To Help Children Learn Deeply, Ask Them To Explain

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Children are quick to ask “why?” and “how?” when it comes to new things, but research suggests elementary and preschool students learn more when teachers (and, presumably, parents) turn the questions back on them, writes Sarah Sparks in Education Week.

Sparks reports on a symposium at the annual Association for Psychological Science research meeting held late last month, where panelists discussed how and when asking students for explanations can best enhance their learning:

“’Often students are able to say facts, but not able to understand the underlying mathematics concept, or transfer a problem in math to a similar problem in chemistry,’ said Joseph Jay Williams, a cognitive science and online education researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

For example, a student asked to explain why 2 x 3 = 6 cannot simply memorize and parrot the answer, but must understand the underlying relationship between multiplication and addition, 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.

‘We know generating explanations leads to better educational outcomes generally. When children explain events, they learn more than when just getting feedback about the accuracy of their predictions,’ said Cristine H. Legare, an assistant psychology professor and the director of the Cognition, Culture, and Development Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin.

In forthcoming research with UC-Berkeley, Ms. Legare brought in 96 children ages 3 to 5 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 focused on different things, researchers found. Children who were asked to observe noticed the colors of the toy, while those asked to explain focused on the chain of gears working on each other to eventually turn the propeller when the child turned the crank at the other end.

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.

The children who had observed the toy outperformed the children in the explanation group on a memory task focused on the toy’s colors.” (Read more here.)

Fascinating: asking children to explain rather than observe leads them to focus differently, act differently, and ultimately learn differently. Of course, there are situations in which observing is the skill we want to cultivate—but this research is a good reminder that being asked to explain (as opposed to listening to someone else’s explanation) is often a great way to promote deep learning.

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9 Responses to “To Help Children Learn Deeply, Ask Them To Explain”

  1. Asking children to write their explanations may have similar benefits in some contexts.

  2. scott burry says:

    I like the ideas in this article, and Evelyn’s comment as well.

  3. Christian says:

    This is brilliant. My mother told me about this technique, actually. She didn’t name it as a specific science or anything, it’s just something she had noticed while raising us.

    I use this technique with my own children and I find the more I ask them to explain, the more we both understand.

  4. Another great way to get kids thinking is to get them asking the questions vs. us always asking them the questions.

  5. Muhammad says:

    This is really wonderful and very fruitful activity. I hope to use it with my students.

  6. Ajish Kumar says:

    Which is better: to observe or to explain? Answer: They are both valuable. Kids are curious about everything, and impatient, too. Their attention span is shorter than adults’. We need to coach them in order for them to get better at observing and explaining.

  7. Yes, I use this in my math tutoring. It builds self confidence and reduces math anxiety when a student can ” teach the teacher! ” In a classroom, there has to be an atmosphere of trust first so students feel OK about “not knowing” in front of their peers. I’ve even congratulated students for making “mistakes” because I know that they are about to learn something. i.e., if they already know the answer, what is there to learn? I’ve had mixed results using the technique, however. I am prepared to ask leading questions with hints for shy or struggling students. However, after s/he has explained the entire process, I ask for a summary. The new Common Core Standards emphasize being able to justify an answer, and explain own’s own logic, and identify mis-steps in wrong answers.

  8. Children are smarter than we give them credit for. They are able to pick up adult nuances real fast, the question is, do we give them a chance. Obviously a controlled environment will result in differing results. The mind of a child can be its own playground, depends on what “toys” the child interacts with.

  9. Ashley Wells says:

    Just as with building a muscle, using the skill will strengthen it, making it easier to use in the future.

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