Etherless Learning

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Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

Other research-based commentary on “tiger parenting”

Posted by Ming Ling on March 1, 2011

For what I hope will be my last post on the subject, I wanted to share some gems I’ve found from my online meanderings following link after link on Amy Chua’s views on parenting. These all draw from relevant research to critique specific practices rather than an imprecise “parenting style.”

1. In this edited interview transcript with Scientific American, Temple University developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg reviews the literature on many of the specific practices Chua describes, pointing out both the good and the bad. On his “good” list are high expectations, parental involvement, and positive feedback for genuine accomplishment (but not cultivating false self-esteem). On his “bad” list are excessive punishment, being overly restrictive, and squelching autonomy (characteristics of authoritarian rather than authoritative parenting). He further questions Chua’s views on desirable goals for her children and highlights the value of unstructured play for children’s development. Although he mentions cultural differences in parenting and acknowledges that Americans might misperceive Chinese parenting as being more authoritarian than it really is, he doesn’t analyze cultural influences in much depth here.

2. On Parenting Science, Gwen Dewar (an interdisciplinary social scientist whose background also includes psychology) provides a fuller analysis on both the authoritarian / authoritative parenting style dimension and the cultural differences between Chinese and American parenting. Like Steinberg and others, she too affirms the importance of believing in effort over innate ability, noting that this characterizes Chinese more than American values. Ironically, she includes more detail than Steinberg on his own research, describing the potential for positive peer pressure among Chinese-American youth, whose peers encourage them to achieve rather than rejecting them for geekiness. Most thankfully, she highlights that the positive aspects of traditional Chinese parenting can be separated from undesirable authoritarian practices.

3. Finally, on the NY Times Freakonomics blog, Yale professor of law and economics Ian Ayres (who acknowledges being a friend and colleague of Amy Chua’s) delves into the cognitive benefits of some of these parenting practices, rather than their developmental or cultural consequences. While I’m disappointed that he discusses the benefits of “tiger parenting” without strong caveats against its harms (or an acknowledgment that they can be separated), I particularly appreciated his economic analysis of the attitudes and behaviors that may result.

One virtue Ayres extols is delayed gratification, which he quantifies as “the intertemporal marginal rate of substitution, the willingness to forego current consumption in order to consume more in the future.” It’s another lens on the importance of grit, perseverance, and conscientiousness in enduring challenges while pursuing distant goals. He points out research indicating that these skills may be a stronger predictor of future success than intelligence (as measured by IQ).

(Although Ayres didn’t mention it, this further validates Dweck’s research on the importance of believing that effort matters more than innate ability in determining success.)

He also cites Ericsson’s research on the amount of effort necessary to develop expertise. Despite believing that such discipline is likely to transfer over to other pursuits, he admits that he would probably choose skills with more immediate benefits:

My personal bias is in guiding my children toward endeavors (like learning statistics or US History or corporate finance or Python — all subjects of daddy school) that I think are likely to pay higher direct adult dividends than music or sport skills that atrophy in adulthood.

Inclined though I am to agree with him, I wonder how effective such pursuits are as targets for kids to develop discipline and expertise. Aside from the value of music and sports in themselves, they also carry salient milestones—some culturally derived (such as soccer tournaments and numbered Suzuki-method books), but others perceptually evident—that help children self-assess progress. Computer programming has concrete markers of success in getting a program to produce the desired output, but growth in using analytical tools such as statistics is a bit harder for a youngster to perceive and appreciate.

Oddly, Ayres portrays Chua’s methods as an effective “taking choice off the table” technique for building discipline, despite this crucial difference between his parenting approach and hers: he explicitly involved his children in the initial choice process and explained the pros and cons of their choices, whereas Chua imposed her choices on her children. That initial commitment by the child is key. Without it, the child is simply following rules divorced from meaning. With it, the child learns to connect desire with dedication and goal with process.

