Making the Most of Kids’ “Why?” Phase

by Guest Blogger
April 16th, 2014

“If you finish your peas, I’ll tell you why the sky is blue.”

“If you put your toys in the bin, I’ll explain why kangaroos have pouches.”

“If you brush your teeth, I’ll tell you why some Native Americans used to move frequently instead of building permanent homes.”

Win-win. Sounds too great to be true—but it might not be. A recent study finds that young children will voluntarily do a boring task if they are rewarded with “causally rich knowledge.”

Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. Young children are delightfully infamous for asking why over and over. Long ago, a walk along a river bank with one of my nieces became downright existential within 20 minutes. The sun, the moon, the water, the frogs, the people—why do they shine, sparkle, jump, talk … why are we all here…. I answered as best I could, took mental notes on books to buy, picked one topic to research together when we got home, and suggested we make dandelion bracelets.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Even if you’re not surprised by the main finding, this study is still worth a quick read. Why? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) Because the researchers tease out exactly what is motivating the three- and four-year-olds to persist with the boring task (putting 25 pegs in a peg board). The four conditions tested—no reward, stickers, causally rich information, and causally weak information—offer some interesting nuances. Stickers worked, of course, but not as well as you might guess. Being rewarded with causally rich knowledge was the only condition that significantly increased children’s persistence. (I’m dreaming of this headline: Sticker Sales Plummet: Teachers Say Rewarding Curiosity Is More Powerful than Gold Stars.)

Strikingly, causally weak information had no effect—the results were the same as in the no reward condition. Motivation came specifically from being told why—not merely being told that. To ensure that causal richness was the only distinguishing factor in the two knowledge conditions, the researchers created images of several animals and artifacts to show to the children and then carefully crafted descriptions. Here are two of the items invented for the study:

Knoweldge Reward

We shouldn’t ever make too much of one study, but this one does give teachers and caregivers some ideas to play with harmlessly. If you can get in the habit of focusing on causation while presenting information, you just might have a powerful tool. Among potential benefits, the researchers note that causally rich information might be useful as a reward for necessary-but-not-so-interesting tasks like “practicing penmanship or math facts” (of course, this study would have to be repeated to see if older children perceive such information as a reward). And, using information as a reward may help avoid the detriments to internal motivation that can arise with tangible rewards.

Demographics Isn’t Destiny. Vocabulary is Destiny.

by Robert Pondiscio
October 8th, 2012

There’s a must-read piece in the New York Times by Ginia Bellafante about language, poverty and academic achievement.  The article is ostensibly about the controversy over admissions to New York City’s specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant High and Bronx Science.  But Bellafante wisely traces the problem back to its origins and the systemic advantage of growing up in a hyper-verbal upscale Manhattan home.

“It is difficult to overstate the advantages arrogated to a child whose parent proceeds in a near constant mode of annotation. Reflexively, the affluent, ambitious parent is always talking, pointing out, explaining: Mommy is looking for her laptop; let’s put on your rain boots; that’s a pigeon, a sand dune, skyscraper, a pomegranate. The child, in essence, exists in continuous receipt of dictation.”

Low-income homes?  Not so much.  Bellafante describes a conversation with the founder of the Ascend Learning Charter School network, which serves largely low-income black children in Brooklyn.  “I asked him what he considered the greatest challenge on the first day of kindergarten each year,” Bellafante writes.  “He answered, without a second’s hesitation: ‘Word deficit.’”  She cites the now-familiar (hopefully) Hart and Risley study that demonstrated profound deficits in the number of words heard by children growing up in poverty in the first years of life.  She also cites E.D. Hirsch’s observation that “there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success” [my emphasis].

In short, demographics is not destiny.  But vocabulary just might be.

Note that Hirsch cited “general knowledge AND vocabulary.”  Before we convert early childhood education into extended vocabulary enhancement exercises with word lists to be memorized, it’s essential to understand how big vocabularies are created.  We don’t learn words through memorization, but by repeated exposure to unfamiliar words in context, and general knowledge is context. My Core Knowledge colleague Alice Wiggins uses the example of the unfamiliar word “excrescence.”   You probably don’t know what it means, so here it is in a sentence:

 “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of plane’s cabin.”

Not helping?  Here’s another:

“Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.”

After two exposures, you might have a vague understanding of the word.  Another sentence enables you to check your understanding, or refine your definition.

