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Decoupling ethnicity from achievement could give kids more healthy freedom

Decoupling race and ethnicity from achievement could give young Asian Americans more freedom in choosing careers, says a new study. For Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant parents and their children, success is equal to getting straight As, graduating from an elite university and pursuing an advanced degree. However, these narrow measures of success can make those who do not fulfill the strict aspirations feel like ethnic outliers, warn Jennifer Lee of UC Irvine in the US and Min Zhou of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Decoupling ethnicity from achievement could give kids more healthy freedom.
Anne Hart, novel.

Their findings are published in Springer's journal Race and Social Problems. You can check out the abstract of the latest study, "The Success Frame and Achievement Paradox: The Costs and Consequences for Asian Americans," published March 1, 2014 online in the journal Race and Social Problems. Authors are Lee, J. and Zhou, M. Or you may wish to see the abstract of another study, "Challenges in Meeting the Mental Health Needs of Urban Asian American Adolescents: Service Providers’ Perspectives."

The researchers analyzed in-depth interviews of 82 adult children of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants, who were randomly selected from the survey of Immigration and Intergenerational Mobility in Metropolitan Los Angeles. They found that the Asian immigrant parents see education as the only sure path to mobility and are open about their intensive efforts to groom their children through extra classes and tutors.

Paths to mobility

Parents, some teachers, and numerous researchers may fear that nonwhite children may experience discrimination in fields like writing, acting or art. Therefore some parents shepherd their children into more conservative professions such as medicine, law and engineering which require advanced degrees and higher education and skills. Interestingly, numerous women are advised to go to medical school to get a more secure career where there is less old-age discrimination.

On the other hand novelists such as Amy Tan became a best-selling author from her exquisite novels on Chinese life in fiction. On the other hand, many parents would rather see their children become physicians to help them toward financial independence and a career that lasts for a lifetime rather than try to reach success that only a few achieve in the arts as writers or actors, for example. Parents see actors waiting on tables and teaching graduates trying to find office or retail jobs in fields where there are too many teaching graduates but not enough teaching jobs in certain fields such as English, art, or history.

Not many medical doctors are hired as extensions of housewives like secretaries and administrative assistants may be asked to do after college. Yet you get numerous female science graduates given test-tube watching work instead of a career path leading to management in fields such as winemaking, science, or engineering in some jobs. That's one reason why women go into medicine getting the MD or DO degree and then moving into holistic health or moving from pharmacy into naturopathy training, or nurses moving into graduate work as nurse practitioners. Parents also may emphasize learning math and science as a more steady career path toward financial independence that doesn't quickly end at a certain age.

In the new study, Lee and Zhou say this trend will continue as long as Asian immigrant parents perceive that their children are susceptible to potential discrimination from their host society. They recommend that Asian immigrants should broaden their success frame, so that their children do not feel constricted in their occupational pursuits, or feel like outliers or failures when they do not achieve the same successes so often attributed to their ethnicity.

The researchers believe that the decoupling of race and ethnicity from achievement can provide the space in which to acknowledge that most Asian Americans are not exceptional, and many do not achieve extraordinary educational and occupational outcomes

As a consequence, so-called “underachievers” may be less likely to reject their ethnic identities simply because they do not meet the perceived norm. Such efforts could also improve the self-esteem of Asian American college students, as well as the self-esteem of whites, blacks and Latinos who are often stereotyped by teachers and peers as being academic low-achievers compared to their Asian classmates.

“That Asian Americans are increasingly departing from the success frame, choosing alternate pathways, and achieving success on their own terms, should give Asian immigrant parents and their children confidence that broadening the success frame is not a route to failure. Instead, it may lead to uncharted and fulfilling pathways to success,” says Lee, according to the March 6, 2014 news release, "Tiger mothers run risk of raising ethnic outcasts in pursuit of academic success."

Most preschoolers and kindergarteners, or children between four and six, can do basic algebra naturally using their Approximate Number System, say scientists in another new study by different researchers

Why struggle through 'brutal' algebra courses that you may attribute to not being good at math, when you can learn algebra in kindergarten? Can learning algebra as a preschooler help kids from developing math anxiety later on in middle school? Can it open doors to more occupations that require advanced math, such as college-level science, medical, or technical courses later on when some students choose their major based on whether or not they can pass math classes required to take other courses?

You can check out the abstract of the new study, "Young children ‘solve for x’ using the Approximate Number System," published March 3, 2014 in the journal Developmental Science. Or see, "Early View (Online Version of Record published before inclusion in an issue)."