Collectively, these articles echo the fundamental values of attributing success to effort, nurturing intrinsic motivation, and setting high expectations that I summarized earlier, while also adding a richer perspective on cultural differences, peer pressure, and delayed gratification in promoting perseverance. While these articles haven’t and won’t receive the audience that brazen storytelling attracts, they give voice to relevant research that too often whispers quietly from the archives.

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Diligence vs. competitiveness

Posted by Ming Ling on February 10, 2011

I continue to be disappointed by the mainstream media’s coverage of the “tiger parenting” phenomenon. Although there’s now somewhat more discussion of the specific parenting practices that are good or bad for the child, distinct practices are still getting conflated. One of the latest that I’ve seen claims that “the intense emphasis on hard work comes with a deep, obsessive competitiveness.”

It ain’t necessarily so.

Setting aside my frustration with the media’s reliance on first-person anecdotes rather than research on aggregate populations, I’ll first acknowledge that emphasizing the value of hard work and discipline is indeed very productive. As I wrote in my previous post, it takes about ten years of deliberate practice to attain expertise[1], and those who believe in the value of effort are more likely to invest further effort[2][3] . A recently reported twin study similarly notes that children with greater self-control do better in school and have better health, financial, and social outcomes as adults[4].

But deliberate practice isn’t just rote practice, and worthwhile effort isn’t merely hours of exhaustion. Both require thoughtfulness in figuring out what needs more work and how to tackle it. Likewise, developing self-control requires more than simply being placed in a constraining environment. As I’ve previously noted, the complex and ill-structured world of imaginative play can improve children’s impulse control and self-regulation[5]. Much like the riddle about the town with two barbers, “just because it looks like what you want doesn’t mean it will produce what you want.” Here, it’s not enough just to put children and students through their paces in rigid settings that prevent them from going astray. The theme underlying all of these phenomena is that people need to learn how to decide for themselves how to manage their efforts and how to improve.

So how does this relate to competitiveness? Competition is based on social comparison, or norm-referenced assessment. While it may be inspiring to see the accomplishments of peers as a possibility for oneself, it can also be limiting to endeavor only to best them and not more generally to excel. Even more damaging, people have no control over the performance of their rivals, and chasing this uncontrollable target can foster that worrisome learned helplessness which can dampen enthusiasm, lower self-esteem, and inhibit future effort[6][7]. Instead, criterion-referenced assessment measures performance against fixed goals which can be set up as benchmarks and eventually internalized by the learner. Not only does this provide a clearer way of measuring success than normative comparisons, but it also helps the budding athlete, musician, or student succeed better in the long run.

I fully recognize that Chinese parents can be obsessively competitive about their children’s achievements, even through their self-effacing denials that their children are anything special. And it’s already been documented that the Chinese culture places a high premium on hard work. But these aren’t uniquely Chinese values, and they can be decoupled. The result isn’t some kind of compromise or blend between Chinese and American philosophies, but a selection of those beliefs and practices that have been shown to be productive across cultures.

[1] Ericsson, K.A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games (pp. 1-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
[2] Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
[3] Dweck, C.M. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York NY: Random House.
[4] Moffitt, T.E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R.J., Harrington, H.L., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B.W., Ross, S., Sears, M.R., Thomson, W.M., & Caspi, A. (in press). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
[5] Bodrova, E.B., & Leong, D.J. (2003). The importance of being playful. Educational Leadership, 60, 50-53.
[6] Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in performance, strategy, and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 451-462.
[7] Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1980). An analysis of learned helplessness: II. The processing of success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 940-952.

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Beyond Tigers, Dragons, and Sheep in Parenting Practices

Posted by Ming Ling on January 16, 2011

Why give any more publicity to the Wall Street Journal excerpt (“Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”) from Amy Chua’s new book (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother)? So many have already decried the cultural stereotyping, the arbitrary definition of success, and the psychological damage wrought by their own “tiger moms.” Others have deplored the WSJ’s editing as a brazen marketing ploy calculated to create controversy and sell books. But what I haven’t seen discussed as much in the ensuing media frenzy is a critique of the complete obfuscation of good and bad parenting advice all mixed together and the hubris of an individual drowning out good research.