 “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.”

By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of what an excrescence is.  One more sentence should verify it.

 “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.

I never gave you the definition, or asked you to look it up.  But you figured the word excrescence means an abnormal projection or outgrowth.

This is an accelerated example of how we acquire new words:  by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading.  But critically, think of all the words and knowledge you already had that enabled you to learn the new word.  You know about engineers and strokes and warts.  You didn’t have to stop and wonder what “fuel efficiency” and “aerospace” and “self-conscious” mean.  You’re already rich in knowledge and vocabulary and you just got a little richer.  A child without that background knowledge hearing the same sentences would not learn the knew word and would fall a little further behind his more verbal peers.  Thank or blame the insidious “Matthew Effect.”  Bellafante’s excellent piece makes the same point implicitly with its description of the three-year-old child who understands what an upholsterer does and that the piece of furniture in his apartment is called an “ottoman.”

“All of this would seem to argue for a system in which we spent ever more of our energies and money on early, preschool education rather than less,” concludes Bellafante.

Yes, but let’s be VERY clear:  What is needed to close the verbal gap is not just preschool.  Not even “high quality” preschool.  What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.


Align PreK and Elementary Ed Standards

by Alice Wiggins
April 22nd, 2009

So far this week, I’ve discussed two ways to improve U.S. early childhood education—changing the way we evaluate preschools (and preschool teachers) and establishing clear and specific preschool learning standards.  The third item on my wish list is aligning preschool and elementary school standards.

Creating a seamless PreK to elementary school system is also the No. 1 item on the “to do” list of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE).  In a paper titled Promoting Quality in PreK-Grade 3 Classrooms by Dr. Mariana Haynes, NASBE’s research director, argued for aligning not just standards, but curricula, assessment and teaching practices for Pre-K through grade three, to reflect what research tells us about learning environments on children’s developmental outcomes.  “This is an important foundational step to creating the infrastructure for a coherent, evidence-based early learning system,” Haynes wrote. “States may want to examine how to create incentives for school districts and early education providers to partner in building a seamless prekindergarten through grade three system,” she concluded.

A New America Foundation report by Kristie Kauerz also makes a strong argument for advancing the alignment of PK through grade 3. Lack of availability of high-quality preschool for all children (we’ll talk about this later this week!) coupled with the absence of alignment between PK and subsequent grades results in classes that include some children who have the background knowledge and academic gains for preschool and some children who do not. As a result, Kauerz notes “teacher must focus on those children who do not have the relevant and necessary cognitive or social skills, thereby being forced to slow and level down the curriculum and pedagogy in order not to leave behind less well prepared children.”  The result?  Children who arrived well prepared are often hindered in their continued progress.

Kauerz goes on to cite a study of elementary school in California that “analyzed why some schools score substantially better on the state’s academic performance index than other schools with similar students. Practices found to be associated with higher performance included school-wide instructional consistency within grades, curricular alignment from grade-to-grade, and classroom instruction guided by state academic standards (Williams, Kirst, & Haertel, 2005).”

It’s safe to say that one unambiguous victory of the standards-based education movement has been a general rise in expectations, especially in schools serving low-SES children.  Clear and specific preschool learning standards would ensure that children transition more smoothly to kindergarten bringing with them social skills and foundational skills and knowledge for ongoing educational achievement.  Aligning those standards with a state’s existing K-8 standards would be better still.

Improving Preschool Education: Clear and Specific Standards

by Alice Wiggins
April 20th, 2009

Explicitly defining what very young children should know and be able to do is a very touchy issue. An Australian education group recently suggested that preschoolers should be made aware of different jobs and careers. Sounds reasonable but the idea from Principals Australia was roundly lampooned in the local media as “career counseling” for toddlers.  The belief the preschool should be all free play and socialization still runs very deep.  However, the National Research Council report called Eager to Learn: Educating our Preschoolers notes these opportunities for learning:

Good teachers acknowledge and encourage children’s efforts, model and demonstrate, create challenges and support children in extending their capabilities, and provide specific directions or instruction. All of these teaching strategies can be used in the context of play and structured activities. Effective teachers also organize the classroom environment and plan ways to pursue educational goals for each child as opportunities arise in child-initiated activities and in activities planned and initiated by the teacher.

