Susan Levine

The Science of Learning: Chicago Families Provide Insight into How Children’s Minds Work

Like anything involving kids, the methodology of studying children’s math and language development involves a few more steps than other studies might. 

First, there’s finding the children to participate in the study. Susan Levine, the Rebecca Anne Boylan Professor in Education and Society, primarily studies children from the greater Chicago area, looking for ways to “support the language and math development of kids who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.” Families are recruited through parenting magazines, websites, and fliers and then their information is kept in a carefully-curated database to ensure parents won’t become inundated by requests to take part in studies.

Then there’s designing the study. In order to conduct a study examining whether a parent-delivered book reading intervention could help children learn the meaning of number words, Levine and her team created evidence supported number books “to be better than what you can buy in a book store.” Not only do the books need to teach preschoolers about the meaning of number words (by providing illustrated sentences such as “The three rabbits eat the three carrots”), the books need to be attractive enough and interesting enough to hold the children’s interest. “We made two versions of the numbers book as well as two control books because we didn’t want the kids to get bored,” says Levine. The ongoing study already shows positive effects, like speeding up a learning children’s understanding of the cardinal meanings of the number words and understanding that “two” refers to sets of two.

And actually working with children poses its own challenges. In addition to the typical UChicago academic rigor, Levine’s grad students are trained “to be sensitive to picking up the cues that the kid might be inattentive or misunderstand a question. How do you bring them back? How do you know when to pull the plug on the research session with this three-year-old and try again at another time?”

Studying children means also engaging with their parents without preaching. Thanks to a new grant from the National Science Foundation, Levine and has established a collaborative network of researchers and practitioners who are at work building a toolkit around early math learning that has the potential to help teachers and parents support the math development of young children. “A big component of that grant is to get the input from teachers and parents and not just have the researchers say ‘You need to do this,’” she says. “We need to hear from parents and teachers in order for the tools to have the greatest chance of supporting children’s learning in real world environments.”  The math toolkit will ideally deliver math support to teachers and parents that address “not just the content but also the emotional aspect to math that can support robust math learning and performance.”

Research efforts have yielded useful information about the way parents typically help children learn.  For instance, Levine says, her research with Sian Beilock takes a close look not only at what parents are saying to children about math but how they’re saying it. “If the parent says things like ‘I’m not good at math,’ they are actually giving children permission to not be good at math either  – to the point where parent homework help can actually backfire if parents are math anxious.

Most recently, Levine, Beilock and their research team published a study in the October 9 2015 issue of Science that showed a marked increase in math achievement among 1st grade children who used an iPad app that provides math story problems for parents and children to solve together.

Levine’s research also has focused on how children think spatially, and how spatial skills are related to math achievement.  Further, with Susan Goldin-Meadow she has found that the way parents’ praise their children affects children’s beliefs about the malleability of learning and their math achievement.

Levine was recently appointed the inaugural faculty director of the UChicago Science of Learning Center, which will have its official launch in November 2015. The Center brings together knowledge from the Urban Education Institute, the University’s Committee of Education, as well as the UChicago Charter School. True to the University’s interdisciplinary nature, one of the goals of the Center is to bring great minds together across campus in order to cross the research-practice divide and address learning problems in schools and homes and support the academic achievement vulnerable children.

Ultimately Levine believes that ongoing interactions among researchers, practitioners, and policymakers can improve both the science of learning and the usefulness of research findings for practice.  To this end, with funding from the Big Ideas Generator, Levine and the Center are working to create a social network, alongside practitioners from Chicago Public Schools and charter schools, in order to more effectively integrate knowledge from research on the science of learning with the expertise of accomplished school practitioners to generate solutions for improving the academic performance of urban students.

— Claire Zulkey

Read more about Levine's research here.