If you’ve ever been around a preschooler, you’re familiar with their incessant questions. It can be tempting to brush them off with a “Because I said so,” but new research shows that can hurt your credibility.
Five-year-olds and even three-year-olds can tell the difference between poor explanations and those that provide new information. Not only do they prefer the explanations with new information, they also use explanation quality to decide who is a good source of information later, according to research by Kathleen Corriveau and Katelyn Kurkul of Boston University. “It shows not only that they can tell that an explanation is kind of bogus, but they can also tell: this guy gives bogus explanations and I’m not going to listen to him in the future,” says Hugo Mercier, a cognitive scientist at the University of Neuchatel who was not involved in the study.
For a study demonstrating the importance of thorough explanations, it could not have happened in a more appropriate place. Corriveau recruited some of the children in the study at the Boston Museum of Science, where explanations for many of children’s insatiable questions make their home. Specifically, Corriveau and Kurkul did their research in the Living Laboratory in a corner of the Discovery Center, where a rotating cast of scientists set up shop so children and their parents can participate in current scientific research.
Corriveau’s research focuses on how children learn information from other people. “Classic psychological research has focused mainly on how children learn via their own experience,” she says. But this only goes so far. There are vast domains of knowledge that children can’t (usually) learn about through direct experience, from the size of their own cells to the makeup of stars. So, for a lot of learning, they must rely on others. “What we’ve found is that children don’t turn to people equally. They’re very selective in who they learn from,” says Corriveau.
At the Living Laboratory, Corriveau and Kurkul studied five-year-olds and three-year-olds. The science happens at a single round wooden table whose size was clearly designed for the child subjects, not the researchers. It’s in a corner against the windows, between a bin of snorkeling equipment and a station for making paper-airplane-like hoop gliders. Underneath the words “Ask! Play! Learn!”, today’s research question is written on a whiteboard in purple and red marker, and there’s a stack of flyers with more details.
First, Corriveau and Kurkul showed the children pictures of two girls and told them the girls were going to explain something to them, like why flowers grow. One girl’s explanation provided no new information: “They grow because their stems get longer and longer and they get taller.” The other girl’s explanation was better: “They grow because we feed them water and the sun gives them light.” Then they asked the children, “Why do you think flowers grow?” Both three-year-olds and five-year-olds more often chose the better explanation.
They then had the same two girls provide explanations for a new question. This time, both girls’ explanations were poor. Three-year-olds and five-year-olds more often chose the explanation by the girl who had earlier provided the better explanation.
“Nobody said anything inaccurate” even in the poor-quality explanation, Corriveau says. “It’s not wrong, it’s just not complete. That’s the most exciting part. There were no errors, but yet children were making inferences…that one explanation was better quality.”
This is the first study to look at how children use explanations to judge “someone’s future credibility,” she says. Mercier agrees, and adds that it shows that the ability to discriminate between good and bad explanations happens earlier than previously thought. A 2007 study led by Laura Baum at Yale showed that five-year-olds could make this discrimination, but no one had tested children younger than five.
“Kids are picking up on this really early and using it to decide who to learn from,” Corriveau says, which makes good explanations important, even though children ask “an inordinate amount of questions.”
As someone who values good explanations, Corriveau says she enjoys working at the Living Laboratory. “It’s right on the floor so we’re constantly competing for children and families’ attention with other exhibits.” To get children to participate, she says, they have to “make it really fun.”
The Living Laboratory program at the Boston Museum of Science is almost ten years old now, and eight different institutions currently do research there.
Becki Kipling and Marta Biarnes first started the Living Laboratory in the Discovery Center. They wanted to address the problem of parents coming into the Discovery Center, letting their kids loose, and reading the newspaper or pulling out a laptop. “Parents [were] feeling like the space wasn’t for them too,” says Justin Harris, the Living Laboratory program manager, “and that they couldn’t get anything out of interacting with their children.” Having child development researchers around changed that. “It shifted the way that parents were thinking about the space” by showing them that they too could observe their children and learn about their development and understanding of the world.
Museum visitors really get into the research, too. One popular study, now finished, was a balance test in which people would stand with their arms crossed and feet together for 30 seconds. Then the researchers would start making it harder by taking away some of the cues we use to balance: they would have subjects close their eyes, or stand on a foam mat, or both. The scientists set up a row of chairs so people could watch.
People would “wait five, ten, fifteen minutes” to participate, says Harris. In the exhibit design world, if visitors stick around a non-staffed exhibit for 90 seconds, it’s considered “a really wildly successful exhibit,” says Harris. “To sit and not do anything for fifteen minutes at the museum is a really big deal.”
The museum research setting is instructive for her students, Corriveau says. “If you’re able to explain what you’re doing to someone in a way that makes them excited to participate, just on the floor of a science museum, then you really actually understand it.” Students say it’s good training for explaining to fellow scientists, too. The way you explain your research to a five-year-old also makes a great elevator pitch to professors at conferences, says Harris.
Corriveau’s research has shown the importance of providing high-quality explanations, like the ones available at the museum. “It’s a great lesson in taking children seriously, and it’s great to take them seriously, because they really respond to that,” says Harris.
Corriveau, a parent herself, says, “One thing that I take away from this work is that … my children are always listening. It’s important to take a deep breath and provide a more thorough explanation for why we’re doing something rather than just kind of blowing them off and saying, ‘Why are we doing this? Because Mommy said it’s important.’”
Mercier agrees, but takes a more practical approach. The explanations that are low on information are “a way of displaying authority,” he says. He understands that parents sometimes run out of other options—he has a three-year-old son himself. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that you should never…use arguments that rely on your authority,” he says. “It’s just that they will be able to tell the difference.”