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How “Why” Improves Learning

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — A team of developmental psychologists in California is trying to find ways to help children learn more effectively. It might surprise parents to know that using only one prompt seems to be a great place to start.

Five-year-old Nicholas Chalker was shown a set of blocks with different features. Some of them played music when put on the box, some didn’t.

Children in the study were asked why they thought each block did or did not cause the music to play. Asking children “why” helps them focus on abstract information, like cause and effect.

“You’re just asking them to elaborate on something that they’ve already observed and just that process seems to support learning,” explained Caren Walker, PhD, a professor of psychology at UCSD.

Walker said children who explained what they just saw were more likely to build on previous knowledge. Many studies show that incorporating why prompts improves learning in elementary school children. She wanted to see what happened in younger kids.

“What we find is that sort of, regardless of the explanations that they actually generate, just that process of engaging the explanations they’re trying to come up with seems to be the thing that’s doing the bulk of the work,” Walker told Ivanhoe.

Professor Walker has also found that asking “why” while reading to children has a similar effect. Nicholas’ parents already do that and are pleased that they’re able to improve his learning.

“It’s definitely important for him to be able to learn as effectively as possible, especially in this day and age, when there’s more that kids need to learn,” detailed Nicholas’ dad, Steven Chalker.

Professor Walker warns that “why” does not work across the board in learning. Sometimes you want children to learn exactly what is in front of them, like a color or a shape.

Professor Walker said there’s no data on long-term effects of having preschool-aged kids explain while learning yet, but she expects the exercise will have a positive influence down the road.

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Wendy Chioji, Field Producer; Milvionne Chery, News Producer; Roque Correa, Editor; Rusty Reed, Videographer.

Produced by Child Trends News Service in partnership with Ivanhoe Broadcast News and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. 

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