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Topic: cultural attitudes towards math

Malcolm Gladwell on Math and Persistence(2)

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell spends a whole wonderful chapter discussing cultural attitudes towards learning math, and he wraps up by profiling the Bronx Knowledge is Power Program Academy (also known as “KIPP”).

With high expectations and extra-long school hours (among other things), KIPP takes students from poorest of neighborhoods and gives them a chance to pull themselves out of poverty. Founder David Levin observes that when students leave KIPP, “they rock in math.”

So how do they do it? For one, all students do ninety minutes of math every day. Eighth grade math teacher Frank Corcoran explains:

I find that the problem with math education is the sink-or-swim approach. Everything is rapid fire, and the kids who get it first are the ones who are rewarded. … It seems counterintuitive but we do things at a slower pace and as a result we get through a lot more. There’s a lot more retention, better understanding of the material.

Wow! I totally agree! Corcoran’s astute observations that math classes today have a sink-or-swim approach really resonated with me. I don’t think this approach is acceptable, because it leaves so many students behind. I used to be one of them.

When I revisted this quote, I loved hearing how having more time to go over the material helped both the students and the teacher relax, and how going over it more slowly actually helped them cover more material. That has totally been my experience in my tutoring sessions with students.

A sink-or-swim approach also perpetuates the myth that one is either a “math person” or “not a math person,” because it doesn’t give students a chance to fill in the missing pieces in their prerequisite knowledge, really internalize the material, or explore how they learn best.

Moving slower also helps students who otherwise would think of themselves as “not math people” to grow their math abilities through persistent effort, and creates a world richer for having more mathematicians in it!

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Topic: cultural attitudes towards math

Doing Fractions “In Chinese” ?!

Friday, March 5th, 2010


I was so excited to discover that in Malcolm Gladwell, his recent book, Outliers, presents a bunch of new research on learning math!

There’s so much good stuff in there that I can’t even begin to tell you all about it. But one thing that struck me in particular was Gladwell’s discussion of the cultural differences between Asian and Western attitudes towards learning math. (You can read an excerpt from the chapter here.)

To start, language differences give Asians a linguistic advantage. In Asian languages, numbers are more transparent. For example, when an English speaker has to do mental math, they need to translate words into numbers first. Before we add “forty-three” to something else, we have to break it down into “four tens and a three.” By comparison, in Chinese the word for “forty-three” is already broken down: “four-tens-three.”

Similarly, we say “three-fifths” to describe a fraction in English. But the Chinese for the same number literally translates as, “out of five parts, take three”: the definition of how a fraction works is built in. These linguistic differences make calculation easier in Asian languages. And because it’s easier to figure out what things mean just from the words, there’s an attitude that it’s normal to be able to figure math out.

This creates what Gladwell calls a “virtuous circle”: because the names for numbers are a little bit easier to understand, arithmetic is a little bit easier to do, which means that maybe students like math a little bit more, which means that maybe they take more math classes and ultimately achieve more in math. In contrast, Western children, by third and fourth grade, start to feel that “math doesn’t seem to make sense; it’s linguistic structure is clumsy; and its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.” And the trouble begins…

When I mentioned this to my friend, the Future Doctor Jones, she said, “We’re stuck with this language! What are we supposed to do with it?” Her question is valid—if I tell my tutoring students to say “two-tens-seven” for 27, will they just get beat up on the playground for talking crazy numbers?

So recently I was working with a fifth grader on fractions, and I casually mentioned that in Chinese, they say fractions like, “out of four parts, take one,” instead of “one-fourth.”

I was totally surprised when later in the lesson, this same student spontaneously started saying fractions “the Chinese way.” “Out of seven parts, take four!” “Out of two parts, take one!” When I slipped up and said, “Out of two parts take five,” she corrected me immediately, which meant she completely understood the concept.

Most importantly, she didn’t want to stop doing fractions. She was begging for more!

I’m grateful to my student for spontaneously showing me how we, as English-speakers, can adopt a “Chinese” way of thinking about numbers.

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