Monday, May 18, 2009

Gladwell's Outliers: more "everything but the math curriculum?"

Teacher quality; inadequate education funding; anti-nerd stereotypes; the digital revolution; religious fundamentalism; the triumph of self-esteem and self-help; existential aimlessness. Pretty much everything under the sun has been held responsible for the mediocre math and science skills of the average American gradeschooler. Everything under the sun, that is, except the actual math and science curriculum.

At first glance, Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers), appears to join the chorus of intellectuals blaming everything but the curriculum. Addressing the problem of America's below-average TIMSS scores--the international test that compares gradeschoolers in math and science--he cites cultural differences and attitude as more influential than anything else.

This message is sure to resonate with the many American education experts who've been claiming for decades that culture and emotion are way more important than actual academics.

A more careful read, however, reveals that what Gladwell is talking about is work ethic. In discussing culture, he specifically cites cultures that have a long legacy of hard work; by attitude, he is specifically talking about attitudes towards hard work.

But we tend to remember best what resonates with our preexisting assumptions. Thus, many readers, I'm guessing, will come away thinking that Outliers further justifies the popular view that education is all about culture and attitude--just as many readers came away thinking that Gladwell's Blink further justifies the popular view that intuition matters more than rigorous analysis.

One of Gladwell's observations that I suspect many readers won't remember points implicitly to the importance of curriculum content:

One of the questions asked of test takers on a recent math test given to students around the world was how many of the algebra, calculus, and geometry questions they had previously learned in class. For Japanese twelfth graders, the answer was 92 percent. That's the value of going to school 243 days a year. You have the time to learn everything that needs to be learned--and you have less time to unlearn it. For American twelth graders, the comparable figure was 54 percent.
The problem is that Gladwell (like many, many, many, many others) appears not to have visited enough math and science classes to have noticed how poorly American schools use the time slated for math and science. He mentions neither the logistical inefficiencies discussed in books like The Learning Gap, nor the curricular inefficiencies of today's discovery-based learning and multiple solution-centered problem solving, nor the pervasively low level of actual mathematics found in today's Reform Math.

In other words, Gladwell is implicitly assuming that if American schools were simply to spend more time on math and science instruction, they would spend that time well enough to cover all the material that Japanese classrooms cover.


Anonymous said...

Gladwell based most of this discussion on research by Stanislas Dehaene, who was profiled in this New Yorker article last year. In it, Dehaene, who studies how the human brain processes math, makes an interesting comment about reform math, which is what is taught in Ann Arbor schools (Belle's school uses Everyday Mathematics):

When I asked him about reform math he wasn't especially sympathetic. "The idea that all children are different, and that they need to discover things their own way--I don't buy it at all," he said. "I believe there is one brain organization. We see it in babies, we see it in adults. Basically, with a few variations, we're all travelling on the same road." He admires the mathematics curricula of Asian countries like China and Japan, which provide children with a highly structured experience, anticipating the kind of responses they make at each stage and presenting them with challenges designed to minimize the number of errors. "That's what we're trying to get back to in France," he said.

Anonymous said...

I thought the comment from Stanislas Dehaene was accurate and honest. It says a great deal about what great teaching entails.

There must be a 'visible' underlying structure for students to successfully learn. The visibility is from the student's frame of reference, not the teacher's. Popular curriculum and experienced teachers anticipate the questions students will have when they are learning.

Saxon does this, but not to the same degree as Singapore. An experienced teacher, who has used the curriculum more than once, can sense this.

An inexperienced teacher using Saxon can still fail miserably, but it has prepared many students for college, unlike math reform.

The time is past for experimenting and making excuses, the US needs a solid college-ready academic curriculum.

Anonymous said...

Detecting errors that students make doing algebra is usually overlooked or discarded by American researchers as being a minor and temporary setback. In my experience, this is never the case and it is the one of the primary reasons I would not adopt any of the DOE's reform textbooks. Not only are the problems full of errors, but the answers are open-ended and it would be impossible for a teacher to correct all of the errors that would likely occur. Students could never stay engaged by themselves, if there was even some self-doubt in their real ability to solve problems. Once again this is too much generalizing, because most, if any thinking, is spent decoding and understanding the problem, not solving it.