Notebook, 1993-

Return to - Notes for a Perspective on Art Education

Notes from: "Cognitive Consequences of Cultural Opportunity", by Nerlove and Snipper, pp 440-46. In Handbook of Cross-Cultural Human Development, edited by Ruth H. Munroe, Robert L. Munroe, Beatrice B. Whiting, Garland STPM Press, New York & London, 1981.

Cognitive Consequences of
Cultural Opportunity

The circumstances of daily life are important sources of cultural variation which have implications for cognitive development. What tasks do the children do and with whom do they spend their time? Cultural norms may determine not only what responsibility consists of but also the age when children can be assigned a more mature social, sexual, or cultural role. The results of a cross-cultural survey on 50 societies in the Human Relations Area Files (Rogoff, Sellers, Pirrotta, & White, 1975), however, suggest that modal cultural assignment of social responsibility falls in the 5-7-year-old range. Our attention, then, might best be focused on the interplay between universal constraints on the age of assignment and the cultural particulars of what responsibilities are assigned. Nonetheless, there are noticeable numbers of cultures whose shifts to the assumption of various new responsibilities do not fall in the modal period. In explaining these outlying cultures and the broad age ranges in some variables, Rogoff et al. suggest that there may be systematic differences between the cultures which accelerate or decelerate the integration of the child into society . . . . We suggest a different analysis . . . . focusing on the variability of the cognitive demands of the task or responsibility as realized in a particular culture. A few studies have called attention to cognitive differences associated with characteristics of daily life . . . . Among the Logoli of Western Kenya, children who went a greater distance from home in their free time had greater ability to perform spatial tasks . . . . what is important is not simply experience in space but the nature of the activity which in turn shapes the nature of environmental experience. In a study of Guatemalan children, Nerlove, Roberts, Klein, Yarbrough, and Habicht (1974) suggested that the relationship between distance and spatial tasks for the kenyan children [Herding cattle, unlike trudging to the river to get water, both permits and inextricably involves environmental exploration: "Not only may the child spend long hours in different places but also his [or her] route is only as unvarying as his cattle's meandering. Furthermore, upon reaching an open place where his cattle may settle down to placed grazing, he has ample opportunity for exploration and games." (Nerlove, Munroe, & Munroe, 1971, p. 5) might be better described as one between self-managed activities (either voluntary or directed) and analytic ability, where self-managed activities entailed following an exacting series of steps. Notable among the activities contributing to the measure of self-managed sequences among the Guatemalan children were clotheswashing, work in the maize fields, role play, and rule games (mainly jacks and marbles) . . . . A clearer link between daily activities and cognitive growth is provided by Price-Williams, Gordon, and Ramirez (1969), whose work was followed up by Adjei (1977). This link was also studied by Greenfield and Childs (in press). Price-Williams et al. (1969) showed that pottery-making children learn by doing; they attained conservation earlier in substance (clay is the medium used in the test). Familiarity not only with the material but with the manipulation of the material is suggested as a necessary prerequisite in the attainment of conservation . . . . Another task with important associations with cognitive development is caretaking. Snipper (1978) observed child caretaker-infant interactions and found that caretakers' quality of thought was associated with the quality of their social behavior. Girls who scored high on four tests of conservation ability were also more likely to exhibit attentiveness toward their infant charges and were less likely to engage in active exchange with the infants. These results were explained by the increasing ability of children at the level of concrete operations to attend simultaneously to relevant dimensions of a problem and children's increasing ability, as they move toward formal operations, to think problems through without actively manipulating concrete objects . . . .

Snipper's (1978) study considers the implications of caretaking for caretakers . . . . Gallimore et al. (1978) study refers to experience in sib caretaking system not specifying the role . . . . Williams (1969) study of the Dusun considers the implications of caretaking from the point of view of the charge. Although Williams provides no cognitive measure, the presentation of the multiple-branched pathways through life with respect to being given care, or taking care of , gives us insights into important differences. An individual's fate is largely shaped by demographic accident with regard to experiencing these alternative cultural opportunities. Their cognitive consequences should be explored. Who cares for the child --a 3-6-year -old, a 7-10-year-old, a grandparent, or a mother --and what is that care like? The nature of the care is related to the world of the caretaker, which in turn may reflect native theories of competence during different life stages . . . .

