« Outliers! | Main | Teachers and Quarterbacks »

Comments

Ben

I've been living in Taiwan, teaching math no less, for about 4 years and I've been wondering the same thing.

My theory on their high achievement rates is based on their language learning and wrote memorization skills. In order to learn Chinese, wrote memorization is necessary, maybe not so much for speaking, but definitely writing. I think doing this at a young age allows kids to memorize easier and perform better in math when they are required to remember equation after equation.

One shortcoming that the students have seemed to show are involving any questions that require analytical thinking and problem solving. But, from my experience, there are not many questions like this on standardized tests.

reader

This is an old saw, the Asian "good at rote" "bad at more complex/creative". Has anyone actually shown this to be the case?

Jake

@ Ben

That wouldn't explain why the Korean students do so well.


@ reader

Exactly, that mentality seems to be a way for some people to make themselves feel better.

I definitely believe it's culture-based. In Asia, having an interest in science and math isn't something that makes you a social outcast.

BRadigan

I'm curious why we are hung up on these numbers. Yes, they're interesting. But I don't think average math aptitude has much to do with anything. The vast majority of people require only the most basic math skills to perform their jobs and live their lives well. I think the more significant question is, how do math geniuses compare with each other across countries, as they will drive innovation in their respective countries, or, rather, in whichever country they end up innovating in (H-1B visas reform, anyone?). There is no evidence that Americans or Europeans are lagging in this regard.

Charlie A. Roy

I've heard it argued in some circles that when you drop out the number of students who live in poverty from the U.S. scores we are then on par with the rest of the world. I wonder if there is any truth in that claim.

Loved your article in the New Yorker about teaching and "withitness". Your observations about what truly sets the great teachers apart: quality of feedback was wonderful.

James Grimmelmann

But see Malcolm Gladwell, "Most Likely to Succeed," The New Yorker, Dec. 15, 2008 (arguing that replacing a bad teacher with a good one triples students' learning and that the United States could massively increase improve its educational system purely by changing its system of hiring and evaluating teachers).

Luke

In the text you quote, it's 40-45% vs 2% at the 8th grade.

I think it's a combination of things: their teachers are better at teaching math; and the students work harder. Here we give up too quickly when we don't understand something. The secret to maths may just be working harder at understanding math than geography class.

John M.

It's very simple. Math is hard and Americans are lazy, so they just give up on it rather than trying. Asians are harder workers and less tolerant of failure? Don't beleive me? Visit a factory in America and then one in Japan some time.

adora

I grew up in Hong Kong and was on the school's Math Olympiad team. When I went to university in the US, I was surprised to find that my first year calculus was the material from 10th grade!

No, I don't think Asian teachers are better at teaching math. It is more about the students' attitude.

I think it also has something to do with what the culture value. When I was growing up in Hong Kong, math kids were seen as cool kids. We were most envied in school and we have most choices in the future. The entire city's economy is built on trading, so math ability is essential for success. Math ability is highly valued.

I was called a geek first time in my life in the US. The party kids are the cool kids. My classmate who can't find the area of circle was transferred to Harvard. It is extremely discouraging. I just feel that Americans don't value math ability.

On the up side, I have never seen so many people in sports or going to the gym. 90% of my friends in Hong Kong don't work out. Muscle is not valued.

adora

p.s. Did you know that in Chinese, Korean and Japanese, each digit of number has only one syllable? I feel that it is a lot easier to learn math when the language is in the same logic.

Ben

You seem to overlook one very important aspect of these statistics: who gets to take the test. In the US, the test sample is fairly random, representing the full breadth of students and capabilities. Other countries rarely are so fair in their sampling. Many countries only allow select students to advance into career-tracked high schools, and students outside these schools are generally not being tested.

karim kanji

Just finished having a quick conversation with my boss about this. We figure it comes down to work ethic. The harder and longer one works on something the better they will become at that task. Especially, at younger ages. The historical "rice-paddy" explanation given by Gladwell fully endorses this cultural phenomenon.

Great book Malcolm!

Looking forward to hearing and reading more from you.

kk

T.V.

But what about the other Asian countries? Do Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, etc perform as well as Japan, Hong Kong..? As far as I know they are all rice crop centered cultures, which your book says is at the heart of Asia's math prowess.

Richard Bliss

Companies like to believe that they are successful because they try harder, or their employees are somehow superior to their competitor's employees, or management is some how superior.

This is the same idea as saying that teachers are the problem, or students are the problem, or parents are the problem.

What Malcolm is saying is that that to have a 40% to 2% discrepancy requires you to look at other sources of cause.

Something other than "We Try Harder" must be at the source.

Language can be one of a source. The way a language is used and constructed carries with it the entire culture of the people who speak it.

I'm a father of five, and speak three languages. I found it easier to teach my children how to count in Chinese than how to count in English, and now I understand why. Because as Malcolm points out, Chinese is an easier language to use when counting.

Anonymous Frustrated Lawyer

I think this may have been the most controversial part of the book.

DAVE ID

I remember seeing a doc on TV about Asian language learning using different parts of the brain than other languages leaving up more processing power for mathematical and scientific work. which could explain this. But it was so long ago I can't begin to remember the source.