Millions of high school and college algebra students are united in a shared agony over solving for x and y, and for those to whom the answers don’t come easily, it gets worse: Most preschoolers and kindergarteners can do some algebra before even entering a math class. You can check out the YouTube video, "Are You Smarter Than a 5-Year Old? Preschoolers Can Do Algebra, Psychologists Find."

In a recently published study in the journal Developmental Science, lead author and post-doctoral fellow Melissa Kibbe and Lisa Feigenson, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, find that most preschoolers and kindergarteners, or children between 4 and 6, can do basic algebra naturally.

“These very young children, some of whom are just learning to count, and few of whom have even gone to school yet, are doing basic algebra and with little effort,” Kibbe says, according to a March 6, 2014 news release, Are you smarter than a 5-year-old? Preschoolers can do algebra. “They do it by using what we call their ‘Approximate Number System:’ their gut-level, inborn sense of quantity and number.”

Number sense lets preschoolers quickly size up the quantity of objects

The “Approximate Number System,” or ANS, is also called “number sense,” and describes humans’ and animals’ ability to quickly size up the quantity of objects in their everyday environments. Humans and a host of other animals are born with this ability and it’s probably an evolutionary adaptation to help human and animal ancestors survive in the wild, scientists say.

Previous research has revealed some interesting facts about number sense, including that adolescents with better math abilities also had superior number sense when they were preschoolers, and that number sense peaks at age 35. Kibbe, working in Feigenson’s lab, wondered whether preschool-age children could harness that intuitive mathematical ability to solve for a hidden variable, or in other words, to do something akin to basic algebra before they ever received formal classroom mathematics instruction.

The answer was “yes,” at least when the algebra problem was acted out by two furry stuffed animals — Gator and Cheetah — using “magic cups” filled with objects like buttons, plastic doll shoes and pennies

In the study, children sat down individually with an examiner who introduced them to the two characters, each of whom had a cup filled with an unknown quantity of items. Children were told that each character’s cup would “magically” add more items to a pile of objects already sitting on a table. But children were not allowed to see the number of objects in either cup: they only saw the pile before it was added to, and after, so they had to infer approximately how many objects Gator’s cup and Cheetah’s cup contained.

At the end, the examiner pretended that she had mixed up the cups, and asked the children — after showing them what was in one of the cups – to help her figure out whose cup it was. The majority of the children knew whose cup it was, a finding that revealed for the researchers that the pint-sized participants had been solving for a missing quantity, which is the essence of doing basic algebra.

“What was in the cup was the x and y variable, and children nailed it,” says Feigenson, according to the news release. Feigenson is the director of Johns Hopkins Laboratory for Child Development. “Gator’s cup was the x variable and Cheetah’s cup was the y variable. We found out that young children are very, very good at this. It appears that they are harnessing their gut level number sense to solve this task.”

If this kind of basic algebraic reasoning is so simple and natural for 4, 5 and 6-year-olds, the question remains why it is so difficult for teens and others

“One possibility is that formal algebra relies on memorized rules and symbols that seem to trip many people up,” Feigenson says in the news release. “So one of the exciting future directions for this research is to ask whether telling teachers that children have this gut level ability – long before they master the symbols – might help in encouraging students to harness these skills. Teachers may be able to help children master these kind of computations earlier, and more easily, giving them a wedge into the system.” While the ANS helps children in solving basic algebra, more sophisticated concepts and reasoning are needed to master the complex algebra problems that are taught later in the school age years.

Another finding from the research was that an ANS aptitude does not follow gender lines. Boys and girls answered questions correctly in equal proportions during the experiments, the researchers says, according to the news release. Although other research shows that even young children can be influenced by gender stereotypes about girls’ versus boys’ math prowess, “we see no evidence for gender differences in our work on basic number sense,” Feigenson explains in the news release.

Parents with numerically challenged kids shouldn’t worry that not showing a strong aptitude with numbers is a sign that Bobby or Becky will be bad at math

The psychologists say it’s more important to nurture and support young children’s use of the ANS in solving problems that will later be introduced more formally in school. “We find links at all ages between the precision of people’s Approximate Number System and their formal math ability,” Feigenson says in the news release. “But this does not necessarily mean that children with poorer precision grow up to be bad at math. For example, children with poorer number sense may need to rely on other strategies, besides their gut sense of number, to solve math problems. But this is an area where much future research is needed.” This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF Living Lab 1113648) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIH R01 HD057258).

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