School topics for the science-minded
© 2011-2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
The need for evidence-based education
When should kids start school? What should we teach them? How should we teach
Research can help us answer these questions. And we should pay attention.
schools adopt the wrong programs and practices, money gets wasted. Students may
get steered in directions that limit creativity or sap motivation. They may
experience conditions that increase the development of behavior problems. Kids
might even get misdiagnosed with learning or attention problems--like ADHD.
Unfortunately, the research that is most helpful for assessing
educational practices--randomized, controlled studies of real-world
practices--isn’t very common.
So until there is more rigorous, applied research, we have to make do.
Insights from pure research, like
this experiment on the effects of negative feedback,
suggest new approaches to teaching.
And we can make informed guesses based on correlations,
cross-cultural comparisons, and quasi-experimental studies conducted in
Below is a guide to evidence-based research on variety of school topics, including teaching self-discipline,
preventing summer learning loss, assessing homeschooling outcomes,
and determining the appropriateness of homework for young children,
I'll continue to add new articles over time.
When should formal schooling begin?
To profit from schooling, kids need a certain amount of maturity.
They need to control their impulses and pay attention. They need a
working memory capacity big enough to keep a teacher’s instructions “in
mind” as they work. And they need a certain amount of emotional and
When do these traits come together?
Around the world, most societies have assumed kids aren’t ready
until they are at least 5-7 years old. But in some places, academic
instruction begins much earlier. In the United Kingdom, formal schooling
now begins at the age of 4. And some American preschools have adopted
curricula once reserved for primary schools.
Is this unprecedented push for early academics a good idea?
Human beings are flexible creatures, and it’s possible for them
to thrive under a variety of conditions. So the novelty of early
academics isn’t necessarily a mark against them. But some people worry
about the consequences of pushing young children too hard.
To date, the most relevant experimental evidence against early
academics comes from the labs of Alison Gopnik and Laura Schultz.
In two different studies, 4-year-old children were presented with
new toys and given opportunities to play with them. Some kids were
given instructions by a “teacher” (an authoritative adult) about how to
work the new toys. Other kids were not.
The difference mattered.
When given adult instructions, kids tended to accept those
instructions uncritically. If the advice turned out to be illogical,
they didn’t seem to notice. And the kids showed less initiative and
creativity during play.
You can read more about these experiments here.
Is early schooling too academic for young kids?
There is no clear answer to this, but studies hint that – for many kids –
there is a mismatch between their capabilities and the expectations of the
On the one hand, Mimi Engels and her colleagues (2013) present evidence
that American kindergarteners have been taught mathematics concepts they’ve
already mastered, and exposure to these redundant classroom lessons has been
linked with poorer academic progress during the kindergarten school year.
On the other hand, it seems likely that some developmentally-normal kids are
being held to behavioral standards that are unrealistic.
One study estimates
that 20% of American kindergarteners have been inappropriately diagnosed with
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder because they are younger, and
therefore less socially mature, than other kids in the classroom (Elder 2010). To
read more about the difficulty of diagnosing ADHD, click here.
But what about the idea of teaching self-control? Doesn’t early education
teach children how to behave in more mature ways? If you send a three-year-old
to preschool, won’t he learn to pay attention, follow directions, and control
There may be ways to foster these skills in very young children. But a recent study suggests that most American
preschools, as they exist today, aren’t having significant
effects in these areas (Skibbe et al 2011).
So I think we need to test the idea that very early classroom experiences can
substantially accelerate the development of attention and what psychologists
call executive control. And we should keep in mind that impulsivity isn’t always bad.
tracking elementary school kids found that young children who blurted out
answers to arithmetic problems made more errors in the short-term, but
developed into faster and more accurate mathematicians by the sixth grade
(Bailey et al 2012). Researchers think the kids’ willingness to risk a wrong
answer led to more learning opportunities and ultimate mastery. For details,
see this evidence-based education blog post for BabyCenter.
Do teacher relationships matter?
When people talk about improving schools, they often focus
on curricula, test scores, and educational technology. But what about the
personal factor? The relationships that individual children have with their
Many studies have reported that kids who feel liked and supported by
their teachers do better in school, and it’s not merely because children who
appeal to teachers tend to be more attentive or studious. Kids with behavior
problems and other risk factors for poor outcomes seem to benefit the most from
having emotionally-supportive teachers.
Moreover, the benefits of a good relationship are
far-reaching and substantial.
