I’ve really been enjoying Malcolm Gladwell‘s excellent book, Outliers. There’s so much good stuff in this book about the relationship between learning math and: language, cultural attitudes, and agriculture (?!!) that I can’t even describe it all here–you should really just read the whole thing!
One juicy niblet in particular from the book really struck me:
A few years ago, Alan Schoenfeld, a math professor at Berkeley, made a videotape of a woman named Renee as she was trying to solve a math problem. [… ] Twenty-two minutes pass from the moment Renee begins playing with the computer program to the moment she says, “Ahhhh. That means something now.” That’s a long time. [The researcher Schoenfeld remarked,] “If I put the average eighth grader in the same position as Renee, I’m guessing that after the first few attempts, they would have said, ‘I don’t get it. I need you to explain it.’” Schoenfeld once asked a group of high school students how long they would work on a homework question before they concluded that it was too hard for them to solve. Their answers ranged from thirty seconds to five minutes, with the average answer two minutes.
But Renee took twenty-two minutes! Gladwell goes on to explain:
We sometimes think of being good at mathematics as an innate ability. You either have “it” or you don’t. But to Schoenfeld, it’s not so much ability as attitude. You master mathematics if you’re willing to try. That’s what Schoenfeld attempts to teach his students. Success is a function of persitence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.
Gladwell doesn’t try to explain what made Renee so exceptional. But it definitely made me wonder what I can do to help my students cultivate these qualities in themselves.