School topics for the science-minded
© 2011 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
The need for evidence-based education
When should kids start school? What should we teach them? What approaches work the best?
Research can help us answer these questions. And we should pay attention.
When schools adopt the wrong programs and practices, money gets wasted.
Students may get steered in directions that limit creativity or increase the likelihood of behavior problems.
Kids might even get misdiagnosed with learning or attention problems--like
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 criticism on kindergartners--
suggest new approaches to teaching.
And we can make informed guesses based on correlations, cross-cultural comparisons, and quasi-experimental studies conducted in schools.
Below is a guide to evidence-based articles about a variety of school topics, including
homework for young children,
preventing summer learning loss.
I'll be adding more in the future.
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 social sophistication.
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?
Research suggests that
schools are mislabeling developmentally normal kids as ADHD
Is this happening because schools are expecting too much maturity from kindergarteners? I suspect so.
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 his impulses?
There may be ways to foster these skills in very young children. But a recent study suggests that American preschools—as they exist today—aren’t having significant effects in these areas (Skibbe et al 2011).
I think we need to question--and test scientifically--the idea that very early classroom experiences can substantially accelerate the development of attention and what psychologists call executive control.
For an overview of promising tactics, see my article about
evidence-based education tips for teaching self-control.
Some parents seem to believe that early academic experiences--beginning in preschool--will have a decisive effect on their children’s chances of being accepted to exclusive, elite universities many years later.
Are these worries justified? I don’t think so, and I’m concerned that some kids are being pushed too hard, too early. You can read more about it in my editorial, "Preschool track to the Ivy League?"
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, click here.
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.
This page 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 school.
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 difference.
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?
Some strike me as hopeful gimmicks that probably won’t have a big impact. For instance, I’ve argued that that schools probably aren’t justified in making chess a required subject.
But there is compelling evidence that
kids have become better students--and improved their math scores--when they were taught about the plasticity of intelligence.
Computers may also 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 educational software.
What about 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 replaced.
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 exercise.
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.
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 from http://www.sri.com/policy/csted/reports/sandt/it/Kulik_ITinK-12_Main_Report.pdf.
Content last modified 9/11
image of girl student © Alessandro Pucci;image of Afghani kindergarten by Gary Cook, USAID;image of preschool graduation © Gideon Tseng;image of goslings by Tristram at Picasa Web Albums