Tag Archives: knowledge/intelligence

Smarts vs. Struggle: Cultural Perceptions of Learning

Yesterday NPR’s Morning Edition included a segment by Alix Spiegel about cultural differences in approaches to teaching and learning. Researchers have found interesting differences in how teachers and parents in the U.S. and Japan encourage kids to learn.

Americans tend to focus on intelligence as the source of school success; you do well because you’re smart, kids learn. But Jim Stigler’s observations in Japan indicated that teachers focused more on effort, on letting kids publicly struggle with problems until they finally got the right answer. From this perspective, learning doesn’t occur because you’re inherently smart; it occurs because you keep working at a difficult problem until you figure it out. Jin Li has also found that parents tend to socialize kids in the U.S. into thinking of their successes as a sign of their intelligence more than their hard work, while Chinese parents focus more on persistence and concentration.

These lead to different perceptions of what it means to struggle to learn. As Stigler explains, in the U.S., we often assume that learning comes easily to you if you’re smart, and if you struggle to learn, that you lack ability. This can lead to fatalism; students who don’t easily grasp a concept can quickly see it as impossible. But as Spiegel says,

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

It’s an interesting report on differences in cultural perceptions of learning, what it means if you struggle to grasp something, and the implications this might have for students’ experiences of their own learning process. It’s worth a listen.

I couldn’t get the audio file to upload; you can listen to it at the NPR site. You can read the full transcript here.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

How Much Do Americans Know About Politics?

The political humor of Saturday Night Live (SNL) has become a mainstay of modern elections in the United States. The show is especially well known for its impersonations of candidates. However, so far this season SNL’s spoof political advertisement from a fictitious group called Low Information Voters of America is generating the greatest amount of political discussion.

The mock advertisement depicts undecided voters as lacking basic civic knowledge as they ask questions about when the election is held, who is running and whether or not they are an incumbent, how long the president serves, who succeeds the president, and whether or not both sexes can legally vote. SNL presents these few remaining swing voters in a way that implies they might have a problematic amount of influence in a close election.

However, is low information an issue only with just late deciding swing voters, or are they much more prevalent in the United States? A little known Zogby poll conducted in 2006 on a representative sample of adults (+/- 2.9%) in the United States provides some insight about how uniformed voters are by comparing political knowledge to awareness of popular culture.

Whereas 73.8% of respondents correctly named the three stooges; only 42.3% of knew the three branches of the U.S. government. Fifty-six percent knew the name of J.K. Rowling’s Fictional boy wizard; yet only 49.5% correctly identified the Prime Minister of England—and this was during the fallout of Iraq war and Downing Street Memo. Sixty-three percent of those polled could not name one Supreme Court justice; 85% were able to identify at least two of the seven dwarfs. Twice as many respondents (22.6%) knew the last American Idol than the last justice confirmed to the Supreme Court (11.3%).

Democracy needs an informed electorate, although the level of information necessary to maintain an effective republic is open for debate. This poll (which does need to be redone because it is becoming quite dated) finds that many adults in the United States — both the decided and undecided — are more informed about popular culture than politics. Thus, while voters may be “informed enough,” it is still difficult to subjectively claim it is healthy for a democracy to have a populace more knowledgeable about reality television, children’s books and fairy tales than civics.

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Jason Eastman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University who researches how culture and identity influence social inequalities.

The Correlation Between Income and SAT Scores

Today is the first day of school at the college where I teach, so I thought it would be a nice time to re-post this oldie-but-goodie on the relationship between income and SAT scores.  I’m sure all of our students are brilliant, of course, but whether the SAT measures intelligence fairly is up for debate.

The College Board is an education association that, among other things, administers the SAT college entrance examination.  A report on the scores from 2009, reviewed by the New York Times, included a break down of scores by the household income of the student. Scores correlate strongly and positively with income:

I can think of two explanations for the correlation.

First, it is certainly true that children with more economic resources, on average, end up better prepared for standardized tests.  They tend to have better teachers, more resource-rich educational environments, more educated parents who can help them with school and, sometimes, expensive SAT tutoring.

Second, the test itself may be biased towards wealthier students.  These tests tend to be written and evaluated by privileged individuals who may inadvertently include class-based knowledge, not just knowledge, in the exam (asking questions, for example, that rely on background information about golf instead of basketball).

In any case, this correlation should give us pause; it calls into question, quite profoundly, the extent to which the SAT is functioning as a fair measure.  Perhaps it measures preparedness for college, but whether it measures potential is up for debate.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Sexual Objectification (Part 2): The Harm

This is the second part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects (see also, part One)Cross-posted at Ms. and Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

The “sex wars”  of the 1980s pitted radical feminists, who claimed that female sexual objectification is dehumanizing, against feminists concerned about legal and social efforts to control and repress female sexuality.  Over a decade of research now shows that radical feminists were right to be highly concerned.

