When we look at successful people, there is a tendency to attribute their success to natural talent. With Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell illustrates that success stories are seldom that simple. Success (as defined by being the best at something) is achieved through a series of seemingly random events combined with thousands of hours of hard work. In his book, Gladwell guides the reader through all of the twists and turns of each ‘success story’ and presents the reader with the opportunity to look at the data from a different angle. Nowhere in the book was this more evident for me than in Rice Paddies and Math Tests, a chapter that examines the successful performance of Asian students in math.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) test is given to 4th and 8th grade students every four years to assess education standards on a global scale. Historically, students from East Asian countries (Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Japan) have outperformed the rest of the world’s students. This track record has led to a general assumption that students from these countries have an innate ability that makes them better at math. But, to Gladwell, being good at math may just be an issue of culture. Besides having students that are good at math, Asian countries also have common ground in rice cultivation. And cultivating rice is not an easy pursuit. Growing rice is a labor-intensive, tedious task; all of the growing conditions, from the water level to the spacing between seedlings, have to be perfect. And perfection takes time. But it’s this level of perfection that leads to a crop that can sustain a family for another year. This is the root of Gladwell’s argument; cultural expectations in Asian countries are based on the lessons learned from cultivating rice. If you don’t put in the time (hours of practice), you’re never going to be successful. So, if being successful at math is directly proportional to the amount of time spent doing math, there should be obvious differences in class time allotments between Asian countries and the other countries on the TIMMS list. And, for Gladwell, there were.
One of the readouts that Gladwell focused on was the length of the school year. In South Korea and Japan the school year is 220 and 243 days long, respectively, while, in the United States, the school year is 180 days long. Students from Asian countries are in school for 40-60 days more than students in the U.S. For me, this realization was the most enjoyable part of reading Outliers. As I mentioned earlier, Gladwell gives you a chance to see the data from a different view. Recently, I was working on a project that was based on using informal science education opportunities to increase student science literacy. For background research, I read through the results from the TIMMS test and other aptitude tests. I found it very depressing. This knowledge made it difficult for me to propose a solution for increasing science literacy when there were so many factors involved and none that I could directly change. But, seeing the test results through Gladwell’s eyes, was liberating. If poor math performance is only based on hours of practice, then it isn’t the fault of one teacher or one school or one parent. If math performance is truly cumulative, then we can all be doing our part to make sure each students gets as much exposure to math as possible. Speaking of outliers, there are some schools in the US that perform better on the TIMMS test than the US as a whole. For instance, in 2011, the average US TIMMS test score for 8th graders was 509; in Massachusetts, the average score was 561. Maybe Gladwell can uncover that success story in his next book. Want to know how well you would do on the TIMMS test? Try out Dare to Compare.