The science of nurturing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am


There's no shortage of home-grown parenting books in the stores. Most, however, tend to be lightweight self-help advice or memoirs. But six experts from local universities have banded together to produce a more authoritative Chinese-language parenting guide, Raising Children: Wisdom from Psychology.

Timed for release at Hong Kong Book Fair, it presents child-raising tips based on scientific research, like discussing what motivates children and how to teach them effectively. Three of the authors, Alan Wong Chun-nang and Florrie Ng Fei-yin (both assistant professors in psychology at Chinese University), and Yetta Wong Kwai-ling, an assistant professor in applied social studies at City University, offer their insights.

Why did you write the book?

Alan Wong: Parenting books are mostly about parents' grievances, and they pontificate without scientific backup. There has been a lot of research conducted around the world on children's learning motivation and effective learning strategies. So we hope parents and teachers can stop lapping up whatever parenting tips are thrown at them and find individual strategies that fit their charges.

Should children be rewarded for good performance?

Florrie Ng: Overuse of reward systems by parents and teachers is often to blame for children who have poor motivation. Research shows that rewards can be counterproductive to cultivating intrinsic motivation. In one study, a group of children were told to draw to get a medal. Other children were told to draw without any mention of the medal. It turned out that those who drew for the sake of medals performed worst in later sessions.

Once medals are not involved, they lose the motivation to draw. In psychological parlance, this phenomenon is called the 'over-justification effect'. Instead of dishing out material incentives, parents should try to acknowledge their children's efforts and achievements verbally. Such words of encouragement can make sure that children are inspired to study on their own instead of being driven by external factors.

How can children be motivated to study of their own accord?

Alan Wong: Instead of requiring their children to follow special study strategies, parents should communicate with them and get to know their preferred ways of learning. If children are too young to articulate their preferences, parents should observe what interests them. They should stop assuming that youngsters just want to watch television and muck around.

Children are full of curiosity and eager to learn. If they have more say over what and how they study, they will be more engaged. With enough imagination, fun elements can always be added to spice up the learning regimen. Instead of maths drills, parents can use role-playing games to train concentration. Or teachers can devise a competition where students race against each other to complete maths drills.

How can we boost concentration?

Yetta Wong: Two experiments show contact with nature can work wonders in this respect. In one, participants were asked to remember a list of numbers. Those who were arranged to take a walk in the park nearby performed much better than those sent to a busy thoroughfare for a stroll.

Another experiment showed that those who were given 50 pictures of nature could recall the numbers better than those given 50 city pictures. Contact with nature gives the brain a chance to take a rest. Exercise, especially aerobic activities, can boost brain power. Instead of keeping the child cooped up indoors and forcing him to spend all his time on studies, take him out for a walk in the park instead.

Is multimedia learning any good?

Alan Wong: Since digital devices like iPads were only invented recently, there is relatively scanty research on the effects of digital learning. Flashy products can attract children's attention, but whether this lasts is another matter.

Psychologists have found that a person can suffer from cognitive overload if he has to process too much information at the same time. An experiment was conducted on a group of university students who learned about how thunder occurred through a piece of narrated animation either with subtitles or without. Those who got both written and aural narration had a poorer understanding of the concept. This is a case of cognitive overload.

Plain written exposition can be dreary, and make it difficult for students to grasp the academic theory. But if the message is conveyed through by animation or visuals that are too complicated, students will get fuzzy. Parents and teachers should consider how to strike a balance.

Does a child's opinion of me as a teacher or parent affect learning?

Florrie Ng: Parents' and teachers' reasons for teaching can make a big difference to learning outcomes. A French experiment looked at how a group of students learned goalball, a game designed for blind people.

One group was told beforehand that the instructor was a volunteer who took the initiative to contact the school to promote the sport for an organisation for the visually impaired. Another group of students were told that their instructor charged exorbitant fees for each session. But, in fact, the coach was a veteran sports teacher who was not informed about the different introductions of his background. Although he used the same teaching methods, the first group of students learned the game much better.

One problem with our education system is the presence of jaded teachers who see teaching as nothing more than a way to make a living. Also, some parents are not concerned with getting their children to learn for the sake of knowledge. They think that their children's brilliant academic record can give them face. Children can understand your rationale for teaching them from the way you act.

How should I talk to my children and my students?

Florrie Ng: Teachers and parents should interact in a way that shows they empathise with the difficulties the children face. Some teachers step into the classroom, telling the students that they are tired and don't have much time, urging them to pay attention so that the syllabus can be completed on time. Such talk repels students. For parents, adopting an authoritative persona who constantly issues commands only breeds unthinking deference. Too many conventions will dampen the child's independence and critical-thinking skills.

The way parents and teachers express themselves can make a big difference to learning outcomes. An American experiment in the 1980s showed students performed better if they were given instructions filled with information instead of commands. Parents should avoid using phrases like 'I forbid' and 'you are not allowed'.