Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Memory and Maths - Gladwell's Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers is out this month and I was struck by this extract from the Guardian/Observer:

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 difference means that 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 much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among Western children starts in the third and fourth grades, and Fuson 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 feel nearly that same bafflement. They can hold more numbers in their heads and do calculations faster, and the way fractions are expressed in their languages 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 on and on, in a kind of virtuous circle.

Gladwell goes on to make the point that this is just one example of how a small, yet deeply rooted cultural difference - the time it takes to count in your mother tongue - can over time and much repetition lead to a significant difference in ability. He also expresses the view that highly successful individuals such as Bill Gates, Bill Joy, Mozart, the Beatles are just as much a product of their environment and effort (10,000 hours to reach genius level) as they are of any pure innate ability. The clear message is the earlier you focus, and practice, taking advantage of the environment (and support network) around you, the more likely you will master your chosen vocation.

Pondering further on the maths example resonates with another area of research I am investigating - microdevelopment. I'll come back to that in a later post.

I'll leave you with another anecdote from Gladwell:

There is the fact that children from disadvantaged homes perform less well at school than children from middle-class homes, but only when you measure their progress over the entire year. If you make the same measurements without the long summer holidays, when children from wealthier homes can exploit their greater educational opportunities, the difference is marginal. Rather than fretting about resources and catchments, why not try truncating summer holidays?

Why not indeed.


Donald Clark said...

I can't help thinking that this is at odds with Blink and The Tipping Point. Any thoughts?

Lars Hyland said...

Well, I agree. But then Gladwell seems to pick up on themes rather than build a consistent argument.

I think small micro phenomena, repeated over time can build to macro effects. This is fractal/chaos theory in action and perhaps the maths/memory example reflects this.

Incidentally, did you see that research that appeared to indicate a decision appears to be made even before we are conscious of it? That sort of supports the Blink arguments.

Anonymous said...

I would prefer Nassim taleb aproach of a true OUTLIER, because Gladwell is falling on the Narrative fallacy land, is very easy fit past stories in patters that maybe him can read as a model to see the future,i thing is plain wrong. For me a true outlier would be somebody master a subjet in less than 10000 hours, or somebody that can not master in 100 k hours. But again we are talking on social science that means unk unk, and you can modelate anything to resemble the past.