Friday, March 21, 2008

New data on learning style differences: gender and ethnicity

In support of such right-brained Constructivist practices as hands-on, group-centered learning, American education experts are quick to enlist multiculturalism. Claiming that traditional instruction favors white, Western males, they happily hold forth on how much more relational, holistic, multi-modal, and/or social girls and nonwhites are.


Much of this, of course, is sexist, racist bunk.  But look closely, and you'll find some actual respected research that suggests where some of this bunk is coming from.

Recent studies by Simon Baron Cohen, for example, suggest that girls tend to be more right-brained (empathetic, social, holistic) and boys more left-brained (systematic, unsocial, analytical).  Baron-Cohen stresses that these are not absolutes, but tendencies--a caveat too subtle for many of our education experts.

As for race/ethnicity: since the turn of the millennium, several studies are reputable enough to have made it into the science section of the NYTimes.  

One article, back in 2000, reports on two studies comparing U.S. students with counterparts in Japan and Korea.  Asked about an animated underwater sequence in which a large fish swims among smaller ones, the Japanese students focused more on the general scene; the Americans more on the big fish.  Asked about someone who was forced to write an essay endorsing a particular position, the Korean students were more likely than the Americans to recognize how external pressure may have influenced the writer's conclusions.

A second article in this week's NYTimes reports on a study comparing how Japanese and Western students judged the emotions of a smiling child flanked by four others who smiled in one picture and frowned in the other.  Only the Japanese students gave the central child different happiness ratings depending on his companions, assessing him as less happy when they were frowning.

All three studies suggest that East Asians may be more sensitive to certain contexts than Americans and Westerners are.  

But:

1. The studies only compared Americans and other Westerners to a tiny subset of non-Westerners: Japanese and Koreans.  (And, as if these studies were typical, they only examined a particular subpopulation of each culture known as "psychology majors").

2. Their conclusions are limited to the relative weights that such subjects assign to certain types of background information.

3. Whatever these conclusions might suggest about holistic thinking, Japan and Korea use a much more rigorously analytical math and science curriculum than we do, and their students consistently outperform ours in these especially left-brained of subjects.

In short, to conclude from these three studies that members of all non-white, non-Western cultures are unequivocally more right-brained than white Westerners are would be a huge leap of Constructivist faith.

2 comments:

sthubbins said...

And what is "holistic" about calculating how a stranger feels from the expressions of other people in the room? Isn't it simply logical that he would be happier around people who look happier, whether or not he's smiling? This tests presumes a strong link between outward expressions and inner feelings, and this link could easily be weaker in some cultures than in others, without any variation in reasoning patterns.

lefty said...

Or maybe he feels pressure to smile when others are smiling, whether or not he's actually happy. That would mean that the smile in the second picture is more likely to reflect genuine happiness. But neither Japanese nor American students showed tendencies towards this judgment.