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Study: Preschoolers Display Some Statistics Understanding

What does it look like when research evolves out of classroom experience? There's a bit of a philosophical disagreement in the education research community: those who say action research lacks rigor and those who argue lab research lacks relevance. Yet researchers who draw on classroom experience can bring interesting perspectives and enthusiasm to their work.

Here's a good example. Tamar Kushnir, director of Cornell University's Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory came into education research after teaching preschool. Kushnir said a course at the Barnard College Toddler Center ignited her interest in research.

"It was eye-opening for me," Ms. Kushnir recalled. "It was amazing for me because if you don't know how to observe children, it's hard to see them as having any knowledge at all. But when you observe them and get down on the floor with them, I started to realize that ... in 10 minutes of a child's life, there's so much activity going on. They're learning constantly."

Years later, Ms. Kushnir's latest study, published in the July issue of Psychological Science, finds that preschoolers use statistical cues to understand others' behavior and preferences. Prior research has found children as young as 11 months expect a sample of toys drawn from a box to be 'random,' that is, to generally match the proportions of objects in the box, and are surprised if the contents differ. Ms. Kushmir and her fellow researchers Fei Xu and Henry M. Wellman studied 72 preschoolers and found that they noticed when a person chooses a non-random sample and used this to determine the person's preferences. The children's conviction about another's favorite toy was in direct proportion to the likelihood that the person could have chosen five of the same kind of toy at random from a box of available toys.

The study has no direct lessons for educators in teaching young children empathy &mdash or statistics, for that matter &mdash but Ms. Kushnir intentionally modeled the experiment after the daily activities of a preschool classroom, and she said teachers should pay attention to the way even young students experience their classroom.

"I would say what the experiments really teach us is how much students learn without us teaching anything," she said. "Even before the age of 5 they know a lot of causal relationships. They can't tell you what gravity is, but they can certainly tell you that if you knock something over with liquid in it, it's going to end up in a mess on the floor. Even when they're not able to verbalize these concepts, they're engaging the information."

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