Families Learn Together

The 20th century saw the invention of many new tools of intellectual adaptation, but perhaps the one that will have the most profound impact is the personal computer. Like it or not, there is a global economy, and information is a valuable commodity. To a great extent, access to computers and related electronic devices—and the ability to use them easily—differentiates those cultures that will experience economic boom versus economic bust in the 21st century. Even within a culture, such as mainstream America, access to technology discriminates among those who will reap the greatest benefits that an information-age society has to offer. Being computer literate affects not only what jobs we have and, thus, our income, but it also influences how one learns, how (and what) one remembers, and how one solves problems—just as reading and writing did centuries before. In a sense, we are in the midst of a natural experiment, one in which a new tool of intellectual adaptation has been introduced, and we should not be surprised if, in decades to come, we are a different-thinking people than we were before the computer revolution.

Most college students today, and certainly nearly all who will follow them, are digital natives, people who grew up with digital media and who take these media for granted.

Differences in thinking are more substantial between literate cultures, which may also have books, newspapers, and computers, and illiterate cultures where reading and writing are not practiced. The differences in cognitive development are similar to what you might expect to find between western Europeans today and 600 years ago, before the printing press, personal computers, smartphones, compulsory education, and laws limiting child labor. Genetic differences between people living in information-age societies and people living in hunter-gatherer cultures today are negligible, as are the genetic differences between Europeans of the early 21st century and those of the early 15th century. But because of differences in the tools of intellectual adaptation provided by different cultures at different historical times, and in the values and institutions of these cultures, children learn to think differently.

A subtle difference in cultural tools of intellectual adaptation that can make a noticeable difference on children’s cognitive task performance can be found in how a language names its numbers. Today, most cultures in the world use a system with the concept of zero, negative numbers, and the possibility to enumerate quantities from one to infinity. Some cultures, however, have a more limited way of expressing quantities (for example, only having number words for one, two, and many), and this influences their ability to perform basic arithmetic operations.

Young children’s early memory capabilities are limited by biological constraints to the images and impressions they can produce. However, each culture provides its children with tools of intellectual adaptation, which are methods of thinking and problem solving that children internalize from their interactions with more competent members of society and that permit children to use their basic mental functions more adaptively. Thus, children in information-age societies might learn to remember more efficiently by taking written or typed notes, whereas their age-mates in preliterate societies might have learned other memory strategies, such as representing each object they must remember by tying a knot in a string or reminding themselves to perform a chore by tying a string around their fingers. Such socially transmitted memory strategies and other cultural tools teach children how to use their minds—in short, the culture teaches children how to think. And because each culture also transmits specific beliefs and values, it teaches children what to think as well.

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