(As a matter of personal disclosure, I myself haven’t experienced anything in my own upbringing that was nearly as restrictive as what Chua describes, although I recognize the values and have seen friends and classmates suffer the consequences of their parents’ methods. I was a classically trained Asian-American: as a child, I played two musical instruments, entered multiple academic competitions, and took extra classes in math and science. I was no prodigy—to my parents’ relief, since I never frightened them with a burning desire to turn my extracurricular activities into full-time pursuits—rather, their strategies paid off when I attended a prestigious school and graduated with a science degree. There I saw plenty of fellow Asian-Americans with a wide range of achievements and experiences, both stricter and freer as well as happier and unhappier. All this is mere context; I’m not writing this to prove any points about my parents’ practices, either to justify or vilify them, but to demonstrate my familiarity with the cultural values, practices, and results.)

I have no desire to fight one anecdote with another anecdote. My experiences, whether as a child or as a parent, aren’t a particularly compelling example or counterexample for any side of the argument. Nor is my goal to review Chua’s book (since I refuse to reward the marketing tactics that have caused such damage), but to restore to the discourse some key issues that have gotten lost in the discussion. I want to bring to the forefront the research that already exists on teaching and parenting, and use that to filter out the good from the bad in the sludge that has flooded the terrain.

Others have already summarized relevant cross-cultural research examining the same phenomenon Chua seeks to explain through her own experience. On the bright side, a recent article by Kathy Seal (“Asian-American Parenting and Academic Success”) notes the value of parental involvement and cultural attitudes in promoting success, particularly beliefs about the value of effort rather than ability[1]. On the dark side, embedded within many heartbreaking personal stories in this discussion is a summary of research and statistics on the consequences of harsh parenting and on Asian-Pacific Islander American (APA) suicides by psychiatrist Suzan Song:

There are multiple studies that report that despite high levels of academic achievement, Asian American students report poor psychological adjustment (Choi et al, 2006; Greene et al 2006; Rhee et al 2003; Rumbault, 1994; Yeh, 2003). The high level of parental interest in grades solely can create depression and anxiety for youth (Pang, 1991). And perception of parental disinterest in emotional well-being is significantly associated with depression (Greenberger 1996; Stuart et al 1999). There are more studies but I’ll stop here, but it’s shown that harsh parental discipline is related to depression of Chinese-Am teens (Kim & Gee, 2000).

And there are multiple stats around suicide in Asian Americans: These stats are available here:

  • Asian Am women 15-24yrs old had the highest suicide rates among any ethnicity (Dept of Health and Human Services)
  • California Institute of Tech 2009: 3 Asian suicides
  • According to New America Media, from 1996 to 2006, of the 21 students who committed suicide at Cornell, 13 were APA. This 61.9 percentage is significantly higher than the overall percent of APA students, which is 14.
  • From 1964 to 2000, the average number of MIT undergraduate student suicides was nearly three times that of many as the national campus average, with 21.2 students out of every 100,000 committing suicide in comparison to 7.5, with 11.7 as the national overall average.

Dr. Song also describes the mental health issues facing Asian-American adolescents in more depth in a guest blog post.

Going beyond comparisons between cultures, I especially want to highlight general principles that apply across cultures about what helps or hinders development. Some have suggested the need for a “less extreme” approach or a middle ground between Eastern and Western philosophies rather than championing either one over the other, yet both still lend credence to a false dichotomy. In rejecting Chua’s detrimental practices, we need not retreat from the supportive practices she has confounded with them; research can help us differentiate between the two.

Beliefs about Success and Failure

The clearest positive value in the parenting philosophy advocated in Chua’s essay is the belief that success comes through effort. Built on top of this belief are the key practices of encouraging perseverance, developing good work habits, and providing multiple opportunities to learn and practice one’s skills. Both are well supported in the research literature: attributing success to behaviors within one’s control rather than intrinsic traits such as intelligence or talent promotes perseverance that enables future success[2], and developing expertise requires hours of deliberate practice[3].

