Students and Teachers : Research at Boston Children’s Museum

Leah LessardBoston Children’s Museum works closely with researchers from local universities to conduct studies into child development, cognition and more; and to translate the latest studies and findings for the general public in order to make a positive impact on parenting practices. Look for articles each month about these researchers’ work, their reflections and themselves. As part of our continuing series sharing details about research happening at Boston Children’s Museum, here is some information about the work being conducted by Leah, from MIT’s Early Childhood Cognition Lab:

My research at Boston Children’s Museum is focused on the topic of teaching and learning. I am working on two projects. One asks child participants to teach others, and another asks them to evaluate teachers.

Previous research has shown that children have certain expectations of teachers. One is about quality: children expect teachers to provide true, but not false information (pretty straightforward!). Another is about quantity: children expect teachers to provide just the right amount of information, rather than too little or too much, for the learner to make accurate inferences. It’s easy to imagine how skipping or leaving out information might confuse students and even lead them to get the wrong idea (note: we have studies showing that children as young as 5-6 recognize teachers who don’t “tell the whole truth”; Gweon et al., 2011; in review). A more subtle distinction is giving too much information – although it might increase certainty in their understanding, it can be inefficient and impractical (and boring!) if students already know what they’re being taught. Imagine if schoolteachers started every grade from kindergarten through high school with learning the alphabet! Teachers skip the alphabet in higher grades because they can assume that students already know that information, and they can use that as a foundation for more complex content.  A truly helpful teacher provides information that increases the learner’s belief in correct hypotheses. Thus, it is not the amount of information given by a teacher that makes them helpful, but it is their ability to take into account what the learner already knows, providing enough information to ensure that the learner makes accurate inferences. Following up on our prior study showing that this is what children expect of teachers, we are currently interested to see if children adhere to these same principles when they are in the role of teacher.

I look forward to the time I get to spend at Boston Children’s Museum working directly with children and learning so much from each experiment I do. The children I have worked with at the Museum come from diverse backgrounds and cultures. What is fascinating is despite this diversity there are still unified trends in the way children think, act, and experience the world. I am seeing this play out across both of my projects. In some cases, children are performing in ways that we did not predict, which makes our work both exciting and challenging.

After I finish the short experiments, many parents ask me what our research can tell them about their child in particular. In our research, we are not looking at the individual child. Individuals vary a lot in their prior experiences, personalities, family backgrounds, and many other factors that might affect their responses. Because of this, rather than focusing on each individual child, we are interested in the average of many children’s responses. Additionally, although our studies have important implications for real-world learning, they are not necessarily designed to have immediate practical applications for education. We are interested in how children learn and what cognitive capacities are involved in learning. Because children are such remarkable learners, they provide unique windows to understanding how humans learn in general. This is extremely useful because if we know that children have a particular skill or capability by early childhood, we can take advantage of this as a means to maximize learning throughout development.

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