Getting back to the “sex wars” and how radical feminists were right, women who grow up in a culture with widespread sexual objectification tend to view themselves as objects of desire for others. This internalized sexual objectification has been linked to problems with mental health (e.g., clinical depression“habitual body monitoring”), eating disordersbody shameself-worth and life satisfactioncognitive functioningmotor functioningsexual dysfunctionaccess to leadership, and political efficacy.  Women of all ethnicities internalize objectification, as do men to a lesser extent.

Beyond the internal effects, sexually objectified women are dehumanized by others and seen as less competent and worthy of empathy by both men and women.  Furthermore, exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment and rape myths.  Add to this the countless hours that most girls/women spend primping and competing with one another to garner heterosexual male attention, and the erasure of middle-aged and elderly women who have little value in a society that places women’s primary value on their sexualized bodies.

Theorists have also contributed to understanding the harm of objectification culture by pointing out the difference between sexy and sexual.  If one thinks of the subject/object dichotomy that dominates thinking in Western culture, subjects act and objects are acted upon.  Subjects are sexual, while objects are sexy.

Pop culture sells women and girls a hurtful lie: that their value lies in how sexy they appear to others, and they learn at a very young age that their sexuality is for others.  At the same time, being sexual, is stigmatized in women but encouraged in men. We learn that men want and women want-to-be-wanted. The yard stick for women’s value (sexiness) automatically puts them in a subordinate societal position, regardless of how well they measure up.  Perfectly sexy women are perfectly subordinate.

The documentary Miss Representation has received considerable mainstream attention, one indicator that many are now recognizing the damaging effects of female sexual objectification.

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To sum up, widespread sexual objectification in U.S. popular culture creates a toxic environment for girls and women.  The following posts in this series provide ideas for navigating new objectification culture in personally and politically meaningful ways.

Is it Possible to Go “Off the Grid”?

In the Sociology of Gender textbook I am (very slowly) writing, I spend a chapter discussing the idea of institutions.  I define the term as “persistent patterns of social interaction aimed at meeting the needs of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone.”  These needs  include educating the next generation, providing health care, ensuring safety, and enabling efficient transportation.  These things are done better and more efficiently if we all chip in and put together a system.

What is interesting about institutions from a sociological perspective is that, once they’re in place, it is essentially impossible to opt out.  You can choose not to buy a car, for example, but the government is still going to spend your tax dollars on highway infrastructure.  You can amass as much medical knowledge and experience as you like, but you’ll still be a criminal if you practice medicine without a licence.  You can believe the government is corrupt and stay home on voting day, but Congress is still going to pass legislation to which you will be held accountable.

You get the picture.

In any case, I thought of this when I came across the striking photography of Eric Valli.  Valli seems to specialize in capturing the lives of people living very close to the earth.  In one series, he follows a group of individuals who have decided to live “off the grid.”  That is, they’ve “unplugged” from the social institutions that sustain us. The first image I came across was this one:

Clearly this is no joke.  And, yet, as I scrolled through additional photographs, I couldn’t help to notice how many trappings of the rest of the world were part and parcel of their lives (canoes, coats, oil lamps, cooking and eating utensils, halters, firearms, hot sauce, etc).

As I write in the book:

You can go “off the grid” to avoid capitalism, find an isolated spot in some wilderness, cut down some trees, build a hut, and live off of roots and berries.  Then again, where did you get the axe?  Will you bring a book on poisonous mushrooms?  Even the bare-handed, bunny-catching woodsman hermit will buy a few things to get along and, in any case, he can’t help but draw on knowledge that he acquired through institutions like schools, families, publishing, and the mass media.  After all, how did he know where to find the forest?

I’m not questioning, at all, whether or not these people are off the grid. They certainly appear to be.  But it is interesting to notice how much of the grid is still a part of their lives.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Target Knows You’re Pregnant: Psychological Management and Consumer Data

Cross-posted at Global Policy TV.

A great story at the New York Times, sent in by Katrin, reveals how the evolving science of marketing is creating its own set of challengers for advertisers.  Target, like many companies, tracks its customers purchases and uses the data to send packets of coupons tailored to individuals and households.  In this way, they tempt us into the store by offering us deals on things they know we want.

Target is also in the business of predicting what a person will want.  So the marketing company decided to try to use costumer shopping habits in order to predict pregnancy.  If they could start sending the woman baby-related before she started shopping for them in earnest, the company figured, she might end up always thinking of Target when she needed to spend money on the baby.

Using an algorithm that considered the purchasing patterns typical of newly pregnant women — e.g., prenatal vitamins, scent-free instead of scented lotion, a sudden uptick in the acquisition of cotton balls — they were able to make a pretty good guess as to whether a female customer was expecting.  Suddenly these women were getting coupons like this:

This caused two problems.

