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?


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