Conferences & Symposia
Symposium: Culture, Learning, & Education
Friday, October 27, 2017
Our ability to teach and learn from each other is a foundational aspect of human nature. It has underpinned the remarkable evolutionary success of our species and remains critical to the fortunes and prospects of modern societies. This CMBC Symposium brings together perspectives from ethnography, developmental psychology, neuroscience, and the sociology of education for a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary investigation of what we have learned about the many ways in which we learn.
Co-sponsored by the Emory Departments of Sociology and Psychology.
This talk examines evolutionary, developmental psychology and social-cultural anthropology debates regarding how children learn from others. Cognitive psychologists and evolutionary biologists indicate that teaching, accurate imitation, and language are distinct features of human cognition that enable high fidelity transmission of cultural variants and cumulative culture. The talk examines whether or not one type of teaching, called natural pedagogy, and one type of accurate imitation, called overimiation, exist among Aka hunter-gatherers of the Congo Basin. These and other studies of teaching and learning in hunter-gatherers are presented and situated in the culturally constructed niches of intimate living and foundation schemas of equality, autonomy, and sharing.
The brain did not evolve specialized circuits for reading. Rather, the process of learning to read induces changes in the underlying structure and function of the brain that support this fundamental academic skill. In other words, education scaffolds the development of the brain’s reading circuitry. In this talk, I will first outline the neurobiological underpinnings of literacy and give an overview of how the brain converts symbols on a page to sound and meaning. Then I will present new data showing how reading instruction induces changes in the brain that track the learning process. These data reveal that the anatomical structure of the brain is surprisingly plastic, and that networks of anatomical connections flexibly adapt to meet the demands of a child’s learning environment.
A central and consequential feature of technological competence in the digital age is the ability to learn new technologies as they emerge—what I call “digital adaptability.” Macro-level research suggests differences in digital adaptability are related to various forms of inequality. However, research has not yet been able to link macro-level trends to micro-level processes, made difficult without a direct measure of adaptability. My research addresses this gap by defining and measuring adolescents’ digital adaptability and connecting it to educational inequality in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). In this presentation, I describe a study in Chicago and a replication study in Boston involving a total of ~2,600 students in which I validated a measure of digital adaptability and found a link between adaptability and adolescents’ current STEM participation, educational plans, and career aspirations—all prerequisites for future completion of college degrees in STEM fields, with important implications for parents, educators, and policy makers.
One of the most challenging aspects of learning is theory-change -- abandoning an old explanatory framework for a new one. When is theory change possible, and when do intuitive theories persist alongside those that are taught in school? How do children's intuitive theories distort the lessons from school? And what are the (implicit) mechanisms that work to foster or suppress children's intuitive theories? I examine these questions by focusing on two conceptual biases (essentialism and teleology) within different cultural contexts.