Research News

UW’s Vlach explains how, ‘Talking to children about science is harder than we think’

February 24, 2016

So, you think you can teach science to children?

According to new research from UW-Madison’s Haley Vlach and Nigel Noll, it might be more difficult than you think.

The two co-authored a report published Feb. 22 by the journal Metacognition and Learning that’s titled, “Talking to children about science is harder than we think: Characteristics and metacognitive judgments of explanations provided to children and adults.”

One of the key takeaways, explains Vlach, is that parents and teachers should think carefully about the types of information they include in their science explanations.

Haley Vlach
“This study demonstrates that we are more likely to include mythical/magical reasoning, personification and unnecessary information when talking to children,” says Vlach, an assistant professor with the School of Education’s No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology.  “Research has demonstrated that these types of information are associated with negative outcomes in science learning.”

Vlach also is the director of the Learning, Cognition & Development Lab at UW-Madison, while Noll is a Ph.D. student with the Department of Educational Psychology.

Researchers have long known that adults modify the way they speak to kids to support children’s learning across several domains, such as language, categorization, memory and mathematics. But when it comes to the topic of science, very little research has examined whether adults change their language when explaining this subject matter children.

This may be unfortunate, the authors explain, because “science is a domain that is thought to be largely learned via language because so much of science is unobservable.”

To take a closer look at this realm, Vlach and Noll studied 81 adults who were asked to talk about science concepts when providing explanations to a person – either a child or an adult – pictured on a slide. The participants were recorded on video while explaining basic science concepts to pictures of children and adults, and these recordings were later analyzed to determine if and how participants changed the quality and content of their explanations.

As expected, the results indicated that adults changed their explanations when talking to children about science. But not only did they provide more potentially beneficial information ­– the researchers found that these people also included disadvantageous information.

Interestingly, the participants in the study, during follow-up surveys, perceived that they provided more accurate explanations to children.

But Vlach and Noll write that these participants also “appeared to be making metacognitive judgments largely based upon the changes made that could be beneficial to learning.”

“Adults modify the way they speak to children to support children’s learning across several domains of cognition and education,” says Vlach. “However, this research demonstrates that the domain of science might be an exception. The results of the study tell us that the average adult is unlikely to be good at constructing and assessing the quality of science explanations for children.  While we think we are doing our best when explaining science to children, we are often including information that can deter children’s science learning.”

Vlach and Noll note in their report that it’s “important to point out that the modifications to explanations observed in this work may actually help children to learn science concepts. The current research did not examine whether modifications to explanations do/do not affect children’s and adults’ learning outcomes. Therefore we cannot conclude that the explanations characteristics provided to children observed in these studies would be disadvantageous to children’s science learning.”

Vlach says the next step in building upon this most recent research will be to “determine how we can teach adults to monitor the types of information they include in their explanations so that they can effectively talk about science with children.”

Talking to Children about Science
Examples of stimuli presented during the science explanation task. Participants were
presented with a series of slides in which they were asked to explain basic science to
children and adults. There were a total of 40 slides in the science explanation task. The
ordering of the slides was randomly assigned.