Stereotype or Statistic?

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book pushes the view that Asians are better at math. This piece also ran in the Spring 2009 issue.

By David Taube

Math skills for Asian students represent innate abilities for some and hard work for others.

The debate centers more around why Asian students have these traits, rather than if they possess these skills.  More than 40 percent of 8th graders from Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore scored above the 90th percentile on a 2007 international math test, whereas the United States only had 6 percent of students in this advanced group.

For Malcolm Gladwell, psychology studies and historians reveal a compelling theory of why students from these countries drastically outperform their U.S. counterparts.

“We sometimes think of being good at mathematics as an innate ability.  You either have ‘it’ or you don’t,” Gladwell writes in his 2008 book, “Outliers: A Story of Success.”  For math ability, Gladwell accounts for this finding due to the cultural legacy that many Asian students have.

Gladwell attributes rice paddy farming and language as two of the most significant factors.  This agricultural ancestry emphasizes how complex, hard work and patience directly correlate to financial success and mathematical aptitude.  And Eastern languages have a logical counting system as opposed to a counterintuitive, Western one, which makes memorizing a list of seven numbers in two seconds easier.  Chinese children show advantages as early as age four, being able to count to 40, whereas American children on average stop at 15, Gladwell writes.

Consequently, Gladwell suggests that success depends just as much on contextual factors like timing, luck and persistance, and that intelligence alone fails to ensure success.

Many media sources criticized the book for oversimplification, and most avoided a rebuttal of Gladwell’s summary of research supporting superior Asian math skills.  Some, however, counterbalanced Gladwell’s math skills thesis with the following:

The Boston Globe questioned if cultural legacies of rice paddy farming will ever fade.  It seems like they should eventually taper off, but Gladwell never states what his view entails.

National Public Radio noted, “While American students often say math skills are innate, Asian students more frequently attribute success in math to hard work.”

The Economist remained one of the few publications A-Line reviewed that referred to math skill sets as “an interesting hypothesis” rather than confirmed finding.

Stereotype Proof
Malcolm Gladwell puts together four significant arguments for why Eastern students are more successful in math than Western students:

1. China, Japan and Korea have a logical counting system.  This makes math more intuitive and easier to memorize.

2. Western agriculture requires 1,200 hours each year, whereas Eastern rice paddies demand 3,000 hours each year.  This cultural legacy makes Eastern students more prone to hard work, Gladwell argues.

3. Western parables indicate a fatalist attitude, whereas Eastern parables advocate hard work and free will.  One Russian parable mentioned in the book states, “If God does not bring it, the earth will not give it.”  China, on the other hand, offers a more positive outlook, “If a man works hard, the land will not be lazy” and “No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.”

4. University of Pennsylvania professor Erling Boe found that math rankings on the TIMSS, an international mathematics aptitude benchmark, could be predicted merely on how many of the 120 survey items were completed.  The items had nothing to do with math, which supports Gladwell’s thesis that a family’s values – such as hard work – matter more than actual intelligence.


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