Post No.: 0236
We previously looked at how children pick up languages, including a second or third language in Post No.: 0210, but let’s look at reading, writing and arithmetic (‘the one R, one W and one A’ rather than ‘the three Rs’!) from the perspective of genetic and environmental factors…
Literacy and numeracy skills are predominantly influenced by environmental factors because these skills are clearly not universal (lots of people are still unfortunately illiterate across the world today) and they haven’t even always existed in human culture (there’s also a debate about whether maths is ultimately invented, discovered or a bit of both?) This means that environmental exposure to reading, writing and mathematics matter tremendously for a child’s development. They need to be taught and learnt rather than be expected to develop automatically.
Parents can definitely play a role in helping to provide this exposure. This is despite shared environmental influences only playing a minor role relative to non-shared environmental influences here, according to twin or sibling studies and correlational data – which, as a simplification, means that what happens in the home appears to matter less than other inferred factors when it comes to literacy and numeracy skills. This might be because parental decisions can still somewhat influence what non-shared environmental influences their children experience (e.g. what their child does or where they go to when they’re not at home); and even when at home, what parents do still has a meaningful effect on their children rather than a zero effect.
Note that research in the field of child development is often difficult because it’s reliant on natural experiments and observational studies – scientists aren’t going to pluck random newborns from the embrace of their mothers to place them in various lab experiments with different carefully-controlled conditions to see how they each grow up(!) This would answer many developmental questions more-or-less definitively but it’s totally unethical! So scientists have got to hope that enough children (especially identical twin relationships to rule out genetic differences, albeit not potential epigenetic differences) naturally organise themselves into different conditions and also hope that enough clean data can be gathered about their outcomes at various stages in their lives.
It’s therefore often very difficult to know for sure what influences have been shared and non-shared between siblings to conclude what must be down to their genetics and what must be down to their environment. For example, most genetically identical twins share similar outcomes, but that could be because most of them share identical upbringing environments and parental treatments because they live in the same family and at the same ages. Yet they don’t share perfectly identical parental treatments, environmental influences or chance life experiences, for instance – and it can be difficult working out what those differences are and which ones really mattered (were causal rather than merely coincidental) if the children exhibited different outcomes.
Anyway, compared to many other animals, humans have strong predispositions to learn literacy and numeracy skills, but this doesn’t mean everyone will automatically learn them if left to their own fluffy devices and without the right set of environmental opportunities and influences. Well general intelligence itself is a learnt (set of) skill(s), as well as something that is heritable.
With kids who are raised by highly-educated parents (who can therefore likely provide their kids with a rich educational environment), genetics appears to play only a small role in influencing literacy and numeracy skills. Yet with kids raised by less-educated parents, genetics appears to play a much stronger role. Therefore a rich and supportive environment can compensate for a weak genetic disposition for literacy and numeracy, and a strong genetic disposition for literacy and numeracy may compensate for a poor and unsupportive environment.
In countries where education provision is more environmentally equitable, genetics must logically play a larger role in predicting any individual differences between children; and vice-versa if the education provision is less equitable. (It’s like if two competing Formula 1 teams had exactly the same cars and engines then any differences in lap times between the teams will logically be down to the drivers and these differences will likely be only marginal in the long run; but if they have vastly different cars then any vast differences will likely be more down to those cars than those drivers. Different teams in Formula 1 do have different budgets, cars and sometimes different engines, and this is why teammates tend to be clustered together in roughly the same end of the grid after qualifying – at this level at least, the major factor is the car (i.e. the team) first then the individual driver second.)
So individuals can have different dispositions to read and write, and learn about numbers, but providing every child an equitable quality of education can overcome most of these differences. In other words, in this context of literacy and numeracy, at the very least, some children will still be naturally greater than others but there is enough we can environmentally do to create good outcomes for virtually every child regardless of their genetic dispositions. Woof!