Stevens (1976) discussed the importance for children's development of competence of their being engaged in natural graded series of tasks within the context of work which is largely observable and comprehensive. What, then, is the distribution of a child's time across people and behavior setting? When and under what circumstances is he/she in mixed groups of all ages or is he/she in age- (and sex-) graded groups and what effect does this have on his/her growth and development? In the course of considering the nature of the interpenetration of settings and subgroups of people, one ultimately comes to the question of whether or not, in a given society, children are encouraged or indeed provided with any opportunity to be alone. Altman (1976; 1977) has portrayed privacy as crucial to the functioning of most cultures yet as sufficiently flexible to reflect major cultural differences . . . . Freedom from interruptions and the solitude which provides the opportunity for a person to assimilate experiences and information and to examine possible future relationships with others may be required for such discoveries: ['When he was four or five years old . . . . a small child . . . . was seated on the ground in his garden and he was counting pebbles. Now to count these pebbles he put them in a row and he counted them one, two, three up to ten. Then he finished counting them and started to count them in the other direction. He began by the end and once again he found ten. He found this marvelous that there were ten in one direction and ten in the other direction. So he put them in a circle and counted them that way and found ten once again. Then he counted them in the other direction and found ten once more. So he put them in some other arrangement and keep counting them and kept finding ten. There was the discovery he made." (Piaget, 1964, p. 12]

Istomina's (1975) study . . . . lends support to the idea that behaviors of daily life are important not only with regard to the manifestation of cognitive skills but also to their formation. She found considerable differences in the complexity of the children's memory processes depending on the type of experiment --make-believe, in which the task presented to the child flowed intrinsically from the content of the activity, or laboratory, in which the task was imposed externally by adults. It was easier for a child consciously and explicitly to set the goal of remembering or recalling and for the child's memory processes to become purposeful processes in the play experiment as compared to the laboratory experiment. The transformation of the memory processes into purposeful specific strategies thus depends very intimately on the motivation for the child's activity as a whole. In the situation in which there is motivation for the activity as a whole, it appears that the production deficiency gap --between what children "can do" and what they "will do" --that A. Brown (1977) discusses in her work on strategies for remembering and their purposeful use is lessened. In this study, Istomina (1975) has made an important link between the socioemotional and cognitive aspects of behavior. In addition, she was able to interpret the changes she observed in both test situations as ones of actual formation of the operations of voluntary remembering and recalling rather than merely the transfer of the operations from one set of conditions to another. Building upon this observed formation of memory operations, her next step was most exciting. She examined the influence of memory efficiency in the play situation on memory efficiency in the test situation. Practice in the make-believe situation caused not only a greater improvement in memory performance in the test situation than vice versa but also than in the make-believe situation itself. The school experience, as discussed in a subsequent section, contributes to freeing the individual from embeddedness in thinking; it may, however, be crucial to have diverse experiences in the form of embedded or contextually meaningful work activities or role-playing tasks to make a child truly ready for the disembedding process. This finding echoes Piaget's notion of linguistic or educational transition, which he describes as a fundamental but insufficient factor for structural development because the child can receive the information via language but to receive the information she or he must have a structure enabling assimilation of the information. Or, as Price-Williams et al. (1969) have said, a skill embodies a set of operations with a recognizable end; thus the role of skills, so defined, in cognitive growth may be very important.

[Disembedding?] . . . . Formal Education and its Effects . . . . hidden curriculum in schools . . . . repeated practice in dealing with unfamiliar adults, in being presented with a variety of puzzles and problems, in being expected to persevere in solving them . . . . l year of schooling dramatically increased testability of children . . . . In searching for those features of formal education which promote intellectual development, several investigators have proposed that school provides a special kind of learning experience different from that encountered in the course of everyday socialization (Greenfield & Bruner, 1969; R. L. Munroe & Munroe, 1975; Neisser, 1976; Scribner & Cole, 1973) The school experience is characterized as disconnected from everyday life in a traditional society. Informal learning in the traditional setting usually revolves around a specific task or skill which is transmitted by demonstration to the child by a person who has social and emotional ties to her or him. Classroom learning, in contrast, may have little immediate relevance to the child's daily life. The teacher, a stranger unconnected to the child's social world, transmits knowledge largely through language. Much energy is devoted to teaching and drilling the student in the use of abstract symbol systems --letters and numbers. These school experiences theoretically provide opportunities for the child's thought to be freed from the immediate social context. Children are taught to remove themselves from the material, a capacity which enables them to consider problems in a hypothetical fashion, imagining alternative situations and solutions and evaluating them with no concern for everyday practicalities. They are likewise able to consider many different situations and search for underlying similarities. In sm, the school experience encourages children to analyze, conceptualize, and generalize. They gain the ability to apply concepts to variety of problems, across many situations.

[Notes from: Cognitive Consequences of Cultural Opportunity", by Nerlove and Snipper, pp 440-46. In Handbook of Cross-Cultural Human Development, edited by Ruth H. Munroe, Robert L. Munroe, Beatrice B. Whiting, Garland STPM Press, New York & London, 1981.]



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