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Malcolm Gladwell is a Doofus

Mr. McDoof seems to be getting all the love these days with his silly little videos but Beedeekay will continue to write!

Malcolm Gladwell is highly overrated. I remember reading one of his books (Outliers) when I came across a section that irritated me greatly:

Let’s read why he thinks Asian’s are good at Math (abridged source):

It turns out that there is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed. In English, we say fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen, so one would think that we would also say one-teen, two-teen, and three-teen. But we don’t. We make up a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. Similarly, we have forty, and sixty, which sound like what they are. But we also say fifty and thirty and twenty, which sort of sound what they are but not really. And, for that matter, for numbers above twenty, we put the “decade” first and the unit number second: twenty-one, twenty-two. For the teens, though, we do it the other way around. We put the decade second and the unit number first: fourteen, seventeen, eighteen. The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan and Korea. They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten one. Twelve is ten two. Twenty-four is two ten four, and so on.

That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster. Four year old Chinese children can count, on average, up to forty. American children, at that age, can only count to fifteen, and don’t reach forty 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.

That’s it folks! If you want your kids to rock Math classes like the kids with the last names Kim and Chang you best teach them to start counting eleven as ten-one. OK thats a wrap…or is it?


Every Mon, Wed, Fri, in elementary school, while many of my friends had “play-dates” or played “Biddy Basketball” I was sent to KUMON.  I am not sure how Kumon is run now. But simply put, my mom drove my brother and I to a small office building one day where a lady gave us a sheet of math problems told us to figure it out on our own. No flashy powerpoint presentation, no opening speech about enriching youth, no discussion about “learning holistically”. Everyone there was Asian.  If we were able to do this sheet of paper, we moved on to a slightly harder set of problems. This repeated itself for the next few years: 2 hours of work, 3 times of week. Inefficient? Probably. Effective? Definitely. I absolutely destroyed kids at “Around the World Math” and completed memorizing my times table in 3rd grade the fastest my teacher had ever seen.  (Note: Being socially awkward at that time, I also became an unbearable douchebag, bragging about my arithmetic accomplishments to anyone at school. I did not realize this was probably the most uncool thing a  kid could do and needless to say my friends were few during elementary school. I suppose a similar analogy could be the conversations I’ve seen between self-important banking/finance guys and normal members of society.)

He continues:

it makes the whole attitude toward math different. Instead of being a rote learning thing, there’s a pattern I can figure out. 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.” The much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among western children starts in the third and fourth grade, and Fuson [some researcher he cites] argues that perhaps a part of that disenchantment is due to the fact that math doesn’t seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated. Asian children, by contrast, don’t face nearly that same sense of bafflement.

A short reminder here before I go into this anecdote, my Korean sucks, hence part-time Korean school.

I remember one time in 2nd grade (the start of my disenchantment) when my teacher gave us a two-sided homework, one was simple addition while the other side was comparing fractions which we weren’t supposed to get until 4th grade. I also remember for some reason my dad was home that day (a rare occurrence; my father is MJ-like in his ability to scoff at the flu) He told me to show him my homework. Since it was rather easy I proudly beamed as showed him my A+ homework and even told him how I did in less than a minute.  He then of course asked why I didn’t  do the side with fractions. He thought I was lying, I said it was my teacher’s fault that she copied the wrong problem set on one side.  He told me its never the teacher’s fault, and that the fractions were there for a reason.

Instead of rote learning? The next 3-4 hours was probably the most excruciating math lesson I ever had, as my father had to go through what a fraction was and why 3/5 was greater than 4/8. I practiced and he made up new sheets of problems for me to solve before I could leave. Even more ironic, what was even more difficult was the fact that my father whenever he taught me these things, the fractions I knew as three fifths, he kept on saying 5, some Korean phrase, then 3. (The Chinese is literally, ‘out of five parts, take three.’ ) The Korean system was the same, except I had no clue what my dad was talking about.

You want clumsy linguistic structure? If anything, since I didn’t know any Korean this was adding to the confusion, not clarifying it. I faced more bafflement than your average elementary school student. I think it was after this incident that father told my mom my math was at a remedial level. At that was the start of KUMON.

