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Math and Persistence

July 5, 2010

From Zook Tutoring:

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!

Here’s another blog entry from Rebecca Zook about persistence with math.

Malcom Gladwell on Math and Persistence (1)

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

I’ve really been enjoying Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book, Outliers. There’s so much good stuff in this book about the relationship between learning math and: language, cultural attitudes, and agriculture (?!!) that I can’t even describe it all here–you should really just read the whole thing!

One juicy niblet in particular from the book really struck me:

A few years ago, Alan Schoenfeld, a math professor at Berkeley, made a videotape of a woman named Renee as she was trying to solve a math problem. [… ] Twenty-two minutes pass from the moment Renee begins playing with the computer program to the moment she says, “Ahhhh. That means something now.” That’s a long time. [The researcher Schoenfeld remarked,] “If I put the average eighth grader in the same position as Renee, I’m guessing that after the first few attempts, they would have said, ‘I don’t get it. I need you to explain it.’” Schoenfeld once asked a group of high school students how long they would work on a homework question before they concluded that it was too hard for them to solve. Their answers ranged from thirty seconds to five minutes, with the average answer two minutes.

But Renee took twenty-two minutes! Gladwell goes on to explain:

We sometimes think of being good at mathematics as an innate ability. You either have “it” or you don’t. But to Schoenfeld, it’s not so much ability as attitude. You master mathematics if you’re willing to try. That’s what Schoenfeld attempts to teach his students. Success is a function of persitence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.

Gladwell doesn’t try to explain what made Renee so exceptional. But it definitely made me wonder what I can do to help my students cultivate these qualities in themselves.

Never admit defeat! 🙂

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