Friday, May 31, 2013

My DOEnut of the Week: "Research Suggests..."

This week's DOEnut comes to me from this Edweek piece celebrating a brand new piece of research revealing that kids learn better, and focus on more relevant information, when they have to explain things. I kid you not. Here is the tweet from EdWeek publicizing the piece:

Cristine Legare, (from the University of Texas at Austin) is about to publish it with UC-Berkely. From the EdWeek piece:
In forthcoming research with UC-Berkeley, Ms. Legare brought in 96 children ages 3 to 5 and set before them a complex toy made up of colorful, interlocking gears with a crank on one end and a propeller on the other.
With half the children, the researchers asked each one, “Can you explain this to me?” With the other half, they simply said, “Oh look, isn’t this interesting?”
The two groups of children focused on different things, researchers found. Children who were asked to observe noticed the colors of the toy, while those asked to explain focused on the chain of gears working on each other to eventually turn the propeller when the child turned the crank at the other end..

Now I'm no researcher. And I'm no scientist. But I am a teacher and as a teacher I can tell you that the following approach is pretty much teaching 101: You don't just get responses. You engage your students and you ask them to explain.  In fact, I've been teaching for a good long while now. During that time, I've visited a lot of classrooms and have seen a great many teachers (some good. Some not so much) doing their thing. I have never once seen a teacher NOT turn a question back on a student so that the student could explain. Any teacher worth his or her salt know; you engage your students with questions and you get them to respond. That's it. That's how the process of teaching (and of learning) work.  My profession is the second oldest in the world. Generations of teachers from Aquinas to Dewey to Freire knew how and when to turn questions right back onto students. They passed process along to future teacher who -surprise surprise- continue to use it even today.

So my question (and the reason this is a DOEnut) is this; why did these people need a study to show what the majority of people in education already know? Maybe the answer to my question is because they wanted the work (after all, every has to get paid, right?) Maybe the answer is that the country just has far fewer experienced teachers today than it did ten years ago. With so many new teachers, there really may be an actual need to explain this. Maybe the professor and UC Berkely just felt the need to prove something in an empirical manner. Maybe their next study will be about how students understand better when a teacher writes something in big letters on a big green panel located in the front of the room.  Or maybe the answer lies somewhere close to our new-found national obsession with the premise that teachers actually don't know what they're doing. If any of these scenarios are even close to being the case, the study is still a DOEnut.

So congratulations to Professor Cristine Legare of University of Texas at  Austin for conducting actual research proving the painfully obvious: That  engaging students with questions makes them understand more stuff. The professor gets a free box of Entenmann's Donuts (postage paid) and can email me with the address whenever she's ready for the delivery.


  1. You should also send a box of Entenmann's Finest to Gates Foundation Education Week for running this study in a prominent place on the website as if it were meaningful and important.

  2. There was an article on the front page of the NY Times about how Uncommon Schools came up with the idea that math is easier to teach than reading. Duh! I had an MA in reading and from my earliest years teaching both subjects in 4th-6th grade saw how much easier it was to get math scores to go up than reading. But this was presented as something new.

  3. Ah, yes, more research from The Center for the Study of the Totally Obvious.