Summary: Chapter Eight: Rice Paddies and Math Tests
Southern China has become heavily industrialized in the last few generations, but in the countryside, there are still many rice paddies, as there were thousands of years ago. Constructing, fertilizing, and tending a rice paddy is a complicated and difficult task. Rice is part of nearly every meal in China. It is also a major commodity in the trade economy.
In The Number Sense, Stanislas Dehaene discusses how the naming conventions for numbers affect one’s ability to remember strings of digits. Cantonese has short names for numbers, and thus native speakers can usually remember ten-digit strings, native speakers of English, with its more irregular naming conventions, have only a fifty percent chance of remembering a seven-digit string. Many Eastern countries have more transparent naming conventions for numbers and fractions than Western countries, which means less need for rote learning in mathematics. Where Western students start to struggle, typically in third or fourth grade, students in China, Japan, and South Korea have fewer issues. This is one reason for math performance disparities between Asian students and their Western counterparts.
Another reason, Gladwell suggests, is the historical role of rice farming in Asian culture.
On Western farms, crop yield is usually increased by introducing better machinery. Because rice paddies are small compared to Western farms, machinery is neither available nor affordable. Rice farmers have always had to work hard—harder than any other type of farmer. They can only achieve yield gains by working more efficiently. One aspect of Asian culture, the product of centuries of rice farming, is an appreciation for the relationship between hard work and success.
Gladwell contrasts a fatalistic Russian proverb, about harvest size being up to God, with several Chinese proverbs about rice farming, all of which underscore that one’s success is completely reliant on one’s effort. For Bill Joy, Joe Flom, and the Beatles, hard work was one of the factors that enabled them to take advantage of their opportunities. The lessons of hard work from rice paddies have helped Asians to succeed in many fields, especially mathematics.
Alan Schoenfeld, a UC Berkeley math professor, videotapes his students as they work through problems. One of his favorite tapes is of a nursing student learning algebra. Playing with a computer program that plots lines, she spends twenty-two minutes trying to input a slope that will produce a vertical line. Eventually, she realizes that the slope would involve division by zero and be an undefined number.
Schoenfeld is impressed by how long Renee sticks with the problem; the average eighth grader would try a few times and then give up, asking for the answer. Many people believe that mathematics skill is innate, but Schoenfeld believes that it is more about attitude. Mastering mathematics comes from a willingness to spend time and try. In a country where giving up is less likely for cultural reasons, students are more likely to be good at math.
Every four years, the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests students around the world and ranks different nations by proficiency in math and science. An accompanying questionnaire collects data about test takers: their parents’ educational level, their views about math, and so on. Many students do not finish the questionnaire, because it is long and tedious. Erling Boe, an educational researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered that ranking countries by how many questionnaire questions their students answered produces the exact same ranking as the actual TIMSS test. The countries at the top of both lists are Singapore, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, and Japan. In a footnote, Gladwell explains that studies have been done for the different regions of China, and those that did not descend from wet-rice farmers are not as successful.
Analysis: Chapter Eight: Rice Paddies and Math Tests
Cultural legacy seemingly even impacts the way people learn. As Gladwell notes that people often assume an individual’s skill with math is a function of intelligence, he reveals that success with numbers may be tied to culture and language. Following a request to memorize a list of numbers and a statement that 50% of people remember the list correctly, Gladwell makes his linguistic point. He explains that Chinese speakers have an easier time remembering a string of numbers because Chinese number words are shorter. He also explains that the naming conventions for larger numbers and fractions make more sense. Gladwell sets up the next section with a question of whether a rice paddy could have an impact on education. He shares a comparison of a rice paddy and typical Western fields. The agricultural difference impacts culture and learning as well. Since rice paddies are so small, the only way to increase yield is through more efficient use of space and more diligent work. As a result, he argues, in Asian culture, the connection between hard work and success is tied to their land and their legacy. The language and the work of learning, and of learning successfully, relate closely to culture.
Hard work features significantly in individual success, and the value an individual places on hard work is often driven by culture. Gladwell tells a story of a math professor and a student trying to solve a problem. Though the student struggles, she doesn’t give up for 22 minutes. When she finally gets it, she knows she will remember the concept. Her hard work led to success. This story helps Gladwell make the point that success is the result of working through a struggle and not giving up when many others would. He asserts that persistence is a cultural trait. Gladwell emphasizes the cultural belief in hard work, comparing the work of a rice farmer to the garment work of a Jewish immigrant, noting that both are meaningful. He states that both are complex, autonomous and show a relationship between effort and reward. Among the many other factors the author has showcased, success results from working hard at something an individual finds meaningful. Gladwell's noted correlation between success on the TIMMSS test and cultural background further reinforces his idea of culture as one of the drivers of hard work and success. Individuals’ success comes from dedication to work that has meaning, and this dedication is, in part, inspired by individuals’ community and culture.