Adonis Diaries

A few cultures find math easy: many cultures have difficulties

Posted on: January 22, 2012

A few cultures find math easy: many cultures have difficulties

Do you think math abilities is genetic? Not quite, apparently.  Do you think that math is just a matter of manipulating numbers? Not quite, apparently.  There are at least four main factors that promote math thinking and abilities:

First factor: There are indications that math aptitude is generated from customs of persistent habit in resolving problems. It appears that doing well in Math is related to engaged attitudes for working hard:  The more persistent and resolved to solve a problem, the longer your attitude to be engaged in what you do, the better you are in math.

For example, people in culture working in rice fields that require constant and hard effort all year round do better in math than other people who just saw, forget the field for a season, and just reap in the proper season.  A rice paddy, the size of a room, is built from the ground up, irrigated frequently at the proper level, and constantly maintained and worked 360 days a years, rain or shine…A rice paddy is literally “blood” and sweat and waking up everyday at 5 am to tend to the paddies: The rice peasant and his family have to tend to the adequate amount of water, varieties of proper rice shoots, cleaning each plant from parasites…If you need good quality and two harvest, you have got to sacrifice blood, sweat, persistence, endurance…The survival in rice planting culture is very delicate, and working hard with resolve is a way of life.

Second factor: Cultures with vocal numbers that are reduced to single syllables do better than culture complicating the utterance of simple numbers with long string of syllables.  Why? Kids of 5 year-old, instead of focusing on manipulating numbers, spend many precious years just memorizing how to say and comprehend verbal numbers. Our short-term memory of a couple of seconds can handle ten syllables, and if the numbers are of single syllable, kids are better at memorizing and recalling strings of 10 numbers in any order they are presented: Digits are fun and no longer a complicated manipulation of transformations from the verbal to the numeric dimensions…

Third factors:  Cultures with logical correspondence between the vocalized numbers and the digits do better than other cultures in math. For example, what eleven (11) has to do with one and ten? Or the French number 93 (quatre vingt threize) has to do with nine tens and three?  Instead of first transforming a complicated vocalized number before figuring out its corresponding digital number, the Cantonese Chinese culture has arranged to say the numbers the way they are written logically.

For example, how would you keep in your short-term memory two numbers such as two hundred and forty-five (245) and seven hundred and twenty-one (721)?  Suppose these two numbers are vocalized as (two hundred four ten and five),  and ( seven hundred two ten and one), which would constitute 10 syllables since each number is of a single syllable, the kids in which culture would have a qualitative edge in manipulating numbers and math?

Adding and subtracting the two numbers are straightforward in Cantonese: The digits are plainly arranged for computation, and you don’t need several mental transformations before you get to the task of adding…

Kids of 3 year-old in a particular culture have more facility with math than kids of over 5 year-old in other cultures, simply because they don’t need to undergo several mental manipulations and having to retrieve from the various working memory data and information stored in verbal forms and complicated shapes…

Culture relying mainly on trading variety of goods end up devising a coded language for transactions, mainly by truncating the verbal numbers and shortening the sentences in transactions:  I guess, lengthy verbal numbers originally adopted in the language are truncated when transacting goods…

Four, kids who are trained to solve all the math problems and exercises after each math chapters, from the easiest to the hardest, in neat and legible handwriting, do better than kids who have no patience of solving but what they consider to be harder than the other problems, and don’t care to sit down and put down on paper how they solved the problem…

This practice of solving all the math problems and exercises has this huge benefit of spending 10,000 hours in math practice-sessions, a requirement to getting top among math professionals…

Curiously, kids and students who excel in math have acquired the habit of focusing entirely on the lesson in class.

Maybe the second and third factors don’t translate well into the abstract domain of mathematics in the long-term, simply because the kids get used to relying very much on their short-term memory and fail to train adequately their working memory for other kinds of intelligence and abilities.  But the first and fourth factors are essential for doing great in math.

Note: This post was inspired from a chapter in “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

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January 2012

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