Other than the liberal penchant for equal-at-all-costs-mentality, what would prevent for such realities to present themselves? Why should some people not have more inclinations for certain activities or capabilities given their environments? This would only be the end result of adaptation and evolution, just like skin pigmentation. It would have nothing to do with racial superiority, eugenics and other cruddy deviancies.

I can't wait to get to the book.

james

See "The Geography of Thought" by Richard Nisbett.

Bruno

I'm more triggered/interested by the whole KIPP-schools section. I got the impression Gladwell was actually promoting them instead of simply using them as an example to build his hard-work case. The problem I have with promoting them is ... well... whereas the Beatles chose to play 8 hours straight and Gates chose to program all night, schools are applied to all kids! Some kids wouldn't want to play music for 8 hours, and shouldn't have to regardless of whether our culture would become more musical. 5am to 11pm for 5th grader? No summer vacations because of the drop-off in reading skills so let's have more school?? How about some time each day to look at wildlife and see the stars and look at a real-live cow?
Sure you apply to the KIPP schools, it is a choice, but finishing that chapter on "The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for." advocates that schooling for everyone.

Gladwell makes a great case, hard work if you want to be good at something, put in those 10,000 hours, but don't force others to do it.

Bruno

I'm more triggered/interested by the whole KIPP-schools section. I got the impression Gladwell was actually promoting them instead of simply using them as an example to build his hard-work case. The problem I have with promoting them is ... well... whereas the Beatles chose to play 8 hours straight and Gates chose to program all night, schools are applied to all kids! Some kids wouldn't want to play music for 8 hours, and shouldn't have to regardless of whether our culture would become more musical. 5am to 11pm for 5th grader? No summer vacations because of the drop-off in reading skills so let's have more school?? How about some time each day to look at wildlife and see the stars and look at a real-live cow?
Sure you apply to the KIPP schools, it is a choice, but finishing that chapter on "The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for." advocates that schooling for everyone.

Gladwell makes a great case, hard work if you want to be good at something, put in those 10,000 hours, but don't force others to do it.

Oberon Houston

Sorry to break the thread for a moment, but in the wake of the current banking crisis, I recalled an article you wrote in the wake of the Enron scandal called "The Talent Myth". Clearly the banking sector didn't subscribe to the idea that executives are compensated for what they do for the business...

http://www.gladwell.com/2002/2002_07_22_a_talent.htm

Dane Cao

I'm a chinese and I was also bewildered by this kind of phenomenon. I myself is not a math man, but my uncle is REALLY good at it(were it not for cultural revolution he'd have become a math professor for sure) and according to my grandmother he worked very hard while young, almost avidly feasting on new knowledge on an empty stomach(great famine in China at that time)... So I guess it did seem to have something to do with the virtues of being hardworking and driven and all...

One of my primary school classmate, a young man named Wu, was wholly another story. He was raised in the city, and he needn't have to worry about his meals anymore, and he didn't seem to work that hard if you ask me(we sat next to each other in school), but he was so good at math that he skipped grade and entered a top school soon thereafer, from where he went further up the "scholastic" ladder briskly, ending up eventually in columbia university doing a PHD in physics... I don't how to account for his seemingly effortless ascent towards scholastic achievement but to resort to the old convenient explanation of "his brain is more mathematically wired than us regulars"...

But Malcolm's take is nonetheless interesting and worth contemplating...

Kudos to you Malcolm for coming out with another wonderfully conceived and interestly oenned book. Good job!

Paunchiness

I thought the book was excellent. I wrote my review of Outliers on my blog.

I am currently working on my 10k hours as a writer hopefully I'll get good at it someday.

Paunchiness

I thought the book was excellent. I wrote my review of Outliers on my blog.

I am currently working on my 10k hours as a writer hopefully I'll get good at it someday.

Mercutia

I'm reading "Outliers" at the moment, and this part in particular fascinates me, mostly because I didn't know much about the difference between wheat- and rice-growing techniques or the way they shaped different cultures, which in turn helped shape everything else. It's an interesting way of looking at the situation.

I also saw the spaghetti sauce talk on TED. Now I'm eating lasagna as I type this. Maybe that's the Gladwell Effect?

Jim Vernon

@adora: so, our problem is ... seven?

@ben and gladwell: i was going to make a similar comment but would phrase it in the form of a question to malcolm, to wit: do we know who takes the test in different countries? might some of the gap be explained by self-selection or other "data censoring"?

best regards,
jim

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

My Photo

Bio

  • I'm a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of four books, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference", "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" and "Outliers: The Story of Success." My latest book, "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. I was born in England, and raised in southwestern Ontario in Canada. Now I live in New York City.

    My great claim to fame is that I'm from the town where they invented the BlackBerry. My family also believes (with some justification) that we are distantly related to Colin Powell. I invite you to look closely at the photograph above and draw your own conclusions.

My Website

Books

  • What the Dog Saw

    buy from amazon

    Outliers

    buy from amazon

    buy from amazon UK

    Blink

    buy from amazon

    buy from amazon UK

    Tipping Point

    buy from amazon

Recent Articles

Blog powered by Typepad