However, the key factor underlying the advantage shown by children who attributed success to effort rather than ability was that they then attributed their subsequent failures to inadequate effort, so that they were more willing to invest more effort and try again[4]. In treating failure as a cause for shame, Chua’s methods actually undermine the positive effects she was otherwise promoting. Even further, learners need errors as a source of crucial feedback to help them correct their knowledge[5]. None of this even addresses the emotional dangers associated with making parental affection contingent upon success[6].

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Yes, success builds confidence and self-efficacy, thereby increasing the likelihood of continued pursuit of future success[7]. But success doesn’t always guarantee enjoyment (especially if the processes employed to achieve that success incur resentment or dread), and pursuits that do not produce immediate, obvious success can still be worth enjoying. Helping children to appreciate the entire process, failures and all, promotes a more long-term view of progress than conditioning enjoyment on success. Likewise, Chua’s philosophy about motivation (that “the solution to substandard performance is to excoriate, punish and shame the child”) demonizes failure and favors immediate results at the expense of enduring growth. In reality, reliance on rewards and punishments as external motivators ultimately undermines motivation[8][9].

Goals and Expectations

Setting ambitious goals and maintaining high expectations are a necessary starting point for helping children develop their potential. Where Chua errs is in believing that the only good goals are those that receive tangible rewards and prestige. Mistaking the measurable for the worthwhile is a fundamental problem in assessment[10]; ill-defined objectives such as social skills and creativity lose in the competition for time and attention in a test- (or reward-) heavy culture. Ironically, Chua’s choices may actually be encouraging the “everyone gets a prize” mentality that she disparages, by inflating the value of those pursuits which earn prizes.

Further, focusing narrowly on highly-structured “drill and skill” aspects of any domain risks promoting routine expertise rather than adaptive expertise[11]. Responding to new challenges demands cognitive flexibility; constructing novel solutions in open-ended environments facilitates its development, while mechanistic repetition hinders it[12]. Similarly, solving insight problems is more effective after taking a mental “incubation” break to represent the problem differently, instead of fixating on rote reproduction of past strategies[13].

Finally, by “overrid[ing] all of their children’s own desires and preferences”, parents rob them of their autonomy and capacity for self-regulation. Helping them make better decisions, create plans and subgoals, self-assess, and adapt to feedback gives them the tools to eventually learn on their own[14][15].

More broadly, my main point here is to demonstrate that Chua’s parenting philosophy is both good and bad, not because of some conceptual multiplism claiming that all opinions are valid, but because parts are good and parts are bad—as demonstrated by research and enumerated above. Children succeed in spite of the cruel punishment, fear of failure, and usurping of autonomy, not because of it. Their success comes instead from the high expectations, the belief in diligence, and yes, even the long hours of practice. But all of those desirable values and processes can be instituted through other methods which don’t risk the painful psychological scars, which don’t come at the cost of neglecting other fundamental skills, and which ultimately are even more effective.

Amidst the deluge of commentary that Chua’s essay has unleashed, I hope the general public won’t lose sight of what research has long had to say about the same issues that one author has explored in a personal memoir. One silver lining of this media storm is more honest dialogue about Asian-American parenting and its outcomes. Rather than celebrate or pillory any particular person or experience, that dialogue must rise above the level of the individual in order for us to truly learn.

