Teaching young children to look away while they are thinking could help improve their problem-solving abilities.
Fiona Phelps and colleagues at Stirling University recruited 20 five-year-old children and videoed them while they answered a range of verbal and arithmetic questions of varying difficulty (e.g. “What is a telescope?”). The children were tested individually, with all questions posed by the same researcher who sat 1.5 feet in front of them. During a practice session and before the test proper, half the children were instructed to look away from the researcher while they thought of answers to the questions; the remaining children received no such instruction and acted as controls.
The researchers found that the children encouraged to look away while they were thinking, did indeed look away more than the controls (52.5 per cent of the time on average vs. 34.7 per cent). The difference was particularly noticeable for harder questions, whereas it was absent for the easy maths questions. Crucially, the children trained to look away also answered more questions correctly than the control children (72.5 per cent vs. 55.9 per cent).
The researchers said “Given that five-year-old children could readily be trained to increase their use of gaze aversion, coupled with the finding that this training could significantly benefit performance, encouragement of gaze aversion while the child is thinking appears to be a simple, yet effective way in which to significantly improve a five-year-old child’s cognitive performance”. They also suggested that the extent of a child’s gaze aversion could serve as a useful tool for identifying when children are engaged in cognitive activity.
A second experiment found that five-year-olds at the end of their first year of school engaged in more spontaneous use of gaze aversion than did five-year-olds half way through their first year, who in turn looked away more than children at the start of their first year. “What still remains open to question”, the researchers said, “is whether this developmental change occurs because of age-related advancements in the child’s cognitive development or because of increased exposure to pedagogical interactions as a result of having entered formal education”.
Phelps, F.G., Doherty-Sneddon, G. & Warnock, H. (2006). Helping children think: Gaze aversion and teaching. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. In Press, DOI: 10.1348/026151005X49872.
Link to free, related article in The Psychologist magazine