Interviewee: Bethany Rittle-Johnson, Vanderbilt University
Explain Yourself, Kiddo
When adults talk to kids, do we really sound like the droning, inscrutable voice of Charlie Brown‘s teacher? If so, Vanderbilt University psychologist Bethany Rittle-Johnson and colleagues have just worked out another reason why we adult pedants need a new tactic.
According to their study, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, preschoolers learn better by explaining their ideas to their moms, rather than explaining their ideas into a tape recorder, or simply not explaining at all. To Rittle-Johnson, the study suggests that by asking even young kids to explain what they’ve learned, you can help them understand better.
“Kids do a lot of listening, but not a lot of explaining. But even little kids can learn a lot from explaining. And it turns out that if we have them explain to their moms, they learn even more,” she says.
And dads, you’re not off the hook. Rittle-Johnson says any familiar listener probably can offer kids the same service as mom. “We started with moms because if you’re four, your mom is the person that you have the closest relationship with usually,” says Rittle-Johnson, herself a mother of two. But she says that most likely, “this would be exactly the same thing with dad or grandma.”
Playtime with Psychologists
Red fly, red fly, yellow spider, red fly, red fly, yellow spider. What comes next? Such simple pattern completion tasks stretch the minds of four and five year olds. (The answer is red fly.) So Rittle-Johnson and colleagues chose such patterns to test whether kids learn better when given the opportunity to explain.
The researchers randomly assigned the preschoolers in the study to one of three groups. Some kids learned new patterns with the bugs, and then had to explain the pattern into a tape recorder. Another group explained the patterns to their moms, who were instructed to listen but not say anything. And the third group didn’t explain at all.
Then, the researchers tested the kids with more patterns, some just like the ones kids had already seen, and some a tad more challenging. The results show that when preschoolers explain to mom, they learn better.
Rittle-Johnson’s experiment is one you can try at home. But parents, don’t expect sophisticated philosophy from your preschooler. Rittle-Johnson says when moms and kids come in for the experiment, “We always tell moms, the kids might not say things that are not particularly good. But that doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about it.” Kiddie-style explanations include lots of pointing and some story telling.
Still, Rittle-Johnson says the kids who explained to mom stayed focused on the task better, so these kids were able to learn the patterns better. “And so partially it’s just the act of explaining to mom gets you maybe be a little less off-task,” she says.
For kids who didn’t explain to mom, explanations got more off track. “Their explanations are like, ‘Well, the purple caterpillar flies through the air and it goes right, and it lands right here,’” says Rittle-Johnson, “so they’re really talking about nothing related to the pattern. Or they’ll say, ‘I really like spiders,’ and that’s why the spider goes there.”
According to the study, kids who explained either to the tape recorder or to mom performed equally well on less complex patterns. On the test, kids who explained to mom got 75 percent correct, kids who explained to the tape recorder got 72 percent, and kids who didn’t explain at all performed the worst, at 42 percent.
But with the more challenging problems, kids who explained to mom outperformed the kids who explained to the tape recorder. Rittle-Johnson says, “The kids who explained to their moms, they had gotten it more. They were better able to solve these harder problems.” These kids scored 64 percent on the complex patterns, while tape recorder kids scored only 39 percent, and the kids who didn’t explain scored a dismal 19 percent.
The next step, says Rittle-Johnson, may be to see if kids learn better by explaining to younger siblings or people who don’t know the answers. She says it’s “harder to pull that one off” because for the experiment, she’d have to convince toddlers to sit and listen to their older siblings.
But for now, based on her study, Rittle-Johnson has some advice. “Parents and teachers and aunts and uncles–anyone who wants their kid to actually learn stuff: this explanation process is a really good thing to do and so, don’t just make your kid listen. Have them explain, too,” she says.
And what if you’re having a hard time with an idea of your own? Maybe it’s time to give mom a call.
This research by Rittle-Johnson, Megan Saylor, and Kathryn Swygert was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, available online November 19, 2007 and was funded by Vanderbilt University.
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