We.

Hawkey Elementary School Principal Dan Hoch hopes to engage students by capitalizing on their interests. “Wayne Gretzky was skating when he was three years old.”

The concept is loosely guided by Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of providing early opportunities to develop an area of expertise. In 2008’s Outliers: The Story of Success, the bestselling author concluded that in order to be a high achiever in any field, some 10,000 hours of related practice are required. It’s also informed by educational reform ideas from scholar Ken Robinson.

“It sounds faddish if it’s being inspired by Malcolm Gladwell,” said Dr. Paul Bennett, director of Schoolhouse Consulting. “Experiments like this are valuable if the initiators have their goal of raising standards, but if it’s just more of the same, watering-down the curriculum and making it more palatable to students, it’s probably not going to produce much of a change.”

University of Calgary researchers, who will evaluate the program, hope to see improved achievement and and drops in absenteeism and discipline problems.

Parents and teachers are skeptical about the idea, the Post reports.

“Between the age of six and 10 I don’t think I even knew how to tie my shoes or make a sandwich, let alone figure out my future humanitarian endeavours or how to apply for a patent after my grandiose scientific invention,” wrote Scott Mitchell, the Airdrie Echo newspaper editor, in an editorial.

I can’t say I was much of a humanitarian when I was seven. I had no particular interest in the arts, science or sports either. I liked to read fantasy, adventure and history, averaging a book a day for many years.  My friend Janice and I wrote a newspaper, The Wednesday Report, from second through fifth grade. Was I an outlier? I guess so. Schools can’t cater to true outliers, except by leaving them alone. My teachers let me read in class, discreetly.

About Joanne


  1. This is a bad idea. People don’t seem to understand that there is a set of foundational information (e.g. basic science, how government works, the conventions of written English) that all humans must grasp to be efficacious and free human beings, regardless of the career they end up choosing. This is what elementary school is for. It is premature and foolish to get our eight year olds to start specializing.

    E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit needs to be required reading in all American and Canadian education schools. He is our wisest thinker about education. Assuming these Canadian principles are intelligent enough to grasp Hirsch’s ideas, their reading The Knowledge Deficit would have prevented this folly.

  2. Oops –I should have written “principals”.

  3. greeneyeshade says:

    I thought it was bad enough to put kids on a career track in middle school. (Maybe that’s the unacknowledged 60s holdover in me, but I doubt it.) But second grade?!? Kindly, as Sam Goldwyn reputedly used to say, include me out!

  4. This seems superficial on its face, and rightly deserving of the skepticism its getting. First off, the categories make so little sense. The arts as one catch-all? Please. As if a kid intently focused on music will find much in common with the kid who wants to draw stuff all the time. Scientific inquiry makes some sense, as does sports. The humanitarian/environment stream might as well be labeled the left-wing activist stream.

    Really, though, in as much as the streams are nonsensical, they are too narrow. What of people who’s interest is in making things other than art? Or those interested in learning about the past? Or those who want to debate and discuss everything. I could think of quite a few more, but I won’t bore people with them.

    As for the “loose” basis on Malcolm Gladwell’s work, I’d say it’s pretty loose indeed. Just how many kids are going to be so excited by these streams that it will be enough to spur them into 10,000 hours of practicing anything? I mean, I’m probably right under 10,000 hours of practicing with music, and let me tell you it’s a grind. The more you do, the more you realize you have yet to do. It can be demoralizing unless you’re really chasing after something and have the passion, and compulsion, to keep going.

    Most people are never going to put that into anything in their lives, and that’s OK. Not everyone has to be a high achiever. Rather than this edu-fad, I would much rather see the focus on finding curriculum and teaching methods that effectively reach the broad base of minimally-interested students and guide them to enough of an education that they have some hope of functioning effectively in modern society.

  5. Good to see we’re not interested in developing future DaVincis, Franklins, and Einsteins… because what made them great was their ability to blend science, the humanities, and politics.