This week, I’ll describe five specific ideas to improve preschool education in the U.S.  The first is the establishment of clear and specific early childhood learning standards. There are several practical benefits to explicitly specifying what children should know and be able to do. Research clearly documents the positive benefits of a preschool education guided by standards for all children, regardless of socioeconomic level and family background.

It also safeguards all children against the likelihood of lower expectations and watered-down curricula.  Early childhood education is not immune from the accountability pressures that now characterize K-12 education in the U.S. Clear and explicit early childhood standards make sense not just as a mere accountability measure, but as an early intervention to address the achievement gap. With a significant investment in preschool education anticipated under the Obama administration, specific standards are a way to ensure that early childhood care and education programs are actually delivering on their promise–to ensure children arrive in elementary school ready to learn. Nowhere is this more important than for low-SES children.

Standards come in two basic flavors: specific and squishy. Or if you prefer, content and process. This is true in K-12 standards, and it’s also true of preschool standards. A typical state standard might state that preschoolers should be able to “apply knowledge of whole numbers.” Fine, but what does that look like? The Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence clearly states that preschoolers should be able to recite the number sequence from one to ten; demonstrate one-to-one correspondence with concrete objects (laying out a plate for every member of the family at mealtime, for example); construct a collection of objects so that it has the same number of objects as another group; count groups of objects with up to 6 objects per group; given an oral number, create a group with the correct number of objects, up to 6.  Before a child comes to kindergarten he or she should also be able to name and write numerals up to six, arrange and write them in order, and be able to tell which is greater or less.

By knowing more specifically what the goals and skills are, teachers can plan activities to meet those goals (think about the difficulty in planning activities to meet squishy goals). Additionally, teachers are better able to assess where children are with a skill or goal if it is specifically defined. How can I assess whether a child can apply knowledge of whole numbers? I can easily assess if children can count to six, write numbers, or arrange them in order.

$7,000 For Blocks and Play-Doh?

by Robert Pondiscio
October 24th, 2008

Parents pay an average of $7,000 a year for preschool education, a pricetag that leaves some parents reeling in uncertain economic times.  ”This is blocks and Play-Doh, essentially. What are we doing?” Elizabeth Henderson, a mother of three in Tustin, Calif., tells Smart Money.  She pays $500 a month to send her youngest to a nearby preschool for three half-days a week.

Forced to choose between paying for preschool and saving for college, the magazine notes, parents are increasingly looking at three options: Parent co-op preschools, where parents take turns working in the classroom with the kids and teacher; at-home day care with an educational bent; and homeschooling.

You can always try this too.  Play-doh not included.

Mommy and Me

by Robert Pondiscio
September 11th, 2008

Children who were most prepared for kindergarten in a San Francisco study tended to be older girls who attended preschool, had no special needs, and mothers who went to college, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. 

The mother’s education was the most closely aligned with a child’s readiness, trumping all other characteristics including family income, ethnicity and English language ability. The study didn’t address why these characteristics were associated with being ready for kindergarten, but only noted the connection.

Researchers who evaluated 447 of last year’s kindergartners across San Francisco schools found that while half lack at least some needed skills, 11 percent were deficient both academically and socially.  They also found that preschool experience was a common trait among kids who showed up ready to learn, the paper reports.

All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Troubled Boy

by Robert Pondiscio
September 9th, 2008

What’s wrong with boys?  Last week we learned that parents of nearly one of every five U.S. boys have sought professional help about their sons’ emotional or behavioral problems.  Newsweek’s Peg Tyre thinks it has a lot to do with changing child rearing and education practices over the last ten years–overscheduling, instead of structured play.  Learning Mandarin in preschool instead of playing Duck, Duck, Goose.  Schools, says Tyre, have become increasingly terra incognita for boys

In many communities, elementary schools have become test-prep factories—where standardized testing begins in kindergarten and “teaching to the test” is considered a virtue. At the same time, recess is being pushed aside in order to provide extra time for reading and math drills. So is history and opportunities for hands-on activities—like science labs and art. Active play is increasingly frowned on—some schools have even banned recess and tag. In the wake of school shootings like the tragedy at Virginia Tech, kids who stretch out a pointer finger, bend their thumb and shout “pow!” are regarded with suspicion and not a little fear.

