When I read this recent piece in Wired Magazine, I thought, “Yes! That’s what I’ve been thinking for years!”
The article makes the point that when people are called upon to present their reasoning to others, it actually improves their cognitive ability.
“GOING FROM AN AUDIENCE OF ZERO TO AN AUDIENCE OF 10 IS SO BIG THAT IT’S ACTUALLY HUGER THAN GOING FROM 10 PEOPLE TO A MILLION.
… a group of Vanderbilt University researchers in 2008 published a study in which several dozen 4- and 5-year-olds were shown patterns of colored bugs and asked to predict which would be next in the sequence. In one group, the children simply repeated the puzzle answers into a tape recorder. In a second group, they were asked to record an explanation of how they were solving each puzzle. And in the third group, the kids had an audience: They had to explain their reasoning to their mothers, who sat near them, listening but not offering any help. Then each group was given patterns that were more complicated and harder to predict.
The results? The children who didn’t explain their thinking performed worst. The ones who recorded their explanations did better—the mere act of articulating their thinking process aloud seemed to help them identify the patterns more clearly. But the ones who were talking to a meaningful audience—Mom—did best of all. When presented with the more complicated puzzles, on average they solved more than the kids who’d explained to themselves and about twice as many as the ones who’d simply repeated their answers.
Researchers have found similar effects with adolescents and adults. When students were asked to write for a real audience in another country, their essays had better organization and content than when they were writing for their teacher. When asked to contribute to a wiki—a space that’s highly public and where the audience can respond by deleting or changing your words—college students snapped to attention, carefully checking sources and including more of them to back up their work. Brenna Clarke Gray, an instructor at Douglas College in British Columbia, had her English students create Wikipedia entries on Canadian writers, to see if it would get them to take the assignment more seriously. She was stunned at how well it worked. “Often they’re handing in these essays without any citations, but with Wikipedia they suddenly were staying up till 2 am, honing and rewriting the entries and carefully sourcing everything,” she tells me. The reason, the students explained to her, was that their audience—the Wikipedia community—was quite gimlet-eyed and critical. They were harder “graders” than Gray herself.”
photo credit: Brisbane City Council