Rice Paddies and Math Tests

I recently wrote about Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers.

One of the chapters of the book is titled Rice Paddies and Math Tests which Malcolm uses to illustrate his point about heritage and it's impact on your abilities which you can leverage in order to succeed in life.

There are two aspects to this chapter that I found fascinating:
  1. That you can tell a lot about a culture's values by their proverbs; and
  2. The theory as to why people of Asian backgrounds do so well in maths tests.
I'll start with the maths theory first.

He takes the TIMSS data which shows kids from Asian countries scoring significantly higher than their Western counterparts in maths. As Malcolm went on to explain in his blog:
"A more modest gap between Asian and the rest of the world could, I think, be safely explained with conventional arguments about differences in pedagogy, or school funding or some such. But 40 percent versus 5 percent? Differences of this magnitude require more fundamental explanations, which is why I felt it necessary to make such a strong cultural/historical claim in my book."
Malcolm presents the theory that the key reason is that Asian languages have a logical counting system and as a result, students find it easier to approach and learn than Western counterparts.

The research presented was quite logical and rational including:So if you accept that theory, the second becomes a KO: the cultural legacy of the rice paddy is one of hard work.

Through supporting evidence (Graham Robb: The Discovery of France), Malcolm proposes that rice paddy farmers work some 3,000 hours per year - some 10 to 20 times harder than wheat or corn farmers.

To illustrate that, Malcolm leverages historian David Arkush's comparisons of Russian and Chinese peasant proverbs:
"If God does not bring it, the earth will not give it" is a typical Russian proverb.


"No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich."
As Malcolm goes on to say: "Working really hard is what successful people do", and, "it's not so much ability as attitude".

I have to say, this is a point I TOTALLY subscribe to. At work, I've often discussed with managers that we can teach people skills but you can't teach people attitude.

Image by Diana Myrndorff

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posted by Lee Gale @ 1:42 AM,


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