(Flower Miao woman teaching tapestry weaving in Nawel Village, Zhuchang, Longlin, China)
Some people are natural teachers and when they have their own children, explaining why the sky is blue or what multiplication means comes easily, I unfortunately am not one of those people. When I spend time with my children we do things together, like cooking, playing or doing some craft or I’ll generally be around while they play however, unlike my partner I’m not that good at sitting down and teaching maths or how to play music for example.
I used to go to university with Jamie Tehrani and he’s now a professor at Durham University. He wrote a fascinating paper with archaeologist Felix Riede on how traditional skills are taught and passed on, also known as cultural transmission. According to Tehrani much of early human history of learning has assumed that humans learnt by observing and copying rather than any formal teaching. But it looks like this might have been wrong. Continue reading
Gendered toys and toy shop displays regularly make appearances in articles and social media chat and whilst some parents resist princess parties and buying guns for boys it is pretty much accepted that on the whole boys prefer playing with boys and girls prefer playing with girls. This has been backed up by quite a bit of child psychology, some neuroscience and even primatology. Frustratingly this has not been discussed in a wider cross cultural context very much at all. The BBC rebroadcast the Horizon documentary Is Your Brain Male or Female last week and the programme didn’t think to include different cultures when discussing nature/ nurture. How can we discuss ‘nurture’ as a generic thing when the way we bring up our children varies so much across the world?
I think one of the reasons for this is that in most societies men and women are still very unequal, so it starts to look like a universal that boys and girls tend to play differently. When you compare farmers in Mexico, with Japanese village life for example, their children playing doesn’t look that different. This is why hunter-gatherers (or foragers) have so often featured in anthropological research, because they are some of the most equal societies on earth and they often prove the exception to the rule. Continue reading
According to mainstream linguistics and experimental psychology humans are born with an innate understanding of numbers. Show a nine month old baby two or three objects and it will know there is a difference between the two sets of things.
However, it is also widely understood that some cultures are better with numbers than others. The Chinese for example are often cited as having extremely high levels of maths attainment and their children are some of the best in the world when it comes to maths. The Piraha in the Brazilian Amazon however, go against most accepted knowledge about human culture and lack even the words for one and two. Instead they have hói meaning ‘a small size or amount’ which can mean anything from 1 -3, hoí ‘a somewhat larger amount’ which can be anything from 2 – 7 and than the term baagoi which is for larger also unspecified quantities. Although children can be taught to count to ten in Portuguese their parents have completely lost the capacity to learn to count to ten by the time they reach adulthood in large part because their language just doesn’t allow for that comprehension.
Whilst we’re all born with the same capacity to learn and use numbers, it is clear that our culture and our language shapes how well we do this as we grow up. So, if we want out children to be great at maths can we learn from the Chinese? In Chinese the words for eleven and twelve are ten-one and ten-two (and so on), as a consequence it has been claimed by many researchers that this linguistic advantage explains their prodigious numeracy. However, it’s not just their language. The Chinese love numbers and numerology plays a significant role in religious beliefs and rituals. Parents also greatly value their children’s maths achievements. So, if we want our children to be great at maths perhaps the one thing we can do is to learn to love maths ourselves.
These are the main articles I used for this post. The New Yorker article is a fun read as is Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, which is a great non academic anthropology book about the truly fascinating Piraha.
Linguistic and Cultural Variables in the Psychology of Numeracy