Different cultures – different learning capabilities

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If you made any plans for next week, congratulations! You’ve demonstrated a key feature of being human: being able to think beyond the here and now – or, think abstractly.

But when babies learn different kinds of abstract thought, and how, is still hotly debated by psychologists.

Now new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that cultural environment may play a role.

The paper, titled “Context Shapes Early Diversity in Abstract Thought,” details three experiments involving nearly 400 children in the United States and China, aged 18 to 48 months old.

The children were tested on their “relational reasoning” skills. Specifically, they were tested on their ability to infer the abstract concepts “same” and “different” from pairs of blocks that either matched each other or did not.

The youngest children in the U.S. and China appear to have similar success.

By age 3, however, Chinese children are outperforming their U.S. counterparts, the research shows.

The under-3 set do comparably well at recognizing the relationships between pairs of blocks – whether they’re the same or different – and then figuring out whether these blocks’ sameness or difference is responsible for activating a musical toy.

But then the skills diverge in the two cultures for a while. Also, when given a choice between favoring an object-based solution (concrete thinking) and a relation-based solution (abstract), U.S. 3-year-olds favor the former while Chinese 3-year-olds, on the other hand, go for the latter.

Why? Why does the development curve for American kids looks like a “U,” with relational reasoning skills dipping around age 3 until they pick up later—while Chinese children show no such dip in the middle, and their development seems to follow a linear trajectory?

The root reasons could be linguistic, the paper’s authors suggest, or they could be cultural, environmental or some combination of these.

In any case, what seems to be at work is a “learned bias,” with children in the U.S. learning, for a while, to focus on objects to the detriment of relations.

The paper’s first author is Alexandra Carstensen, now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University and a visiting scholar at the University of California San Diego.

The paper’s senior author is Caren Walker, assistant professor of psychology at UC San Diego and director of the university’s Early Learning and Cognition Lab.

Carstensen and Walker started working on the idea when both were graduate students at UC Berkeley.

Walker had shown earlier that children begin to reason abstractly much younger than had been previously believed (as well as that, in the U.S., they lose the ability for a while).

That work inspired Carstensen to wonder about the possible role of language.

Both Carstensen and Walker are doing follow-up work to extend the research.

Carstensen and Walker are trying to figure out, with graduate and undergraduate students in Hungary, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Pakistan, what cultural features might be most relevant to relational reasoning and the learned bias against it.

Walker and her lab, meanwhile, are also doing a series of projects to examine ways to get preschoolers in the U.S. to think more abstractly.

“It doesn’t have to be something as grand as language or cultural context that makes a profound difference,” Walker said.

“It could be as small as changing a few features of the learning environment—or just changing a handful of simple learning cues.”


A person’s culture and upbringing has a profound effect on how they see the world and how they process information.

This fact was discussed by Richard Nisbett in his work, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently — and why Nisbett worked with psychologists in Japan and China and determined that the holistic way of viewing the world typical of many students from those countries differed from that of their American counterparts, who tended to view the world in parts or distinct classes of objects that could each be defined by a set of rules.

In other words, the Asian children see the world in terms of the relationship between things, whereas the American children see the world in terms of the objects as distinct entities.

This information is helpful when we consider how cultural background might influence approach to both learning and school performance.

There are a number of theories that seek to explain differences in school performance among different racial and ethnic groups.

Three theories particularly stand out:

  • the cultural deficit theory,
  • the expectation theory,
  • the cultural difference theory.

The cultural deficit theory states that some students do poorly in school because the linguistic, social, and cultural nature of the home environment does not prepare them for the work they will be required to do in school.

As an example, some students may not have as many books read to them as children in other homes.

Not being able to read has a negative influence on their vocabulary development.

Vocabulary development may also be stifled by the amount and nature of verbal interaction in the home.

As a result, some children arrive at school lacking the level of vocabulary development expected.

The cultural deficit theory proposes that deficiencies in the home environment result in shortcomings in skills, knowledge, and behaviors that contribute to poor school performance.

The expectation theory focuses on how teachers treat students.

Teachers often expect less from students of certain racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

When teachers expect students to perform poorly, they approach teaching in ways that align with their low levels of expectations.

In these instances, students tend to perform at the low levels expected of them by teachers.

Rosenthal and Jacobson tested this theory in their Pygmalion effect study.

A group of teachers were told that their students were due for an intellectual growth spurt during the school year.

Even though the students were average in terms of academic performance, the teachers interacted with them based on this expectation.

All students in the experimental group improved both academically and socially by the end of the year.

Based on the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy, students who experience high expectations seek to reach the level of expected behaviors.

Correspondingly, students who experience low expectations act to meet the level of behavior expected of them.

The cultural difference theory is based on the idea that students who are raised in different cultural settings may approach education and learning in different ways.

It is important for teachers to be aware of the differences between the school atmosphere and the home environment.

People from different cultural traditions may have an approach to education that differs from the mainstream approach used in American schools.

For instance, differences can be noted in the Polynesian concept of learning, whereby younger children are generally taught by older children rather than by adults.

This is a very different approach to learning and one that may need to be considered in an American school that is attended by Polynesian students.

Teachers need to ensure that they incorporate methods of teaching in their classrooms that accommodate various beliefs and cultural notions students bring to school.

This requires each teacher to develop an understanding of their student’s culture, but also to know who their students are as individuals.

It is important for teachers to ensure that they treat all students the same and to have high expectations for each one, so that they may all strive to reach their full potential.


More information: Alexandra Carstensen el al., “Context shapes early diversity in abstract thought,” PNAS (2019). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1818365116

Journal information: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Provided by University of California – San Diego

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