To read more about student-teacher relationships
– including their effects on a child’s stress-response system, long-term
mathematics achievement, and problem-solving speed – see my Parenting Science
review of the research.
Can we help kids cope with school stress?
Stress isn’t necessarily harmful. We need a certain amount
of stress to feel challenged and fulfilled. But some kids experience the bad
sort of stress, and it can damage health and interfere with academic
Not surprisingly, school bullying is one source of toxic
stress (Fekkes et al 2006). Chronic anxiety about high-stakes exams and fear of
teacher punishment are others (Hesketh et al 2010). But kids facing unusual
levels of hostility or performance pressure aren’t the only ones who find
In a recently published study, Dutch investigators analyzed
hair samples from 4-year-olds to measure concentrations of the stress hormone
cortisol. When the researchers compared hormone levels before and after the
children had begun elementary school, they found that cortisol levels had
increased after school entry, particularly in temperamentally fearful kids (Groeneveld
et al 2013).
Another study, conducted in Germany, suggests that the average elementary
school child experiences higher afternoon cortisol levels as the school week
progresses – a sign that the stress response system is under strain (Ahnert et
al 2013). Perhaps many kids are more stressed than we realize.
If so, there are remedies. The German study also found that
the kids with the least abnormal hormone profiles were the ones involved in
warm, supportive student-teacher relationships.
Other research suggests that having
just one good friend can buffer kids from the harmful psychological effects of
peer rejection and bullying (Bagwell et al 1998; Hodges et al 1999; Pederson et
al 2007; Oh et al 2008).
And parents can help kids cope by offering emotional
warmth and promoting a resilient, effort-based attitude about achievement.
more information about school-related stress, see my article, "The dark side of preschool," and my blog posts
For other information about helping children cope, see my articles about friendship in children and the importance of sensitive, responsive parenting.
What about classroom discipline?
Students need to
follow directions in class and to treat others with respect and kindness. What’s the best way to achieve these goals?
In one intriguing
experiment, students attending a punitive, disciplinarian school showed a
greater tendency to lie about their transgressions or mistakes. They’d
obviously learned the value of being sneaky (Talwar and Lee 2011).
suggest that spanking is less effective than other, non-physical forms of
And research on the counterproductive effects of public shaming
makes me question the routine use of classroom behavior charts to enforce
These points suggest that a more positive approach works better.
As I explain in this article, an intriguing experiment hints that we can encourage kids to better regulate their own behavior with a few, almost magical words.
And a variety of studies suggest that children's self control depends, in large part, on the way we treat them. For evidence-based information on how we can foster self-control in children, see this Parenting Science review.
Should we group students by age?
The modern classroom of 25+ students--all approximately the same
age--is often taken for granted. How else would we educate kids? But
from the standpoint of history and evolution, it’s an unusual approach.
Throughout most of human history, kids spent their time in mixed-aged playgroups.
The idea of herding together a large cohort of children the same
age--and separating them from everyone else, including most adults--would have been considered strange.
What are the educational consequences of an aged-based classroom?
It’s more efficient from the standpoint of educating large groups of
kids. But individuals might miss out.
From a social and emotional standpoint, older kids may lose important opportunities to practice altruism, empathy, and perspective-taking with younger children.
Younger kids might miss opportunities to play with older, more
sophisticated kids. For a brief discussion of research about the
benefits of mixed age groups, read by blog post on the subject.
How much homework should kids do?
Some writers--like Alfie Kohn--argue that nobody should do homework. I
don't agree. If kids are headed to college--or any white collar
job--they will need read a lot, and read critically. They will need to
organize and complete written projects on their own. Today’s
undergraduates are often unprepared for this sort of work. Perhaps some
of these students aren’t doing enough homework in high school.
But I have serious misgivings about the new trend of assigning
substantial amounts of homework to young children. There is very little
research on the subject,
but good reason for concern.
What should be part of your child’s curriculum?
Science, critical thinking, and evidence-based education
Everybody agrees that reading, writing, and mathematics are core subjects.
What else should be required?
I’d like to see more science topics incorporated into the everyday
curriculum of preschool and primary school students.
discusses evidence-based education practices for teaching science to kids,
and includes links to science activities.
I’d also like to see critical thinking become a core academic subject in
A recent study of American
undergraduates suggests that almost 40% of college students are graduating without
making any improvements in their critical thinking abilities.
