How Does an Education System Inform a Culture, or Vice Versa?
This post may be a bit of a stretch to connect things together, but I’m going to try for it anyways. I’ve been doing a varied bit of reading lately, and the most recent book I’ve finished is Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough, chronicling the story of Geoffrey Canada and his attempts to transform a Harlem neighborhood through his charter school ideas, namely the Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Academy. Tough walks us through the first years of Promise Academy and explores the underpinning philosophies that have created pioneering research and practice in education. One of the main ideas that is a focus of education research and the book is early-childhood interaction. Not classroom education, but the home environment, interactions with parents and siblings, and the general attitude towards education and knowledge.
The researchers and educators Tough highlights focus on differences in raising children in a “Middle-class” versus a “Poor” household. The lengthy discussion of parenting styles in households covers a range of successful and failing strategies for surviving in an American education system. They include the size of vocabulary in Middle-class homes compared to a much smaller vocabulary in poor households; differences in parent-child interactions that range from “sensitive” to “intrusive” to “hostile” to “stimulating cognitive development”; measurements of “social and emotional nurturance”; and more strategies to measure the effects of parenting on child development. In all of the tests, Middle-class strategies worked better in preparing kids for school and to succeed in the American school system.
The part that caught my eye, however, was the mention of a particular study, conducted by Martha Farah at the University of Pennsylvania. Using data from and observational inventory of parent-child interactions and crossing that data with the students’ results from a battery of neuroscience tests, Farah was able to deduce which parenting behaviors led to different cognitive strengths and weaknesses. The relevant passage from Whatever It Takes:
For the first time, Farah was able to ascertain exactly which systems in a child’s brain are affected by which parental behaviors. Children’s scores on the language tests were predicted by cognitive stimulation. Children’s scores on the memory tests were predicted by social/emotional nurturance. In other words, a child with loving but not particularly educationally oriented parents would be likely to do well on memory tests and poorly on language tests. A child with smart, cold parents who gave out plenty of books and few hugs would do better on language tests and worse on memory tests. (p47)
That part in bold there strikes me as relevant to our situation here in Azerbaijan. It seems to me that, though most people will speak to the value of education, this is not an educationally-oriented society, especially outside of Baku. Reading is not emphasized, and the hours students spend at school are minimal. The ones who are more educationally oriented may hire tutors, but only for learning for particular (poorly-written) standard tests, such as the university entrance exams. I seldom see people reading and, if they are, the written word here is not necessarily of high quality. This seems to fit when we understand that most Azeri families are not of high socioeconomic class, and we probably wouldn’t say that Azeri families necessarily have extra cash on hand for boosting the number of books and educational tools in their homes. I certainly haven’t seen much in the way of bookshelves around here, even in schools.
So that leaves the ‘loving’ part of that equation above. I think it would be fair to say that Azerbaijanis are generally people that value physical touch, and emphasis in the home is on relaxing and spending time with family. The social and emotional nurturing part is more emphasized than the scholastic part of growing up. As noted above, these parenting behaviors improve memory skills. While it may seem like a simple thing, it seems like Azerbaijanis are always memorizing something: mobile phone numbers, license plate numbers, you name it. And the emphasis in classes at school is not on critical thinking skills, but instead on rote memorization.
I don’t think that there is any demonstrable causation here (such as, the education and social system are based on rote memorization, so the parental behaviors evolved to fit that system or vice versa). I just think it’s interesting that the Azerbaijani parenting behaviors seem to produce a skill set in children that fits with their school system’s emphasis.
Recently, the government has been mandating a shift in teaching practice that emphasizes more interactive methods and critical thinking. That doesn’t mean much has changed when it comes to classroom instruction, but I’m curious if parenting behaviors would change if the cognitive abilities of students became a stronger emphasis for schools. If standards were upheld by teachers and education officials, would parents, over time, respond by providing more opportunities for cognitive stimulation, like more books in the home and a more education focused family environment?
Obviously, there are a host of other needs holding back Azerbaijani students and the education system, as a whole (severely underfunded schools, poorly trained teachers, corruption from the top all the way down). Addressing those needs would certainly make a huge difference in the performance of students and the system. Yet, if those changes were able to take hold, would family and home life necessarily change in response to the shifted emphases of the education system?