In short, the bar of our expectations for kids has been set higher, but the psychological and physical development of our children hasn’t changed.  “Some kids are thriving in the changing world,” notes Tyre.  “But many aren’t. What parents and teachers see is that the ones who can’t handle it are disproportionately boys.”

The Problem With Preschool

by Robert Pondiscio
August 22nd, 2008

Mom, apple pie and universal PreK?  Not so fast argue Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell of the libertarian Reason Foundation in today’s Wall Street Journal.  With the exception of “very intense interventions targeted toward severely disadvantaged kids, “there’s little statistical evidence that strapping a backpack on all 4-year-olds and sending them to preschool is good for them.” While U.S. preschool attendance has gone up to nearly 70% from 16% in the last half century, they note, fourth-grade reading, science, and math scores on the NAEP have stayed flat since the early 1970s.

Preschool activists at the Pew Charitable Trust and Pre-K Now — two major organizations pushing universal preschool — refuse to take this evidence seriously. The private preschool market, they insist, is just glorified day care. Not so with quality, government-funded preschools with credentialed teachers and standardized curriculum. But the results from Oklahoma and Georgia — both of which implemented universal preschool a decade or more ago — paint an equally dismal picture.

 Dalmia and Snell maintain that preschool gains don’t stick because the K-12 system “is too dysfunctional to maintain them.”

“Our understanding of the effects of preschool is still very much in its infancy. But one inescapable conclusion from the existing research is that it is not for everyone. Kids with loving and attentive parents — the vast majority — might well be better off spending more time at home than away in their formative years. The last thing that public policy should do is spend vast new sums of taxpayer dollars to incentivize a premature separation between toddlers and parents.”

Update:  Richard Whitmire, guesting over at eduwonk, is having none of this.

More Fuel for the Fire

by Robert Pondiscio
July 30th, 2008

Poor Mexican children who participate in a government program with extensive family services are further ahead in kindergarten than the average Canadian kid, according to new research.

Mexican authorities in 1990 implemented a system of programs called CENDI (the Spanish acronym for Centres for Early Childhood Development) in Monterrey, an industrial city roughly the size of Greater Toronto, that provides community supports to low-income households from the time of pregnancy through to preschool. The programs are similar to what Canadian early childhood researcher Dr. Fraser Mustard has long been advocating in Canada, the Toronto Star reports

“You can’t dump the whole responsibility (for childhood development) on families,” says Mustard, who advocates creating community “hubs” – ideally in local schools – where they can obtain nutrition and health advice from professionals, take part in parenting programs and involve their tots in programs. “Mustard says that way, parents get the support they need to do a better job, and problems can be caught and treated early on,” notes the paper.

The research will undoubtedly be used to bolster the argument of those who favor a broader social services role for schools.  It’s hard to imagine broad comments about dumping the whole responsibility for raising children on families, however, playing well in the U.S.

Is EF the New IQ?

by Robert Pondiscio
June 6th, 2008

NewsweekEF is the new IQ, Newsweek reports. “Executive function” is the ability to resist distraction and focus. Experiments conducted psychologist Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia suggest EF may be more important to academic success than traditional measures of intelligence.

Diamond convinced a large low-income urban school district to let her experiment with its preschoolers. Half the classrooms, involving hundreds of children, adopted a new curriculum specifically designed to boost EF, while the other half used a more traditional academic curriculum aimed at basic literacy.

The EF curriculum has many strands, but here are a few just to give a flavor. Instead of keeping the classroom quiet, kids are actually taught and encouraged to talk to themselves, privately but aloud, as a way of helping them exert mental control. In one exercise, for example, the kids have to match their movements to symbols. When the teacher holds up a circle they clap, with a triangle they hop, and so forth. The kids are taught to talk themselves through the mental exercise: “OK, now clap.” “Twirl now.” This has been shown to flex and enhance the brain’s ability to switch gears, to suppress one piece of information and sub in a new one. It takes discipline; it’s the elementary school equivalent of saying “I really need stop thinking about next week’s vacation and focus on this report.”

Preschoolers with sharper executive capability reportedly outperform their more traditional peers in basic skills, especially mathematics, when they hit kindergarten. “In other words, as counterintuitive as it seems, early exposure to dramatic play and cognitive games better prepares kids for mastery of traditional academics,” Newsweek reports.

I wonder what Dan Willingham will have to say about this.

Update: Willingham posts in the comments for this thread.