That’s alarming, but I’m even more concerned that we aren’t teaching
critical thinking before college. Because it might make a big
Research suggests that middle
school students make substantial improvements in their analytical abilities
when we teach them the formal principles of logic and rationality.
Kids may also learn a lot about critical thinking when we teach them to debate.
Read about an
intriguing experiment on middle school students here.
What about other additions to your child’s curriculum?
Spatial skills are critical for many careers, not just in the STEM fields
(science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but also in mechanical work
and the arts. There is good evidence that children can improve their spatial
intelligence through training.
Some tactics aren’t obvious. For instance, researchers suspect that young
children improve spatial skills when they practice fine motor tasks, like
tracing and copying geometric designs. For more ideas about how to promote
spatial intelligence, see these evidence-based tips.
There is also compelling evidence that kids will become better students--and improve their math scores--when
they are taught about the plasticity of intelligence. This may be
especially important in Western cultures where many people tend to believe that
intelligence is fixed at birth.
And computers may be helpful for individualized drills and practice in
math, reading, and other topics.
James Kulik (2003) analyzed almost 400 studies of computers in the
classroom—including 61 controlled studies published after 1990.
Overall, he found that elementary and high school students using computer
tutorials made substantial gains over kids in control groups--more than
enough to boost their test scores from a “C” average to a “B” average.
But of course it’s crucial to identify good
And what about the humanities -- like literature, music, and the visual arts? When schools lacking funding, programs in the arts are usually the first to get eliminated. It might seem like the only option, but we should consider the potential cost.
Appreciating and participating in the arts is one of the things that make life worth living. But even putting aside the immediate psychological rewards, studying the humanities has long-term, practical consequences. Experiments confirm that music lessons shape the brain and alter perception. Reading stories and novels can boost perspective-taking skills (Ornaghi et al 2014; Kidd and Castano 2013). And researchers report links between health, well-being, and participation in creative activities (Cuypers et al 2012).
There is also evidence that exposure to fantasy fiction makes kids more creative -- an outcome relevant to success in business and STEM fields as well as the arts (Subbotsky et al 2010).
Why kids need recess
In some places, traditional recess--a time for kids to take a break
from their studies and play freely outdoors--is being eliminated or
This worries many people who have strong intuitions about the
importance of recess. It’s a powerful folk belief. Does the research
support it? I think it does.
Randomized, controlled studies on overweight children suggest
that aerobic exercise can improve attention, self control, as well as
academic performance. In some studies,
kids enjoyed a boost in their math skills and even their IQ scores.
And experiments on rodents have revealed that cardiovascular
exercise triggers brain cell growth and facilitates learning. But these
effects have been associated with voluntary exercise--not forced
Read more about these studies--and their implications for evidence-based education--
References: Evidence-based education
Bonawitz E, Shafto P, Gweon H, Goodman ND, Spelke E and Shultz L.
2011. The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous
exploration and discovery. Cognition 120(3): 322-330.
Buchsbaum B, Gopnik A, Griffiths TL, and Shafto P. 2011.
Children’s imitation of causal action sequences is influenced by
statistical and pedagogical evidence. Cognition 120(3): 331-340.
Cuypers K, Krokstad S, Holmen TL, Skjei Knudtsen M, Bygren LO, Holmen J. 2012. Patterns
of receptive and creative cultural activities and their association
with perceived health, anxiety, depression and satisfaction with life
among adults: the HUNT study, Norway. J Epidemiol Community Health. 66(8):698-703.
Davies P. 1999. What is evidence-based education? British Journal of Educational Studies 47(2) 108-121.
DC and Castano E. 2013. Reading literary fiction improves theory of
mind. Science. 342(6156):377-80.
Kulik J. 2003. Effects of using instructional technology in
elementary and secondary schools: What controlled evaluation studies
say. Arlington, Virginia: SRI International. Retrieved October 3, 2003
V, Brockmeier J, Grazzani I. 2014. Enhancing social cognition by
training children in emotion understanding: A primary school study.J Exp
Child Psychol. 119:26-39. - See more at:
Slavin RE. 2002. Evidence-based education policies: Transforming educational practice and research. Educational Researcher
Subbotsky E, Hysted C, Jones N. 2010. Watching films with magical content facilitates creativity in children. Percept Mot Skills 111(1):261-77.
Content of "Evidence-based education" last modified 3/14
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