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Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell

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What reasons does Malcolm Gladwell give for many Asians excelling at mathematics?

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Malcolm Gladwell says that the reasons why Chinese students excel at mathematics include the discipline learned from a culture of rice farming, and the greater simplicity of the Chinese numbering system. Although Gladwell focuses on China, both points are also applicable to other East Asian cultures.

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In chapter 8 of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the traditional importance of rice farming in China. Rice farming is hard physical work, requiring long hours and dedication, but it is also intellectually demanding when deciding how to optimize production from a fairly small plot of land. Gladwell links the demanding nature of rice farming to the level of effort Asian students apply to the study of mathematics. American students generally regard success in mathematics as primarily a matter of ability, a talent you either possess or lack. However, Gladwell cites research that shows this is not the case. In one study, researchers gave students a long, detailed questionnaire to complete. A tendency to complete the questionnaire meticulously and answer every question was correlated with success in math classes. This suggests that learning to complete tasks doggedly and with attention to detail is an important element in mathematical excellence, and a culture of rice farming teaches such behavior.

Gladwell also points out that the Chinese system of numbering is easier to master than the used in America, since it is perfectly regular with no exceptions. Although the linguistic difference between saying "eleven" or "twelve" and saying "ten-one" or "ten-two" seems trivial to an adult, it creates a barrier for a young child learning numbers for the first time. On average, Gladwell says, Chinese children learn to count to forty two years earlier than American children, and the simplicity of the number system they have to learn is a major factor in this.

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Malcolm Gladwell believes that Asian students excel in mathematics because of their cultural differences and lifestyle. A major factor that he points to is rice farming and a belief in hard work.

Gladwell says that American students tend to believe that you're either good at math or you aren't. They think math skills are something that some people have and other people don't. Students from Asian countries, on the other hand, think that math is something that can be mastered by anyone through hard work. His 10,000-hour rule reflects this; if someone is able and willing to put 10,000 hours of work into something, they can master it. Someone who isn't able to or won't, won't.

One cultural difference he points to is rice farming. Gladwell says that rice farming is difficult to do and takes a lot of mental work. When you're willing to do that hard work, you are able to make a living from farming rice. When students grow up with parents who believe in hard work and mental focus, they apply these same beliefs and habits to their schoolwork and excel. The focus on problem-solving and dedication help them master those skills.

Another thing Gladwell mentions is that many Asian languages have regular and simple numerical systems. For example, they would say "ten-one" instead of eleven. This helps children understand and adapt to math more quickly. Numbers are also easier to remember and pronounce in some Asian languages. This gives students a large advantage; for example, Chinese children can count to 40 two years before American children can on average.

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We answer one question at a time at enotes, and I have selected the question on culture and education to respond to.  Each of your other questions can be submitted, one at a time. 

Gladwell has a few different arguments to make regarding Asian excellence at mathematics.  First, the agricultural tradition of many Asian countries, which is rice farming, promotes this skill, and second, Asian languages, Chinese in particular, are better adapted to handling computation of numbers, both leading to an educational climate in which the attributes of a rice-farming tradition and an ease with numbers promote educational and subsequent success in math.

Rice farming, according to Gladwell, requires a great deal of hard work through all seasons, problem-solving, and attention to detail.  Historically, rice farmers had complete autonomy to make decisions regarding their crops, unlike serfs, tenant farmers, and slaves. Each farmer and his family had to manage a complex system of engineering, irrigation, and timing to be successful. The qualities needed brought  tangible reward.  This created a culture in which hard-working, problem-solving, attentive people who cultivated the earth were successful.  I'm not sure how Darwinian this might be, but clearly, these are the traits that were handed down from one generation to the next. Children learned by being active participants in the process.  And all of the skills needed to successfully farm rice are the same skills necessary to do well in math. 

The Chinese numbering system also promotes a greater ease in learning, remembering, and manipulating numbers than those of other languages.  The names for the numbers are quite short, and they are not as inconsistent as other languages, for example, in English. We do not say "fiveteen" to show five plus ten, for instance.  Having brief sounds means children learn the numbers quickly, they memorize them almost immediately, and they do not have to be concerned about discrepancies in logic.  That makes numbers a great deal easier to work with, and this advantage, from such an early age, is a factor, too, in Asian excellence in math. 

I find both of these credible ideas, but what concerns me is that as Asian populations become increasingly urban and the world becomes increasingly Americanized, this great advantage could be lost. That would make for a more level international playing field, I suppose, but it would be such a shame for any culture to lose such wonderful attributes. 


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