How did you come up with that answer? It’s a question teachers can ask to improve preschool and elementary school children’s ability to understand concepts and their own cognitive processes, according to an Education Week blog that explores research being done around the country.
The blog draws on research presented in May at the 25th Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science.
One conference speaker was Cristine H. Legare, the director of the Cognition, Culture and Development Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin. As the blog explains, “In forthcoming research with UC-Berkeley, Ms. Legare brought in 96 children ages three to five and set before them a complex toy made up of colorful, interlocking gears with a crank on one end and a propeller on the other. With half the children, the researchers asked each one, ‘Can you explain this to me?’ With the other half, they simply said, ‘Oh look, isn’t this interesting?’”
The two groups of children had different outcomes. “Children who had explained the toy were better at re-creating it and not being distracted by ornamental gears, and they were better able to transfer what they had learned about how gears work to new tasks.”
Legare was part of a panel that discussed the “basic and educational research on how comparing and explaining specific examples promotes learning,” the conference program says. This approach can also help children apply what they have learned to new educational challenges. Skills that children learn in math could be transferred to similar problems in chemistry, according to Joseph Jay Williams, a cognitive science and online education researcher at the University of California, Berkeley who chaired the panel. Williams offers more details in an academic paper posted here.
Providing an example, the Ed Week blog says, “a student asked to explain why 2×3=6 cannot simply memorize and parrot the answer, but must understand the underlying relationship between multiplication and addition, Mr. Williams said. Students who can verbally explain why they arrived at a particular answer have proved in prior studies to be more able to catch their own incorrect assumptions and generalize what they learn to other subjects.”
Similar research has been done by other academics.
A summary of research done by Vanderbilt University psychology professor Bethany Rittle-Johnson and her colleagues explains an experiment that asks four year-olds to work with “pattern problems (deciding which color and kind of bug – e.g., red spider, red bee, blue bee – should come next in a progression).” The finding: “children who explained the problem to their mothers performed better than the other two groups when they were asked to solve another pattern problem similar to the initial problems. And mom-explainers were markedly better able to transfer what they had learned to new and more challenging problems.”
For early educators as well as parents, babysitters and older siblings these findings offer compelling advice: When talking to preschool-aged children, ask them to explain what they know.