Nonetheless, I learned somewhat how to compare fractions. (I also learned how to properly hide schoolwork from him. Note: Report cards with C’s and comments like your kid “needs to do his homework” or “can be quite disruptive in class”  flush down the toilet but can clog a toilet and be fetched quite easily by plunger. From that point on, I learned also to burn my report cards to ashes before I flushed it down the toilet.)

Discipline is the real problem

I said this before and I’ll say this again: You wanna teach a kid how to be good at math, you beat him until he gets it right. I am half-joking of course which also means I am half-serious, but there’s no real sexy formula to do well in math. Think I am full of it? Fine, you take a bunch of kids, from an early age teach em how to count 11 as ten-one, 12 as ten-two, etc. Throw in all the little refinements Gladwell seems to insist upon (fractions, shorter numbers etc.) But also, give em their own rooms with a TV, computer and game systems (don’t wanna pressure Junior too much) and if they do poorly let them know there’s always next time.  Meanwhile, I’ll take my sampling of kids and give em a math worksheet everyday (not that big a deal). Until they complete them, they won’t be able to watch TV or go to a friends house. If he gets too sassy, you punish him, and then send him to his room, a spartan dormitory designed for the sole purpose of sleeping. Make him aware there will be no next time. This is of course difficult this day and age, because it could entail:

  • Your kid unfortunately not becoming your best friend (“my Mom loves to get drunk with me”, “My dad lent me some of his pot yesterday” were actually two phrases I heard more than once)
  • Having to actually spend quality time with your kid and working through some problems (a solid method, that requires less beating your kids, but will also take away from your Bikram Yoga, Cardio Kickboxing and Golf game)
  • Not putting up with crap that “Math is boring” (i.e. sometimes forcing your kid to eat broccoli)
  • Not blaming the teacher every time junior doesn’t get an A. (One of my Spanish teacher’s gave half our class C’s, this was unacceptable so a few students got their parents to intervene. He gave all of us A’s. My Spanish remains at the “Yo quiero Taco Bell” comprehension level.)

This is an easy (or perhaps difficult?) solution, no sexy anecdotes and doesn’t actually require you beat your kids. You see Gladwell puts way too much stock in this vague linguistic nonsense (ten-one) avoiding anything politically incorrect and telling parents to occasionally discipline their kids. This is why I dislike reading Malcolm but also probably the reason why everyone else likes reading him. This reductionist PC drivel makes everyone feel good about themselves for sure, but I am not sure what else it does. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “Pat yourself on the back if you are not Asian and find yourself struggling in math, because there are no differences really between the Asians and you with Math problems; it’s just that the English system of counting is stupid, not you.” So, BDK, maybe Asians have a genetic superiority in handling mathematics problems? I doubt it. Don’t wanna turn into that girl from Harvard Law.

The thing is, this is not just a Chinese/Korean thing. Most of my friends whose parents immigrated to the US were at least above average in math. It makes sense, its a subject that can be universally taught by parents and practiced with a greater degree of accuracy than let’s say English or US History. Whether their last name was Patel, Ahmed or Salazar  they shared the common element of a no-nonsense parent who insisted on excelling in Math. My buddy from Jamaica, similar concept. Got his butt kicked if he didn’t show his homework to his parents everyday.

Oh, it’s actually the rice paddies

Gladwell sort of hits this point when he talks about how Chinese people and rice paddies.

  1. Chinese people had an incentive to work hard because after a certain level they were allowed to keep the remaining amount of rice.
  2. Since, growing rice was difficult, the Chinese spent a lot of extra time on the paddies.
  3. Thus the Chinese saw a direct connection between efforts and results.
  4. Hard work = Good results!

An interesting narrative, except its also an incredibly condescending tautology. To Malcolm, Asians learned this [step 4] by working on rice paddies. The rest of you guys are only picking up on this now. He pretends sources like the Bible, thinkers like Ben Franklin and your everyday NFL analyst have never harped on this.

This is why I hate when people say Gladwell is so profound. Either he takes a bunch of loosely-interconnected pieces to try explain something to fit into his nicely non-offensive politically correct worldview. He’s a clever writer so you are lulled by his ingenuity but then you realize none of the research is his own but is cherry-picked from people who understand their work a lot better than he ever would. Or he states something insanely obvious. You nod your head when he crafts a dramatic story about how Bill Gates thrived because he worked really hard (10,o00 hours+) and had a nurturing environment around him. Then you ask yourself  “did this guy work in management consulting?”

