Iran or China, in which she believes that much more rigid behavioral structures are imposed on very young children, seem to yield not only very successful adult scientists, but also students who can flourish in U.S. colleges. She raised the question of how one might identify the critical elements of learning behavior and distinguish them from cultural habits.
In response, several participants acknowledged that current cognitive research may not make it possible to identify a precise boundary between components of cognition common to all and intellectual traditions that develop in particular cultures, but cautioned that this level of precision may be beside the point. Children need to learn to operate within the cultures of science and mathematics as they are in the cultures in which they live. The cognitive and cultural components of the expectations adults have may be intertwined, but teaching is also embedded in a cultural context, and the task at hand is to find the best ways to use teaching to help children develop the kinds of thinking they will need as they grow to adulthood. Karen Worth noted that whether inquiry is a purely intellectual notion or a partly cultural one, it is clearly recognized as an integral aspect of science, as evidenced in the science standards and elsewhere, and its intrinsic value is not in question.
However, Bowman argued that not all children in the United States are experiencing the mainstream cultural context and that these differences can have effects that are observable at very young ages. Prentice Starkey pointed out that differences that match up with socioeconomic status are evident in children as young as 3, and he added that while Japanese and Chinese 4-year-olds are approximately 1 year ahead of middle-class American children, those middle-class children are about 1 year ahead of low-income children in the United States. He reiterated the importance of examining more closely the influence of children’s learning environments on their developing mathematics and science knowledge.
Other differences among children could interact with their science and mathematics learning as well, in ways that are not well understood. Participants pointed out that gender differences, as well as ability differences and differences in learning style or intellectual approach, may well affect the ways children respond to teaching and the ways they learn, but these issues in preschoolers have not yet been much studied.
Without questioning the importance of that goal, however, Nora Newcombe pointed out the significant methodological and practical challenges to that kind of research. She noted that such links are much easier to track in the context of language development because one needs only a fairly brief tape of parents’ conversation that can be coded for syntactic complexity and other features to get a measure of a child’s environment. In the case of mathematics and science, however, the kinds of actions and conversation from parents that can enhance development would not generally occur frequently enough for a random sample of interaction to capture them. Moreover, the kinds of parental inputs that are beneficial can vary widely and may not be as readily identified and described or