Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Excerpt from “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell (chapter seven)


In the book, “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he describes math skills by cultural background.  It turns out the stereotype that Asians are better at mass has some basis in their culture.  First of all, the language helps.  Numbers are expressed in shorter quicker to say words in most Asian languages, which means they can memorize longer strings of numbers because they are faster to say.  Also, the work ethic is different.  It turns out that the hardest working farmers in the world are rice farmers and the lack of land makes them smarter farmers as well since they must maximize yield in smaller plots of land.


            But the passage that stuck out to me was that a cultural attitude for persistence explains a lot of about math skills.  On the TIMSS test which is given around the world to measure academic success, there is a 120-question survey given at the beginning of the test that asks questions such as parents’ level of education and their views on math.  It is rigorous enough that many students leave questions blank.  The interesting part is that the average number of questions answered varies from country to country.  And the correlation between average number of questions answered and math scores was a near perfect 1.0.  Imagine!  Students who are willing to sit still and spend the time answering a very long questionnaire are the same students who do well solving the problems on the math exam!!  And the countries where this is true is Korea, Singapore, China, Taiwan, etc.  All countries where they come from a culture of wet rice farming and meaningful hard work.  I read this and thought about those students with a strong growth mindset.  The similarities are too strong to ignore.


I also noticed that many of my fellow teachers, when seeing me reading Outliers, would often comment how much they enjoyed the book.  And they would say something about Canadian Hockey players and the phenomenon that the best hocky players were born in January.  This is true because the cutoff for most Canadian Hockey all-star teams is January 1st, which gives children an advantage if they are born in January or February.  This is chapter one in the book.  My thinking is that the most astounding parts of the book to me came after chapter six.  Are people not reading past the first two chapters?


Then I thought of the many teaching books that peak near the end (Building Thinking Classrooms, Principles to Actions, Productive Struggle, every issue of Teaching Mathematics by NCTM).  Stick it out people, it will make you a better teacher.

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