Learning should be fun”

For math, hunkering down and practicing is the best way to get things done. Listen, I think rote learning has its limitations and even wrote overemphasizing “cram schools” can actually be a Prisoner’s Dilemma (wasted money, crutch for poor study habits etc.) Nonetheless, I think there’s a fault in over-romanticizing how to educate. The blogger “Ask a Korean” hits this point when he discussed learning English. He criticizes what he calls the “myth of fun, language immersion”. He writes (referring to himself as “the Korean”):

Mind you, the Korean loves America. The Korean practically writes a love song to America every chance he has. But there are certain things about contemporary America drives the Korean crazy, and this is one of them: the idea that the process of learning is somehow supposed to be fun. Just drop it. Forget it. What is fun is the result of learning – the infinite amount of fun when you finally put the finished product to use. And truly, that applies to second language acquisition as well as anything else. Your horizon will expand beyond the limit of your imagination. You will gain perspectives that you couldn’t have even dreamed of. Don’t be a whiny bitch. Your sacrifice will be worthwhile.

I feel arithmetic (a much easier task) and a lot of fundamental mathematics require the same sort of plow ahead attitude. The secret lies not in a “logical, counting system”. Gladwell writes:

They [Asians] can hold more numbers in their head, and do calculations faster, and the way fractions are expressed in their language corresponds exactly to the way a fraction actually is—and maybe that makes them a little more likely to enjoy math, and maybe because they enjoy math a little more they try a little harder and take more math classes and are more willing to do their homework, and on and on, in a kind of virtuous circle.

I actually agree with this, though it has nothing to do with his original thesis. Learning is fun to the kids only when they have the tools and knowledge to attack problems or puzzles. When you realize that the math concepts you learned can apply in rich and abundant ways to life, you acknowledge it can be kind of fun, or at least interesting. Of course, you tell this to a kid right now he’ll tell you “Math sucks!”. This is not a concept a kid is gonna embrace easily. Take his computer and all its games, set it on fire in front of him and tell him to get his butt to work. Don’t worry, this is the start of the virtuous circle. He will thank you later.

Proverbs 22:15

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I said this before and I’ll say this again: You wanna teach a kid how to be good at math, you beat him until he gets it right. I am half-joking of course, but there’s no real sexy formula to do well in math. Brilliant kids will be brilliant, but for the rest of us, hunkering down and practicing is the best way to get things done. Listen, I think rote learning has it limitations and even wrote overemphasizing “cram schools” can actually be a Prisoner’s Dilemma (wasted money, crutch for poor study habits etc.) Nonetheless, I think there’s a fault in over-romanticizing means of education.
  1. ii
    May 3, 2010 at 10:28 am
  2. May 4, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    Excellent post, Kane. My folks took a similarly spartan approach to my learning, emphasizing negative reinforcement and memorization instead of coddling exercises.

    I urge you to reject either extreme. Sometimes, a little positive encouragement and novel learning methods can be the difference between a student working hard and caring about outcomes and rejecting them outright. Also, no matter how much I talk about speaking in French, nothing will help me more than just sitting down with my book and memorizing vocabulary.

    Finally, let’s close with an analogy:

    Simmons:Sports Analysis::
    Gladwell:Social Sciences

    Neil 6:19

  3. tony
    May 5, 2010 at 5:36 am

    you’ll love this article then… (I certainly did)


  4. nunis
    May 16, 2010 at 12:31 am

    I don’t understand your irritation with Gladwell. Malcolm and you have the same opinion throughout the book. Hardwork and discipline= accumulative advantage. You can’t just take something out of context and say he based his whole theory in the way Asian children learned their numbers. But he does make a valid point… if you knew about epistemology you’d know the study of linguistics is directly linked to how people learn. There are really interesting research you can learn from his book. But obviously it is just an opinion of millions.. he obviously did a metanarrative in which he put a lot of evidence to help his thesis.. Atleast you can give it to the man for being in the best sellers.. don’t be so offended

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