You Can Teach Your Preschooler to Research and Think Critically

by ParentCo. July 05, 2017

Mother is teaching to her son

A recent study from the Stanford History Education Group found that when students are online, they don't read critically.

The Stanford researchers tested students at varying grade levels to learn how well they could evaluate online information. Middle schoolers, for example, were offered a series of tweets and asked to select the most trustworthy one. College students were asked to rate the reliability of a partisan website.

After testing over 7,000 students, the researchers found that the future is "bleak" when it comes to students' information-processing abilities.

e would hope that middle school students could distinguish an ad from a news story. By high school, we would hope that students reading about gun laws would notice that a chart came from a gun owners’ political action committee. And, in 2016, we would hope college students, who spend hours each day online, would look beyond a .org URL and ask who’s behind a site that presents only one side of a contentious issue. But in every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.

Given our current political climate and near-constant accusations of "fake news," it's more important than ever to help our kids grow into critical readers. Yet, if the above findings hold true for the entire population, our kids are in a lot of trouble.

Given the amount of information we receive online, middle school seems too late to start kids on a path to strong critical reading. My three-year-old is not ready for lectures about authoritative sources or verifying information, but I can help him think more critically by modeling everyday research skills. Here are my top four.

Identifying authors and illustrators

Pop quiz! What's my name?

Unless you're a friend or family member graciously boosting my social shares, you probably had to scroll up to find out who I am. Or maybe you didn't scroll up at all, because you weren't sure where to find my name. If that's the case, you're in good company. When presented with a tweet from about how the NRA is out of step with its membership, students in the above Stanford study suggested the organization was credible because it had a lot of followers, or because the data they cited was from a large polling organization. Relatively few students were able to identify the political leaning of MoveOn, the polling organization cited in the tweet, or how those groups' political inclinations might influence their content.

Learning to identify authors is a really important skill. It can help you decide whether you want to trust the information you are reading, whether you want to regard it skeptically, or whether you want to rule it out entirely.

I'm starting my own child early by always reading the author's and illustrator's names before we open a book. When we're reading a book for the first time, we also read the inside flaps to fill in a little biographical information about the creators. We are often rewarded for the effort, as recent books make good use of this previously-neglected space (I'm looking at you, Jory John!). However, even without the bonus material, reading the flaps helps teach my child that books are written by flesh and blood people.

There's both an immediate and a long-term reward here. It's downright adorable to hear my son squeal "Mo Willems!" or "Leslie Patricelli!" or "Lemony Snicket!" when he recognizes an author's name. There's also a huge long-term value in helping him understand that ideas come from people. That's true for children's book authors, parents, nonprofits, and companies.

Narrating my new discoveries

We place a lot of credibility in research. You might have just bought a baby product because "research shows" it's the safest on the market. You might be trying out a new shampoo or milk-alternative that's "scientifically-proven" to make you look better or live longer. You often don't need to look past article titles for these kinds of claims, which will often tell you to do something "because science."

We value research, but we don't spend very much time thinking about how that research gets to be research. That's true for our kids, too, who often don't get to see the process behind our own research. How did you decide what kind of toothpaste to buy? Why are you changing the ingredients of a recipe? Why did you pick this house instead of that one with the pool?

Enormous amounts of time and energy go into these sorts of everyday decisions and yet, that time and energy is mostly invisible to our children.

Our children don't need the specific questions to ask when selecting toothpaste or modifying recipes or judging safety hazards. The particulars of any one research question aren't as important as the process we go through when asking them. What questions did we ask? What costs and benefits did we weigh? Are we confident with our decisions or still wondering if we made the right choices?

Even an everyday task like cooking or baking offers a chance to narrate our research skills to children. Why did I pick a recipe from one site instead of another? How did I decide what ingredients to adjust or substitute? Would these cookies taste better with a little salt? Maybe we should make a two-batch experiment.

Encouraging curiosity

A new study published in Political Psychology suggests that science curiosity may make people less susceptible to political bias. Dan Kahan and his colleagues defined science curiosity as "the motivation to seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure." That motivation, they found, made people of all political persuasions more likely to be concerned about highly partisan scientific issues. Kahan and colleagues assigned participants scientific curiosity scores (SCS), and found that the higher a person's SCS, the less swayed that person tended to be by a political bias. For example, when asked to rate the seriousness of global warming, liberal democrats were more likely to give higher ratings than conservative republicans. However the members of both groups with high SCS scores were more likely to acknowledge the severity of the issue.

These findings are preliminary and thus require additional testing both to accurately define and measure exactly what counts as "scientific curiosity." Nonetheless, the results, which suggest that scientific curiosity can transcend political bias, indicate that it's worth attempting to foster this kind of curiosity in our own children.

One of the ways we can encourage that kind of curiosity in our children is to model it in our own interactions with the world. This can be as simple as approaching playtime as a fellow learner and researcher. In her book about the problems of modern early childhood education, Carol Garhart Mooney presents the Reggio Emilia approach as one possible solution. One of the main questions of that approach is for adults to model curiosity with questions like, "I wonder what would happen if..."

This question is so easy to model at home. I wonder what would happen if we put that ball on a ramp? If we put this yellow cup inside of a blue one? If we put this vinegar in this baking soda? In these cases, I had a good sense for what was going to happen next, but if I always approach playtime with this attitude of discovery, I'm likely to learn new things along with my child.

Admitting "I don't know"

The most important thing parents can do to help their children become good researchers is to admit their own ignorance.

Many of us are fearful to admit we don't know something because we expect to be ridiculed for our ignorance. An excellent xkcd comic does some back-of-the-envelope math to determine the cost of that type of ridicule for all parties: "For each thing that 'everyone knows' by the time they're adults, every day there are, on average, 10,000 people in the US hearing about it for the first time." If we make fun of others who don't know something, they miss out on the opportunity to learn something awesome and we miss out on the opportunity to teach them.

When we answer "I don't know," we open ourselves to learning something as cool as what happens when we combine Diet Coke and Mentos. That's the same attitude I want to convey to my son.

"I don't know" is an incredibly powerful answer to children's questions because it presents the world as open for exploration. "I don't know" may also help children develop trust in their parents. In a new study published in Developmental Psychology, Tamar Kushnir, a professor in Child Development at Cornell, found that children are more likely to trust people who say "I don't know." Children who were told "I don't know" by an adult were later more likely to believe and even repeat the claims made by that adult. Children who were told an answer by an adult that later proved to be false were then less likely to trust that adult, even when the adult could provide factual evidence for his or her claims.

In other words, if a child asks an adult a question and hears "I don't know," that child will be more likely to believe the adult later on when she does provide an answer. So, by honestly admitting our own ignorance, parents can become life-long trusted sources for their children.



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