First was the father of the teenage girl who started getting coupons for diapers in the mail.  This led to an angry phone call to Target and, later, a chagrined apology by the stunned grandpa-to-be (story here).

The second was the reaction of the intended target, the expectant moms.  Some were pretty freaked out that Target knew they were pregnant!  It’s one thing, it turns out, for Target to know you like vanilla better than chocolate ice cream, or you fancy scented candles; it’s different, perhaps, to suddenly realize that it knows your you’re having a baby.  That could feel like a serious invasion of privacy.

So Target learned that the ability to predict our needs and desires comes with the need to do some psychological management as well. Accordingly, they began sneaking baby-related coupons into coupon books that also included other things.  So far, Target reports, these women are none the wiser… and thinking of Target as their one-stop baby shop.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Stereotype Promise

Cross-posted at The Russell Sage Foundation.

Claude Steele and his colleagues have found ample evidence of “stereotype threat” in test-taking situations.  Stereotype threat occurs when people worry that poor performance on a task will inadvertently confirm a negative stereotype applied to the group to which they belong.  Their worry depresses performance, thus creating outcomes consistent with the stereotype. Stereotype threat depresses the performance of high-achieving African American students on difficult verbal tests as well as accomplished female math students on difficult math tests.

Not all stereotypes are negative, however, suggesting that certain stereotypes might also enhance performance.  With Min Zhou, I looked into how the stereotype that Asian Americans students are particularly smart and high achieving — as illustrated in this TIME magazine cover from 1987 — might shape their performances.

We argue that Asian American students benefit from a “stereotype promise”—the promise of being viewed through the lens of a positive stereotype that leads one to perform in such a way that confirms the positive stereotype, thereby enhancing performance.  The Chinese- and Vietnamese-Americans students we studied described how their teachers assumed that they were smart, hard-working, and high-achieving, which affected the way that their teachers treated them, the grades they received, and their likelihood of being placed into the most competitive academic tracks, like Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors. For many students, stereotype promise exerted an independent effect, and boosted performance.

For example, Ophelia is a 23 year-old second-generation Vietnamese woman who described herself as “not very intelligent” and recalls nearly being held back in the second grade. By her account, “I wasn’t an exceptional student; I was a straight C student, whereas my other siblings, they were quicker than I was, and they were straight A students.”

Despite Ophelia’s C average, she took the AP exam at the end of junior high school, and not surprisingly, failed. Nevertheless, she was placed into the AP track in high school, but once there, something “just clicked,” and Ophelia began to excel in her classes. When we asked her to explain what she meant by this, she elaborated, “I wanted to work hard and prove I was a good student,” and also added, “I think the competition kind of increases your want to do better.” She graduated from high school with a GPA of 4.2, and was admitted into a highly competitive pharmacy program.

Once she was placed in a more challenging setting, then, where teachers’ expectations and peer performance were elevated, she benefited from stereotype promise. Ophelia did not believe at the outset that she was academically exceptional or deserving of being in the AP track (especially because she earned straight C’s in junior high school and failed the AP exam), but once anointed as academically exceptional and deserving, the stereotype promise exerted an independent effect that encouraged her to try harder and prove that she was a good student, and ultimately enhanced her performance.  While it is impossible to know how Ophelia’s academic performance would have differed had she stayed on the school’s “regular track,” that she was given the opportunity to meet her potential attests to the advantage that Asian American students are accorded in the context of U.S. schools.

In future research, I plan to study in what institutional contexts “stereotype promise” may emerge, for which groups, and in what domains. For example, males may benefit from stereotype promise in certain occupational niches where stereotypes about gender and performance prevail.

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Jennifer Lee is a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, specializing in intersection of immigration and race and ethnicity. She wrote, with Frank Bean, a book called The Diversity Paradox, that examines patterns of intermarriage and multiracial identification among Asians, Latinos, and African Americans.

Read a Q&A on with Jennifer Lee about “stereotype promise” at the Russell Sage Foundation.

The Magic of India (for White People)

The phrase “Magical Negro” refers to the phenomenon in which a white character in a tv show or movie finds enlightenment through the wisdom of a Black character.  It is widely considered an offensive trope in which Black people — imbued with special spiritual, religious, or primitive powers of insight, often ostensibly due to some disadvantage like poverty — serve only to support a white person’s transformation.  The white person, and their ultimate redemption, remains the central story.

I couldn’t help but think of this when I watched the trailer for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, sent in by Katrin.  In this trailer, the Magical Negro isn’t a Black person; it’s not even a person.  It’s the entire country of India.

See if you see what I saw:

For examples of the Magical Negro, see our post on The Secret Life of Bees, the Magical Negro at Ikea, and the Magical Aboriginal Child in an Australian tourism ad.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.