[1] Stevenson, H.W., & Stigler, J.W. (1992). The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education. New York NY: Simon & Schuster.
[2] Dweck, C.M. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York NY: Random House.
[3] Ericsson, K.A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games (pp. 1-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
[4] Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
[5] Metcalfe, J., & Kornell, N. (2007). Principles of cognitive science in education: The effects of generation, errors, and feedback, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14(2), 225-229.
[6][ Harter, S., Marold, D.B., Whitesell, N.R., & Cobbs, G. (1996). A model of the effects of perceived parent and peer support on adolescent false self behavior. Child Development, 67(2), 360-374.
[7] Wigfield, A., Eccles, J.S., Schiefele, U., Roeser, R.W., & Kean, P.D. (2006). Development of achievement motivation. In W. Damon & R.M. Lerner (Series Eds.) & N. Eisenberg (Volume Ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Social, Emotional and Personality Development (6th ed., Vol. 3, pp. 933–1002). New York: Wiley.
[8] Deci, E.L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R.M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.
[9] Lepper, M. R., & Hodell, M. (1989). Intrinsic motivation in the classroom. In C. Ames & R. E. Ames (Eds.), Research on Motivation in Education (Vol. 3, pp. 73-105). New York: Academic Press.
[10] Pellegrino, J.W., Chudowsky, N., & Glaser, R. (2001). Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
[11] Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986). Two courses of expertise. In H.W. Stevenson, H. Azuma, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Child Development and Education in Japan: A Series of Books in Psychology (pp. 262-272). New York NY: W.H. Freeman.
[12] Spiro, R.J. & Jehng, J. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the non-linear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. D. Nix & R. Spiro (eds.), Cognition, Education, and Multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
[13] Sternberg, R.J., & Davidson, J.E. (1995). The Nature of Insight. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
[14] Schraw, G., Crippen, K. J., & Hartley, K. D. (2006). Promoting self-regulation in science education: Metacognition as part of a broader perspective on learning. Research in Science Education, 36(1-2), 111-139.
[15] Although my intention here is to base my arguments on research, I think this insight from one of my music teachers captures this idea beautifully: She told me that her job as a teacher was to teach me so that I could eventually teach myself. 

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Acknowledging and learning from differences

Posted by Ming Ling on November 9, 2010

On “New Directions in Diversity — Toward Social Justice for All“:

Fresh takes on the divisiveness of race and other differences include abandoning color-blindness and admitting that ethnic mixing isn’t the end in itself.

The goal isn’t to ignore or minimize differences, but to acknowledge and learn from them. (As expressed in a rather unusual analogy: “As sulfur indicates the health of a marshland, so conflict signifies the health of a society.”)

Classic issues: defining people as “norm” vs. “other”, framing differences as deficits rather than collective strengths, focusing on race and excluding other dimensions, equating all diversity concerns with power struggles, polarizing race as two colors instead of many, addressing diversity as a poster or event rather than exploring its ongoing influence.

New(er) findings: that children may be more equipped to explore diversity in 1st than in 3rd grade, that 3-yr-olds already ascribe positive traits to similar-looking people and negative traits to others.

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Difficulties of accommodating discrepant information

Posted by Ming Ling on August 24, 2010

On “The Wrong Stuff – Reasonable Doubt: Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld on Being Wrong“:

I think generally speaking it’s difficult for people to admit they’re wrong, and the higher the stakes, the more difficult it becomes. So what you really want to do is educate people that it’s OK to be wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re a fool. It’s not going to be the end of your life.

There are high social costs to being wrong, and creating a culture that values thoughtfulness and humility rather than tenacity may alleviate this phenomenon. (Ironically, one might expect this to be worse in a collectivist culture, where there could be more shame, surprise, or negative attention attached to retracting publicly stated beliefs. In contrast, individualistic cultures that celebrate different ideas might be more tolerant of changing one’s mind.)

But I think there are high cognitive and metacognitive costs to being wrong as well. Part of it could be a consequence of generating a hypothesis or belief, akin to the dangers of convincing oneself of the correctness of a guess (e.g., when taking a pretest). The more a person articulates or mentally rehearses an idea, the more s/he becomes committed to it (i.e., strengthens the memory trace, elaborates on potential explanations, draws connections to prior knowledge).

Further, someone whose self-concept is strongly linked to having the right answers might feel more threatened by realizing s/he made an error. And someone who thinks that intelligence is knowing facts rather than exercising good reasoning would probably be more disturbed by having to acknowledge getting the facts wrong.

So what does this suggest? Perhaps we should encourage more tentativeness and skepticism, an appreciation of the probabilistic nature of knowledge, comfort with staking cautious claims. Maybe we should ask people to propose multiple conditional hypotheses instead of single predictions. And most of all, we should put wrongness back in its place– linked to the idea, not the person.

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