Gladwell, who wrote the best-selling books The Tipping Point and Blink, told math teachers gathered at the Salt Palace Convention Center for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference that the Western world's attitude toward learning and achievement has much to do with America's struggle to keep up internationally in math.
"Succeeding at math is as much the result of cultural traits as it is cognitive traits," Gladwell said. "I think most people out there think math is a kind of thing you have or don't have. Success in math is actually deeply rooted in values and ideas we have as a culture."
He said Western culture values people who are conceptual learners and innovators, like Picasso. Picasso was an artistic innovator early in his life. They are people who achieve success quickly and in a big way.
But that's not the only way to innovate or learn, Gladwell said. Cezanne was also an artistic genius, but his greatest achievements came bit by bit and over time. He was an experimental innovator, Gladwell said.
Society often forgets that genius and achievement can take persistence and hard work over years, Gladwell said. Math isn't always something a student gets or doesn't get. It's an ability that can be learned over time, he said.
"The child who quits the math problem in one minute will never properly learn math," Gladwell said. "We need classrooms full of Cezannes, not just Picassos."
He said students in some of the countries that beat U.S. students in math are taught to work at math problems until they get them. That's a counter to U.S. society, where people expect to understand something quickly and then move on.
Math teachers from Utah and across the country, who packed a hall at the convention center to hear Gladwell speak, said his ideas resonated. Several said they would like to spend more time teaching math, but that can be difficult to do when the state and federal governments dictate they teach a certain number of concepts each year and then test students on them.
"We need to slow down but our profession is always told to keep going and mesh everything together," said Tricia Holden, a math specialist at Escalante Elementary School in Salt Lake City. "I don't know how we're going to have that revolution. It's just not American. It's not the way our country is moving."