Cultural Learners

In most of my entries, I tend to have a basis for making assertions. I often have an article to go upon, or some examples or observations of my own. This time, however, I honestly say that I have found nothing that is related to my point, and today’s entry is really more questions than arguments. Sincere questions that I don’t know the answer to. So maybe my readers can help!

Since tomorrow is the first day of the Lunar New Year (which means most Chinese families will now be enjoying their reunion dinners, which I have already partaken of and returned in one piece), I was thinking along the Chinese theme, and this made me wonder if perhaps our brains function differently according to culture. Like biology has settled with a middle point in the nature/nurture debate, that both biology and culture play a part in shaping a person’s capabilities. In that case, do cognitive functions also fall along this spectrum? Does culture affect the way we process information?

I guess in some way they do, in that people perceive the same things differently if they’re influenced by different cultures. For instance, some Asians and some Americans were shown two cartoon pictures. Both pictures had the same guy in the foreground, who was smiling. However, in one picture, there were people behind him who were smiling. In the other picture, there were the same people behind him, but they were frowning. The participants were asked to describe what the man was feeling. Most of the Asians said the man was happy in the first picture but perhaps snide or victorious in the second picture. On the other hand, most of the Americans just said the man was happy in both pictures. This is supposed to prove that Asians think in a more context-dependent manner whereas Americans are a lot more direct. That much I can accept, but the question I want to ask is whether cultural factors affect learning as well.

Is it really the case that Asians are better at maths and science whereas Americans are naturally better at speaking up in class? I haven’t really found any research supporting the notion that Hispanic brains are different from African brains, for example, so perhaps the response is no. People are different only because of social norms and expectations. For example, the link between gender and mathematical ability has been found to be closely related to personal and social expectations. Women do worse than men in maths mainly because society has decreed that they do. If you believe that you’re naturally poorer in maths, and even teachers indirectly think that boys are better than girls at maths, then you instinctively decide not to work as hard because it’s “useless”. You can never be good enough. Studies have shown that girls perform just as well or even better than guys at maths once they think that they’re not being compared with any male subjects, or when “maths” is replaced by the term “problem-solving”.

So perhaps culture works in the same way. Perhaps Asians do better at maths and science because they think that they can’t beat the Caucasians in English Language (which isn’t true, by the way, because I have met a number of Caucasians who are just as bad at their spelling and grammar, or maybe even worse) and so they put more effort into maths and science. Or Caucasians simply think they cannot beat the Asians in maths and science. Or maybe the educational system is simply different.


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