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Malcolm Gladwell on Math and Persistence(2)

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell spends a whole wonderful chapter discussing cultural attitudes towards learning math, and he wraps up by profiling the Bronx Knowledge is Power Program Academy (also known as “KIPP”).

With high expectations and extra-long school hours (among other things), KIPP takes students from poorest of neighborhoods and gives them a chance to pull themselves out of poverty. Founder David Levin observes that when students leave KIPP, “they rock in math.”

So how do they do it? For one, all students do ninety minutes of math every day. Eighth grade math teacher Frank Corcoran explains:

I find that the problem with math education is the sink-or-swim approach. Everything is rapid fire, and the kids who get it first are the ones who are rewarded. … It seems counterintuitive but we do things at a slower pace and as a result we get through a lot more. There’s a lot more retention, better understanding of the material.

Wow! I totally agree! Corcoran’s astute observations that math classes today have a sink-or-swim approach really resonated with me. I don’t think this approach is acceptable, because it leaves so many students behind. I used to be one of them.

When I revisted this quote, I loved hearing how having more time to go over the material helped both the students and the teacher relax, and how going over it more slowly actually helped them cover more material. That has totally been my experience in my tutoring sessions with students.

A sink-or-swim approach also perpetuates the myth that one is either a “math person” or “not a math person,” because it doesn’t give students a chance to fill in the missing pieces in their prerequisite knowledge, really internalize the material, or explore how they learn best.

Moving slower also helps students who otherwise would think of themselves as “not math people” to grow their math abilities through persistent effort, and creates a world richer for having more mathematicians in it!

Related Posts:
Malcolm Gladwell on Math and Persistence
Doing Fractions “In Chinese” ?!
I think I see a mathematician!

2 Comments on “Malcolm Gladwell on Math and Persistence(2)”

  • Jasmine on June 23rd 9:43 pm

    Thanks for the post Rebecca! I am assembling my list of summer reading, and this book looks like it’s definitely going to make the cut. Do you have recommendations of other related books that would be good for a math tutor to read over the summer? -Jasmine

  • Rebecca Zook on June 26th 2:08 pm

    Totally! Here’s a short list. If you decide to read any of these, I’d like to hear what you think! And let me know if you find anything good too, I’m always looking for good reading material!

    NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, is great — I found the chapters on praise and sleep especially helpful.

    I also recommend Mindset by Carol Dweck — more about developing a growth mindset (versus a “fixed mindset”), but for yourself, not just helping kids develop one. Very inspiring and applicable.

    Why We Do What We Do by Edward Deci is full of insight into motivation… always key to the learning process.

    Mind Over Math is a great little book about overcoming math anxiety written by a mathematician/psychologist team. It’s out of print but a total jewel, and you can still buy copies starting at $.01 on Amazon.

    Teach Like A Champion by Doug Lemov is really inspiring and thought-provoking too! 49 techniques teachers can start applying immediately — completely classroom-tested. Some of them might not apply to a one-on-one situation, but overall the book is excellent.

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