Posts tagged ‘Gladwell’
As I mentioned a few days ago, Malcolm Gladwell has a provocative explanation for why Asian children are better at maths. The answer, he says, is embedded in the structure of our languages. Asian languages have shorter words for their numbers than most other languages, allowing for Asian children to cram more information in their memory. The construction of Asian number systems is also more logical and intuitive: Eleven is ten-one and twelve is ten-two, for example; in Asian languages, fifty-six is five-tens-six. (See entire post here.)
I was talking with a friend about this, however, and he brought up an interesting point that seems to put a small kink in Gladwell’s explanation: schools in Asia often teach children to do maths — including counting — in English. English, for example, is one of the official languages in Singapore, and according to him, is the dominant (sometimes only) language that school children are taught. And what about Asian students, born in the U.S. and with English as the only language they know, who are better at maths than their non-Asian peers… What explains their outstanding academic achievement? If they, too, are learning their number systems and maths in English and with an English construction, certainly language is not the only or primary explanatory variable for their dominance in math.
I don’t know how Gladwell would respond to this, but perhaps he would refer me to another chapter in his new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, that introduces us to the “10,000 Hour Rule.” The general thesis of this book is that, contrary to much conventional wisdom, talent is not innate. This is to say, geniuses — “outliers” — are not born; they are products of culture, chance, demography, and hard-work. Ten-thousand hours of work, at that. Take the the Beatles as a case study. The Beatles became the greatest, most successful, and influential musical group in history because they practiced. A lot. One of their early and regular gigs was at a club in the redlight district of Hamburg, Germany.
The Beatles ended up travelling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, of five or more hours a night. Their second trip they played 92 times. Their third trip they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg stints, in November and December 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times, which is extraordinary. Most bands today don’t perform 1,200 times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is what set the Beatles apart.
“They were no good on stage when they went there and they were very good when they came back,” says [the band’s biographer, Philip] Norman. “They learned not only stamina, they had to learn an enormous amount of numbers – cover versions of everything you can think of, not just rock’n’roll, a bit of jazz, too. They weren’t disciplined on stage at all before that. But when they came back they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.” [Full extract here.]
It was the fact that they had practiced for more than 10,000 hours — more than their boyish good looks and English charm — that allowed them to launch the British Invasion on the Ed Sullivan Show. Perhaps Asian students, in addition to benefiting from a language that facilitates the learning and manipulation of a number system, simply do more maths than students in other countries.
This is all a long lead-in to two items I found while surfing through the the online archives of Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, which, sadly, just announced that it is the victim of the downturn in print journalism and will no longer be in production. “How to Grow a Superstar Athlete” by Daniel Coyle illustrates how some parents and coaches hope that an early introduction to sports will allow their children to develop into professional or Olympic level athletes. Two hours of T-ball practice now leaves only 9,998 more to go until the Yankees offer that contract to little Jimmy.
Also from the archive, this illustration and animation explains why early and consistent practice is so beneficial to the development of young athletes: Myelin!
Some scientists believe that physiological changes in the brain that take place during repetitive practice at a young age make the difference between a world-class athlete and the rest of us. The brain is made up of grey matter (neurons) and white matter (nerve fibers and their insulating material). A process in the white matter called myelination may play a large role in the development of talent.
Signals are transmitted to different areas of the brain along pathways called axons. The faster and more precise these signals are, the more ability we have to perform complex tasks. Repetitive use of connections in the brain–or practice–triggers cells called oligodendocytes, which wrap layer upon layer of myelin around these connections. This optimizes the connections, making them more like a broadband Internet connection than like a dial-up. The athlete’s neuronal pathways for their specific skills have been turned into superhighways.
We’ll miss you, Play magazine. You always gave us a lot to think about.
In his forthcoming book Outliers (available tomorrow), Malcolm Gladwell offers another provocative investigation into curious social phenomena. An extract is published in yesterday’s Guardian, which asks and answers the question, What explains Asian superiority in academic subjects?
While the likes of controversial professor and psychologist Richard Lynn advance the thesis for variation in IQ along racial and ethnic divisions, Gladwell says the superior performance and achievement in maths has nothing to do with innate ability. Rather, performance and achievement in mathematics can be explained by the structure of our languages, which gives the East a cultural advantage over the West in certain academic subjects.
The words for Asian numbers are shorter than in English, allowing children to remember more content — they can “hold more numbers in their heads and do calculations faster”; the Asian number system is also more “transparent,” clarifying the structure of numbers and the purpose of a problem. In short, where the English linguistic system is “clumsy” with “arbitrary and complicated” rules, there is an intuitive pattern and conceptually compelling structure to the Asian system.
Here is an excerpt from the Guardian‘s extract:
Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6. Read them out loud. Now look away and spend 20 seconds memorising that sequence before saying them out loud again. If you speak English, you have about a 50 per cent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. If you’re Chinese, though, you’re almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. We most easily memorise whatever we can say or read within that two-second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers – 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6 – right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.
That example comes from Stanislas Dehaene’s book The Number Sense. As Dehaene explains: Most Chinese number words can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second [whereas] their English equivalents takes about one-third of a second. The memory gap between English and Chinese apparently is entirely due to this difference in length. In languages as diverse as Welsh, Arabic, Chinese, English and Hebrew, there is a reproducible correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a given language and the memory span of its speakers.
There is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed. … [In] China, Japan, and Korea, they have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is ten-two. Twenty-four is two-tens-four and so on.
[This allows] Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to 40. American children at that age can count only to 15, and most don’t reach 40 until they’re five. By the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.
The regularity of their number system also means that Asian children can perform basic functions, such as addition, far more easily. Ask an English-speaking seven-year-old to add thirty-seven plus twenty-two in her head, and she has to convert the words to numbers (37 + 22). Only then can she do the math: 2 plus 7 is 9 and 30 and 20 is 50, which makes 59. Ask an Asian child to add three-tens-seven and two-tens-two, and then the necessary equation is right there, embedded in the sentence. No number translation is necessary: it’s five-tens-nine.
For fractions, we say three-fifths. The Chinese is literally ‘out of five parts, take three.’ That’s telling you conceptually what a fraction is. It’s differentiating the denominator and the numerator.
When it comes to math, in other words, Asians have a built-in advantage. But it’s an unusual kind of advantage. We assume that being good at things like calculus and algebra is a simple function of how smart someone is. But the differences between the number systems in the East and the West suggest something very different – that being good at math may also be rooted in a group’s culture. Here we have a legacy that turns out to be perfectly suited for 21st-century tasks, and it’s hard not to wonder how many other cultural legacies have an impact on our 21st-century intellectual tasks.
For more on Outliers, click here.