Mathematical ability isn’t unique to humans but humans seem to take it far further than all other known animals. But, except for basic tallying, this ability is only relatively recent in human history, and only slowly culturally evolved over time with each generation culturally building upon the last. So the ability for mathematics is mostly down to the evolution of culture and effortful learning. Advanced and abstract mathematics can take 20 years to learn hence this knowledge doesn’t come as innately to people as natural language and literacy does.
Parents can therefore sometimes underestimate the challenge it poses for children to even count. 2-year olds might be able to recite ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5…’ but then when you ask them how many items there are, they might say something random like ‘2’. And even if they get the answer right, they often don’t know what to do when you ask them to give you a particular number of items. Sometimes they only seem to get it right because you are unconsciously giving them too many clues (e.g. in your body language or vocal intonations) because you dearly want them to get it right, but then they demonstrate that they haven’t truly grasped it yet when you leave them alone to solve a counting problem.
Children’s first numbers, like 1 to 4, don’t seem to be really learnt by counting but rather by just guessing the amount by eye. Most kids only properly understand the concept of counting and therefore know how to count by the age of ~3.5 to 4 years old. Being able to properly count to a high number is an important milestone in numeracy education. We can help children to more quickly learn counting by using visual aids and labelling different familiar quantities, such as the number of fingers we have, in general conversations; or later by practising organising objects into rows, pointing at and touching each object whilst counting, and then using this explicit counting routine to answer the question ‘how many?’
Simply talk a lot about numbers, even if you’re not sure they understand it yet, and play counting games such as counting piles of objects, or even better, board games with dice. To not confuse them, always recite numbers sequentially in order, add a number for every object you count, and make it clear that the last number counted in a counting routine indicates the total number of objects in a collection so that when you ask ‘how many?’, you should both repeat the last number in the count.
Everyone, young and old, needs to be somewhat fluent in mathematics to help avoid being financially ripped off or fooled by scams or illogical statistics that aim to persuade us. Yet many of us (in many Western rather than Asian countries anyway) are okay with being dreadful at maths. Those who are good at maths tend to enjoy it – or it could be vice-versa, or some third factor? Whatever the case, to humans, maths doesn’t come as naturally as language (as in e.g. English, French or German) and so nobody is really born as a master of it. Some may innately find it easer to grasp than others but everybody needs to practise and keep practising maths to get good at it. Those who are proficient at it have therefore simply practised it a lot.
Those who feel they are ahead of their class in school (maybe because they received extra home tuition) will end up feeling that the subject is easy and is nothing to fear, and so they might voluntarily do more of it, and therefore perpetually keep ahead of their peers. Those who miss just one important lesson (maybe due to illness) and aren’t given the opportunity to catch up may fall behind the class, and so they might feel demoralised and demotivated, and therefore perpetually stay behind the rest of their peers. (This shows us that early advantages, like extra tuition, or disadvantages, like illness, when young can compound as people age. This in turn highlights a problem with treating those who show early excellence more favourably in school, for they might have just been more privileged from birth – and so if we reward them with more teacher attention or resources to in effect capitalise on their excellence, it’ll only reinforce the privileges they receive compared to their peers.)
As with any subject – good teachers also help. Teach how the maths can be applied to real-world, relevant and interesting or fun scenarios, rather than via dry theory or abstract problem sets. Make the lessons meaningful to pupils. They’ll more likely want to continue to do and look forward to doing, under their own volition, what’s meaningful to them.
…So we know that basic literacy and numeracy skills are substantially down to a child’s educational opportunities more than innate differences between individual children, which further highlights the collective shame that many children across the world still grow up illiterate, and the impact this has on the rest of their lives and in their communities as a consequence. It’s not because they’re inherently dumb! Global literacy rates have indeed vastly improved over the past few decades, partly due to more educational opportunities for girls in some countries, so there’s a lot to rejoice – but let’s try to make this 100%. If you agree then let it be known via the Twitter comment button below!