Context Matters BY Maureen Neihart, PSY.D

Ten years ago, I thought I understood diversity. Then I moved to Southeast Asia and learned how much I didn’t know. I climbed a steep learning curve. In just the first several months, I realized that some of the big ideas I held dear might not even be relevant in the Asian context. I was humbled and confused.

My very first experience with the parenting and teaching implications of an Asian perspective took place just a few weeks after we moved into our local neighborhood in Singapore. Children’s exam results had just been released. Across a main street in our neighborhood hung an enormous banner with a larger than life, full size photo of a primary 6 neighborhood boy who had been one of the top scorers on the recent national exam. Next to his photo was a list of all his test scores. At the primary school up the street, larger than life portrait photos of the school’s top scoring students hung on the fence around the school. I was shocked. My first thought was, “This would never ever happen in America. No one would want their or their child’s test scores to be advertised like this.” This was my introduction to the realities of a collectivist Asian society. One person’s success was everyone’s success. High achievers “gave face” to their family, their peer group, their school and the neighborhood. An individual’s top achievement was cause for everyone to celebrate.

For me to begin to understand giftedness in Asia, I first had to learn the differences between Asian and Western philosophies about ability. Those of us in the west tend to see genetics as the dominating force in latent ability. We acknowledge the importance of environmental influences, but we believe that children are generally born with certain preferences and inclinations and that our job as is to identify these and nurture them. Our responsibility is to develop children’s innate aptitude.

Asians view ability differently. They believe environmental forces dominate, and that children have similar potentials at birth but develop at different rates. Therefore, anything is possible if one works hard enough. Of course, there is great variation in the strength of this belief across families in Asia, but in general, parenting and teaching practices reflect this perspective. As a group, Asians hold very high expectations for their children and encourage even the youngest children to work hard.

Very soon after I arrived in Singapore and began to interact with children, families, and teachers, I realized that that my favorite theories about children’s development, my approach to working with families, my long held conceptions of ability and talent development, and my core beliefs about how relationships are formed and strengthened might not be relevant. I had a lot of learning ahead of me.

A decade later, my conclusion is that diversity has more facets than I can count. It is more than gender, age, culture, religion, race, ethnicity, or ability. Context matters. It interacts with everything else to shape who we are, what we believe and how we view ourselves and the world. I have decided that the only way I can truly begin to understand diversity is to remain open, suspend judgment, listen well and ask a lot of questions. I hope that if I maintain this practice, I will grow my capacity to understand, empathize, and help.

Written by Maureen Neihart and posted as part of the 2017 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour. The #NZGAW Blog Tour is run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.


Created with images by kodomut - "Bandung Trip" • Pacific Air Forces - "130318-F-RG147-066"

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