Why math is social

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by bledsoe on July 11, 2016

Wilt Chamberlain just taught me how to be a better teacher.

Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History podcast recently featured an episode called The Big Man Can't Shoot. It's about why good ideas are often not adopted, even when it's clear to everyone that they're good ideas. The episode focused on Hall of Fame basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, and the fact that he was historically a horrible free throw shooter.

Chamberlain had a 51% career free throw shooting percentage. That's the third lowest in NBA history. But Gladwell focused on a relatively brief period of Chamberlain's career during which he experimented with shooting his free throws underhanded, using the so-called granny shot. In Chamberlain's famous 100-point game in 1962, he shot all his free throws underhanded, and hit a record setting 28 out of 32 for an 87.5% free throw percentage. That's a pretty impressive improvement.

The question Gladwell explores in the podcast is, "If Chamberlain shot his free throws so much better underhanded, why didn't he stick with it?" It's a question that another NBA hall-of-famer, Rick Barry, asked himself as well, and Gladwell spends some time in the podcast talking with Barry.

Barry is one of the top ten free throw shooters of all time. He always shot his free throws underhanded, and made a pretty convincing case for why it was just a better way to shoot free throws. Yet in spite of his well-documented success with the technique, he couldn't convince anyone else to try it. Chamberlain said he "felt silly, like a sissy," shooting underhanded. Shaquille O'Neal, another famously poor free throw shooter who Barry tried to convince to shoot underhanded went even further: he said he'd rather shoot 0% than shoot underhanded.

I was as dumbfounded as Rick Barry when I heard this. Why would someone intentionally avoid doing something that he knew would improve his performance? Chamberlain and O'Neal were professional basketball players; didn't they want to be better free throw shooters?

And eventually I realized the error in my thinking. Sure, Chamberlain and O'Neal wanted to be better free throw shooters, but there was something else they wanted even more: to not be embarrassed in front of all the people watching them. If the price of becoming a better free throw shooter was that they might look silly, that was too high a price for them to pay.

Gladwell commented on what he considered "the one big implication" in this situation:

What people believe isn't going to help you much if you want to understand why they try or don't try difficult or problematic or strange things. You have to understand the social context in which they're operating.

It occurred to me that "difficult or problematic or strange things" is how many students would probably describe the problems they are asked to solve in their math classes. Like many math teachers, I've experienced a good bit of frustration over the fact that so many of my students seem to be unwilling to even try newly learned approaches to math problems, even when they've been presented with an abundance of evidence as to their value.

After hearing Gladwell's podcast, I realized why this was, and also why I had never realized it before. My students were, generally speaking, Wilt Chamberlain, and I was Rick Barry. When I was a math student, I wanted to fully understand all the new topics we learned, and I wanted to get good at solving the problems we were given. I'd ask questions and I'd try new approaches, and I didn't really care if someone thought I had asked a silly question, or laughed at me because I had worked a problem incorrectly. Those social aspects of math class were not important to me at all.

But they were important to my classmates, just like they're important to most students. Because most students aren't like me, just like most basketball players aren't like Rick Barry. They're like Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal. Which is to say, they are perfectly capable of becoming good problem-solvers, but in order to do so they might have to go against the social tide. For many students, being a "good student" or being "good at math" are not appealing things because they're not cool. They don't move you up the social ladder. They might even move you down the social ladder.

As Gladwell makes clear, this is a very subtle but very powerful obstacle. And it's an obstacle that's not related to the academic challenges of math, it's related to the social challenges of math.

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