Thoughts on Outliers
I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success. I just finished the chapter about Asian achievement in mathematics. I’ve written a few blog posts comparing Asian and American education in the past, so considering Gladwell’s argument now can serve as a follow-up.
Gladwell gives two explanations for Asian dominance on international math tests: First, he writes that Asians enjoy an advantage in learning math facts because of distinctive features of their language; and, second, that Asians’ perseverance — a direct result of their traditionally labor-intensive agricultural practices — allows them to master complex ideas that Western students give up on too soon.
I don’t know enough about linguistics or neuroscience to evaluate Gladwell’s first claim. But I’m intrigued by his second idea, that long hours of study and determination help account for the Asian math miracles. Gladwell cites a study showing that on an international math test, countries’ math scores were perfectly correlated with students’ willingness to fill out a long questionnaire about themselves — a list of questions unrelated to math. It looks like there’s a connection between patience for lengthy tasks and math success. If we take those cultural attitudes toward studying and transplant them to the United States, maybe we could replicate the Asian successes.
Here are a few things schools could do to change their math culture:
- Spend more time on math. My impression is that schools (at least, good schools) integrate reading into several subjects — science, social studies, etc. — but that math practice stays in the math classroom. Teachers could do more to reinforce math lessons throughout the day, especially in science, and schools could allot longer periods of time for math instruction.
- Simplify the elementary curriculum. State standards are part of the problem here, because the convoluted curricula making the rounds in the U.S. were designed to appeal to public schools. Covering more topics isn’t always better. Schools should cover a few mathematical principles each year, building up depth over the course of several weeks. Skipping around from counting to geometry to probability and back again encourages short attention spans and superficial understanding.
- Tailor assignments to individual students. A student has little reason to persevere in trying to learn a difficult concept if the class will soon move on, whether he or she has mastered it or not. There’s no need to hold everyone back while a few students catch up, but schools could assign more independent work so the weaker students continue to review the previous material. Individualized assignments would also give the best students a chance to develop their math skills beyond grade-level requirements.