How Culture Impacts Cognition Across the Lifespan

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are someone who is interested in the psychology of diversity, you will probably be curious about cognitive development. This lesson discusses some of the ways culture can influence cognition across the life span.

Understanding Cognition, Understanding Culture

Trina has been teaching middle school in a diverse community for five years, and she is especially interested in the ways culture can influence her students' growth and learning. Trina knows that this means learning about cognition, or how people learn and think.

As someone from a bicultural background herself, Trina understands that culture does not impact people's cognitive capacity; in other words, people from all cultural backgrounds are well equipped to handle a wide variety of cognitive tasks. However, she also understands that culture can influence how people think and learn.

Trina knows that culture can be an elusive concept, but in general, she understands it as the part of identity that combines heritage, value systems, traditions, beliefs and customs. She starts thinking about the different ways culture impacts cognition across the life span.

Early Childhood

First, Trina reflects on early childhood, the years from approximately birth to age five. She knows this is a time for massive cognitive development in every culture.

Some cultural traditions value the early learning of language and literacy, and parents from these cultures tend to emphasize verbalization with their young children. These children might then learn vocabulary more quickly than other forms of communication.

Trina knows that in her family, learning to relate to other people and identify objects in nature were really emphasized in her early years, largely because of cultural value systems stressing the importance of relationships and love of nature.

She understands that in general, families relate to their young children according to cultural traditions and values, and young children respond in kind. In the early years, cognition is heavily influenced by what is given the most emphasis in the home environment.

Middle Childhood

Trina thinks about middle childhood, the years from about age six to age eleven. She knows that for many children, this is their entry into serious schooling as well as their first time interacting with children from a variety of cultural backgrounds that might differ from their families.

Trina knows that cultural traditions and belief systems can influence:

  • How children pay attention in school
  • How quickly children are accustomed to processing new information
  • How much children read outside of school
  • How much contact and confluence there is between school and home
  • Whether children spend more time planning engagement with an activity, or engaging with the activity.

In other words, as children get used to life in school, they bring the strengths and values of their home culture along with them. A child's success in school will depend in part on the teachers' willingness to see the child's strengths and communicate openly across cultural differences.


Trina's students are in adolescence, the ages from about twelve to nineteen. She knows that by the time she meets her students, they have been heavily influenced by experiences they have already had in school, and this will play a big part in determining the next stage of cognitive development.

For many students, adolescence is a time for a massive uptick in abstract thinking as well as valuation of peer relationships. Culture plays a heavy role in terms of helping students understand how to think critically and take on broader ethical questions and quandaries.

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