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The Power of Why?

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By Stephan Nazarian

I’ve always been curious, to the point that my mother nearly lost the last bit of her sanity during my childhood as I demanded explanations for everything that she told me and wandered off to satisfy my curiosity whenever her back was turned. While I might have been more inquisitive than most, all children can drive their parents and teachers up the wall with their curiosity. There are few things more humbling in the world than being asked to explain how or why something works and having to admit that you either don’t know or can’t begin to explain. 

As I’ve pondered how best to help parents build strong executive functioning and logical thinking skills in their children, I think that turning the tables may be one of the most powerful methods for parents. During sessions, I ask my students “why?” a lot. If I want to find the y-intercept of a quadratic or linear equation, I just have to plug in 0 for the x term. Great! Why? The overly punitive provisions of the Treaty of Versailles crippled Germany’s economy and set the stage for World War II. Interesting. Why?

I think that this technique is incredibly powerful for a number of reasons, but I think the most important is something that I emphasize to my students constantly: it’s easy. There are countless ways for parents to help their children grow as students and as thinkers, but many are more time-consuming than we can manage. Asking your children to explain what they’re learning in school and then asking them to dig deeper into why those things are true is simple. And yet, this one question will encourage your children to process the information that they’re learning at a much deeper level. Everything we’re learning about the science of memory teaches us that our ability to remember information we hear or read once is very low. The simplest method of increasing that retention is repetition. We’ve all repeated a series of numbers in our head ad nauseum to ensure that we remember them. But the most effective method of retaining information is elaboration, where we take the information and add something to it that is already in our memory. Comparing the events of World War II to the latest episode of Naruto embeds that knowledge much more deeply in our brain than simply repeating the key events ever could.

By asking your children to explain things themselves and create personal connections between the material, they must process the information in a new way. By encouraging them to create analogies, explain how one thing leads to another, put the same thought into different terms, and push past surface level facts, they have to elaborate on the information in new ways, which will help them improve their retention. At the same time, they have to think for themselves, to look for connections, to consider alternative methods, and to interact actively with the things that they are learning. This kind of deeper thinking will help them learn to make the simple inferences that are at the root of good critical thinking. By encouraging them to make inferences regularly, you will be strengthening skills that are at the foundation of all the education they will receive as adults, where understanding is infinitely more important than memorization. 

Erica MechlinskiThe Power of Why?

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