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Birth Order and Educational Achievement

John Simkin

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Kjell Salvanes of the Norwegian School of Economics today presented information about some important educational research (2005 World Congress of the Econometric Society). Working with colleagues, Salvanes analysed the entire population of Norway aged 16-74 between the years 1986 and 2000.

The research discovered that younger children do less well in terms of overall educational attainment than their older brothers and sisters. A first child is typically at least a year ahead of the third born brother or sister at the equivalent stage at school.

There are two main reasons for this. Parents spend much more time with their first child in the early years. Much of this contact is educational. As other children are born, the parents spend less time with each individual child. The other children have less time to catch up with the advantages enjoyed by the first born.

The second reason is more profound and something I have argued earlier on this thread.


It is that the eldest child acts as a teacher for the younger children and learns how to organize information and present it to others. As we all know, the best way to learn something is to teach it.

This supports the research carried out by the United States National Learning Lab in Maine to assess the most effective way that young people can learn. The researchers employed a variety of different teaching methods and then tested the students to find out how much they had learnt. From this the researchers were able to calculate what they called the Average Retention Rate. The results were as follows:

Teacher talking to a class (5%)

Student reading a book (10%)

Student watching an audio visual presentation (20%)

Student watching a teacher demonstration (30%)

Students taking part in a discussion group (50%)

Students involved in an activity that is related to what the teacher wants them to learn (75%)

Students teaching others (90%).

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