How Can I Improve My Math?

Rice Paddies, Violins and Your Math Homework: How to Get Better at Math

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell has a chapter in his book Outliers entitled “Rice Paddies and Math Tests.” The chapter begins by describing how difficult it is to cultivate rice in China; the paddies are constructed carefully in elaborate, mountainside terraces, then they are watered with complex irrigation systems as farmers attempt to grow dozens of different rice varieties. Furthermore, says Gladwell, the average rice farmer cultivates no more than two or three rice paddies at a time, each about the size of a hotel room and each requiring yearlong attention. With such a small amount of fertile land and such a difficult crop, the Chinese rice farmer could only manage to feed his family if he worked very, very hard.

Oftentimes, Asian children outperform Western children in math. Are Asians naturally smarter than Westerners? Some would say they are genetically superior when it comes to math; Gladwell argues that they are not. Instead, he says, generations of rice farmers created a culture in the East very different from the culture in the West. He points out that in many Western nations agriculture was cyclical; farmers put forth a burst of effort around harvest time and planting time and remained comparatively idle the rest of the year. In the East, farmers grew a crop that required never-ending attention. The two cultures developed a remarkably different work ethic as a result. In the West, larger crop yields seemed to come from luck, better equipment, and more land. In the East, bigger yields came from harder work. Gladwell’s theory is that Asian people aren’t inherently better at math than Westerners; they’re just willing to work harder at it.

Is That Racist?

Gladwell’s chapter “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” has been widely criticized as making generalizations that are far too broad, too thin and which lack real scientific evidence. Some of his assertions, these critics say, such as the sentence “Go to any Western college campus and you’ll find that Asian students have a reputation for being in the library long after everyone else has left,” are anecdotal at best and blatantly racist at worst. Most offensive to Westerners is the implication that Westerners are just lazy when it comes to math, which is why they don’t score as well as Asians.

However, before dismissing Gladwell’s “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” chapter, consider a story told in a book similar to Outliers by a fan of Gladwell’s work, Matthew Syed. Syed wrote the book Bounce, in which he examined how champions in all fields are created. Like Gladwell, he argued that it was hard work, rather than innate talent, that made the difference.

In Bounce, Syed tells the story of a study conducted by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music. The researcher wanted to know what made the best musicians the best. Did they have some sort of genetic predisposition to music? Did they start playing at an earlier age? Did they have better teachers? What Ericsson and his colleagues discovered was that the best musicians were stood apart from their peers only by the number of hours they spent practicing. In other words, whether Gladwell’s assumptions about Asians working harder than Westerners are true or not, his conclusion seems to be accurate: It is hard work, rather than luck or inborn talent, that leads to success.

Don’t Be Scared of Math

All of the points above regarding rice paddies, the ethnic makeup of college libraries and the superiority of certain violinists lead to the conclusion that you don’t need to be scared of math any longer.

Math is one of those academic subjects that students tend to either love or hate. For non-traditional students who never completed college the first go-round or who put off going to college until later in life, you’re more likely to hear “I hate math” or “I’m scared of math” than “I love math.”

The reasons college students give for being scared at math are varied and numerous. They include:

  • ”I’ve just never been good at it”
  • ”It’s been such a long time since I’ve had to do this stuff”
  • ”I’ve always hated it”
  • ”Everybody knows women are just not as good at math as men”
  • ”When will I ever really need to use this, anyway?”

The list goes on. Sadly, many men and women give up on college majors that could lead to lucrative careers merely because they fear math. Information technology, computer programming, business, medicine, engineering and architecture are all examples of career paths that require a good deal of math proficiency in order to earn a college degree. Don’t turn away from these degrees merely because you are scared of the math.

How to Get Better at Math

Ask yourself the question, “If Malcolm Gladwell or Matthew Syed were standing in front of me right now, what would he tell me about improving at math?” The answer is simple and obvious. They would tell you to keep working and practicing until your math skills improved. They would remind you that there’s no such thing as inborn, natural talent; talent is something that is acquired with time and hard work.

Once you stop thinking about math as something people are “naturally” good or bad at and start thinking about it as something you can improve at given enough hard work, you’ll be in the right position to start getting better at it. Invest in a tutor, find practice problems online and supplement your classroom work with additional assignments that you give to yourself. Whether it’s true or not that Asian students stay in the library long after all the other college students have left, make sure that you’re among the first students to arrive and the last students to leave. Make sure that you become the type of student who never gives up but meets every challenge with more hard work.