If a tree falls in a forest….

…does it matter if mom is listening? The goal of a new study from Vanderbilt University was to examine whether explaining to another person improves learning and transfer. In the study, four- and five-year olds solved multiple classification problems, received accuracy feedback and were prompted to explain the correct solutions to their moms, to themselves, or to repeat the solutions (without explaining at all). Afterwards, children who had made explanations did better on similar problems than children who had not made explanations. It did not matter if they had explained it to themselves or to their mother. However, children who made explanations to their mothers did much better on new, unfamiliar problems than children who had only explained solutions to themselves! This indicates that explanation prompts can facilitate transfer of problem solving skills in children as young as five years and reveals that it matters if the mother is listening. Even though it is possible that prompting children could be a substitute for the positive influences of a listener, there is reason to suspect that explaining to another person improves learning more than just explaining it to oneself.

The authors of the study discuss how the explanations to self did not sound much more explicit than the explanations to mothers, but that could reflect the difficulty of being explicit and articulate when you’re four. Since adults do make longer and more explicit explanations to other people, it is possible that the children explaining to mothers were at least having more explicit thoughts. The authors also found that it made no difference if the mothers provided support or other knowledge or simply listened.

So I guess now the question is: If a tree falls in a forest and someone pretends to listen while they’re busy doing something else, does that tree still make a sound?

War, Public Health, and our Children

This weekend we had the honor of a weekend visit from my brother’s middle son. He is 5. It is already the second time in his young life that his father is away for more than a year, deployed for this Iraq war. He doesn’t really talk about it, but I wanted to cry while he was playing and he said “They sent the very best one in the whole wide world and now he is dead.” It was the first part of the sentence that got to me. What does he know about where his father is? What does he worry about? How much anxiety has he already lived with at this tender age?

Certainly my heart and sometimes more goes out to children more directly impacted by war. There are lots of websites and ways to help those children. I’d be happy to hear of good organizations helping the children of American reservists and veterans, too. Please leave comments.

In the meantime, I’ll check out the book War and Public Health. Its new edition is updated to include chapters on the Iraq War, mental health and establishing a culture of peace.

The Physics of the Familiar

Applied Mathematician Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan makes startling discoveries about the natural world because he never stopped wondering about familiar and everyday things, like what makes flags flutter? how does paint dry? What synchronicity that this Harvard Magazine cover article arrived the day after writing about folks who had figured out how to knit hyperbola: it includes a video suggesting how Nature discovered origami (which incidentally reminds me of the Fibonacci numbers post from last February, and the arrangement of sunflower petals).

Funkiest Knit & Crochet Hyperbole

Er…hyperbola. The Institute for Figuring features photos of several crocheted models, notably of coral reefs and cactus gardens, as well as listings of when and where you can catch the exhibits in person.
For more patterns and explanations so you can do your own mathematical knitting, see professor sarah-marie belcastro’s website. Hey everyone makes friendship bracelets–you could make your friends a mobius strip bracelet!…or headband…or ring…
Or check out Making Mathematics With Needlework, the book she coauthored with Carolyn Yackel.

American Academy of Pediatricians on Food Additives

In their February 2008 edition of the American Academy of Pediatricians’ (AAP’s) journal Grand Rounds, the editors reviewed a solid British medical study of the behavioral effects of food additives. In the last sentence they write of a position they had held for 30 years:

“Thus, the overall findings of the study are clear and require that even we skeptics, who have long doubted parental claims of the effects of various foods on the behavior of their children, admit we might have been wrong.”

A summary of the AAP’s article, with links to the British study, is available here.

Even if your child does not have ADHD, the Feingold organization’s materials also indicate that by far the most common reaction to eating artificial preservatives, artificial flavors and food coloring is a tendency to get upset or angry too easily or out of proportion to the ostensible issue. Thinking even of a child who does not exhibit any noticeable problems: how many petrochemicals and neurotoxins would one want to feed them?