"Cognitive Fatigue" and Students From Low-income Backgrounds
“in the US, the poor exhibit cognitive fatigue more quickly than the rich…they also attend schools that offer fewer opportunities to practice thinking for continuous stretches.”
This article marks the first in a new series I’m calling Stuff I’m Learning. I plan to discuss interesting, practical, and thought-provoking things I’m reading, watching, or to which I’m listening. This should be fun.
Training the brain muscle to focus longer and better
In a recent paper entitled “Cognitive Endurance as Human Capital,” four economists report their findings regarding the idea of cognitive endurance, based on two primary arguments:
Students from low-income backgrounds exhibit “cognitive fatigue” more quickly than high-income students,
Cognitive endurance is similar to a muscle in that it can be built up and strengthened by anyone,
The first line of this paper reads,
Schooling may build human capital not only by teaching academic skills, but by expanding the capacity for cognition itself.
and then continues with,
…in the US, the poor exhibit cognitive fatigue more quickly than the rich…they also attend schools that offer fewer opportunities to practice thinking for continuous stretches.”
Algebra and Cognitive Endurance
Okay, to all who have ever thought this, or perhaps even worn the shirt…
…I am fully on board with the idea that schooling (including Algebra) is designed partly to allow students to “download” useful facts into their brains, which they will use throughout their lives. Some critical skills and information need to be learned, memorized, and used regularly.
Some useful vocabulary?
Basic knowledge of history and government?
At the same time, the value of education is also found in helping students develop skills and cognitive abilities that allow them the opportunity to know how to learn, how to solve problems, and how to function well in a world that will be in a constant flow of change and development throughout their lives. In other words, learning how to learn is one of the most important lessons of quality education.
These lessons lie below the facts and information we may or may not remember from our elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. Instead, they are gained through the discipline, process, and reasoning skills learned and practiced throughout various academic subjects, including Algebra.
So, the real long-term value of studying Algebra is not primarily in the ability to take a pencil and paper and consciously solve for x (making sure to show your work) but in the ability to use algebraic logic, patterns, and principles. We use these things far more often than we might think, whether we are aware of it or not (see this article). Put another way, the value of education (and piano lessons or sports or drama or whatever else your parents may have forced you into as a child) is to learn how to practice doing hard things.
Most parents don’t put their child in piano lessons with the dream that their child will become a world-renowned concert pianist (though perhaps some do). Not all parents dream that their child will become the next Michael Jordan or Lebron James as they sit in a stinky gymnasium watching their child dribble the basketball off their foot, followed by a mad dash across the length of the gym to stop the runaway ball. I would imagine, however, that there are more of the latter than the former.
Even so, the value of doing such things, for the vast majority of children, is not found in preparation for a future career but in developing the habits and disciplines of improving, persevering, winning well, losing well, and concentrating on something beyond what instincts might have told them was necessary. It’s about building up that perseverance muscle…
…building up that concentration muscle.
…building up that grit muscle.
…building up that cognitive endurance muscle.
The Exhaustion of Low Income
This paper finds that students from low-income backgrounds exhibit “cognitive fatigue” more quickly than those from higher-income backgrounds. This finding and other similar studies (including this one) suggest that poverty is simply exhausting—physically, emotionally, and cognitively. So much effort is required to get by that little is left for going further, expanding, thriving cognitively, or otherwise.
These trends tend to create a “rich get richer” situation in the academic setting. Students who have the advantage of higher income backgrounds find increased opportunities to develop their cognitive endurance (along with other extra-curricular development activities). At the same time, those already experiencing the disadvantage of being from a lower income background also find few opportunities to develop these things, while the options they have are of lower quality and effectiveness.
Yes…income disparity once again rears its ugly head in other areas of life not directly connected to income.
We can talk all we want about equal opportunities for all people, but the reality is that not everyone starts at the same place. Statistically speaking, when we look beyond small sample size abnormalities and a handful of inspiring anecdotal exceptions, a person’s starting line is a significant factor in how they run the race and the possible outcomes for finishing. It’s not deterministic, but it’s an important factor. Starting lines are not equal.
Running a race
Imagine a group of runners running a 100-yard dash. They all have an equal opportunity to join the race and, in theory, win. Some runners, however, are given a starting block, while others are not. Some are given a 10-yard head start, while others are given a starting line 10 yards behind the others. Some are running barefoot, others in work boots, and others are in light and airy running shoes. Some have family and friends cheering for them while others have people screaming at them to “stop wasting their time” and to “get off the track and go home.”
Each of these runners has been given an equal opportunity to join the race, but some are at a distinct disadvantage through no fault of their own. If they cross the finish line first, any of these runners will equally be declared the winner. Still, the statistical likelihood of any particular runner finishing first is anything but equal. There may occasionally be a runner wearing work boots and starting 10 yards behind the start line who wins a race. Statistically speaking, however, the odds are never in their favor.
This does not mean that those with advantages are guilty of any wrongdoing or are at fault. Not at all, in most cases. We ought, however, to be able to recognize that both advantages and disadvantages exist. They are real, and in and of themselves, they do not represent any superiority or deficiency of moral character or the potential for growth and development.
None of those at the top—those who seem to be winning the race—got there solely through their own hard work and discipline. The same is true of those with virtually no statistical chance of winning. Their situation, too, is not solely the result of their own actions and decisions.
It seems to me that my first reaction ought to be a commitment to hard work, developing good habits, and using the opportunities I have to their fullest. There are lots of people ahead of me in this race. I don’t need to catch them for my life to have value, but I ought to make the most of every opportunity given to me.
At the same time, knowing others are behind me in this race, I ought also to be filled with gratitude and compassion. I ought to possess sincere gratitude for where I find myself and for the sacrifice and hard work of others that helped me get here. At the same time, I ought to experience deep compassion for those struggling against the swift current of all forms of disadvantages – social, economic, cultural, and otherwise.
My three simple conclusions:
Work hard, making the most of each opportunity I have been given.
Be grateful and compassionate, seeking to improve the odds for those who have not had the same advantages from which I have benefited.
Stop dissing Algebra!
(I had to say it –it’s my duty as a former math teacher.)
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