Islands of Expertise: How to encourage children’s interests

Kids know the darndest things! At least, they do when their parents foster their interests.  This post will describe “Islands of Expertise,” explain why you probably want your children to have them, and tell you how you can help.

Leo_telescopeThis week she’s all about dinosaurs, last week it was dolphins, and before that it was archery.  Should I, as a parent, engage these interests? Or should I ignore them as fleeting fancies?  Should I wait until she’s older, when she’s able to understand more?

The short answer is: Foster her interests now!  Yes, interests do come and go, and some aspects are above her (and your!) level. But while present, the interest offers an opportunity for a child to build rich knowledge about a subject—to build an “Island of Expertise.” And that has many benefits.

Islands of Expertise are the surprisingly sophisticated networks of knowledge young children can have around their interests. In contrast to the expertise seen in adults, which take ~10 years to develop, Islands of Expertise are simpler and can be developed with just two ingredients: a child with an interest, and an adult who attends to the interest often.

A hypothetical example: Preschooler Layla watches the movie Finding Nemo and develops a persistent interest in sea turtles.  Her parents buy her a book about sea turtles, which she asks to read every night, and they take her to see sea turtles at the aquarium, where they also learn about why some sea animals are endangered.  Since Layla is a sponge for information like most preschoolers, she quickly memorizes facts about sea turtles and starts to talk about them with her relatives and friends.  Her parents, in the meantime, deepen her understanding by discussing sea turtles’ habitats, how sea turtles differ from tortoises, etc.  They also broaden Layla’s knowledge by talking about sea migration and navigation, the seasons, and the history of animal conservation. Through all of these activities, Layla builds a rich network of knowledge centered around her interest, an Island of Expertise.

Building a network of knowledge around a subject is awesome for several reasons.  First, it is simply impressive for a preschooler to have comprehensive knowledge about a topic. Second, because people talk more deeply about subjects when they have common knowledge, preschoolers with Islands of Expertise can have sophisticated discussions that would be unlikely otherwise. Whereas Layla and her parents can have a full discussion about sea turtles’ diets and breathing capacities, their conversation about a passing car may simply note the car’s color or how loud it is.  Finally, Islands of Expertise lay groundwork for topics that children might learn later. For example, even when Layla’s interest in sea turtles fades, a background for learning about biology, history, and ecology will have been established and will remain ready to be built upon in the future.  Layla may never again need to name the seven species of sea turtles, but she may benefit from her familiarity with the sea turtle family when learning in biology class about animal taxonomies and evolution.

Not only is Interest Fostering valuable and actionable for parents, but it also relates to Leo’s Pad.  The storyline of each Leo’s Pad appisode is built around a general learning theme we believe is important for preschoolers to internalize, and Interest Fostering is the theme for Leo’s Pad Appisode 1: Gally’s Birthday.   Leo convinces Gally, “If you can dream it, you can do it!” and Leo and the learner give Gally a telescope to facilitate his stargazing, promising to help Gally reach for the stars.

A note about boys versus girls: Research has shown that at science museums (a prime location for interest cultivation), parents are more likely explain an exhibit’s causal connections to young boys than to young girls.  In the study that reported this, the disparity was despite the fact that boys and girls were equally interested in the exhibits, asked the same number of questions, and that parents gave both genders equal help in figuring out how to use the exhibits. Of course, the research does not imply that parents intended to explain more to their sons than daughters; they likely had no idea, and they almost certainly do not openly believe science is better suited for boys than girls.  But it is still something to ponder.

Thanks for reading.  And please enjoy these tips on how to build Islands of Expertise around children’s interests.

-Jessica

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HOW TO BUILD ISLANDS OF EXPERTISE

Start with a strong knowledge base

  • Expose your child to a variety of activities related to her interest: museums, movies, books, etc.  In all likelihood, she’ll start memorizing information at an astounding rate.
  • Connect current experiences to prior experiences with the topic.  For example, if your child’s interest is horses and you see a horse in a movie together, point out how it’s similar to or different from the kind you rode at the ranch last week.

Broaden the network of knowledge

  • Expose your child to neighboring topics.  Talk about a bit of the history related to the topic, or how different cultures think about the topic, or the science behind it (e.g., the physics behind a flying football).
  • Point out connections between the interest area and unrelated ideas.  For example, if you see an armadillo on TV and your child’s current obsession is knights, you can point out how the armadillo has armor just like a knight does.
  • Note: Rather than just explaining these “broadening” topics, also ask questions to guide your child to think on his own.  By doing so you can “scaffold” your child to draw connections between ideas.

Strengthen the network of knowledge

  • Revisit often.  By continuing to make connections over time between prior knowledge and new ideas, you help your child build a network that gets wider and deeper.

Don’t worry!

  • It’s OK if you are not an expert in the interest area!  You don’t need to provide full explanations for everything.  “Expanatoids”—incomplete or fragmented explanations—are just fine when given at an authentic learning moment, like when you’re looking at something together with your child.  Since building an Island of Expertise is an ongoing endeavor, over time you and your child can connect the explanatoids into a full picture together.

Enjoy it!

  • Engage your child in a satisfying conversation about the topic.  You can even try to learn something about it yourself!  And finally, enjoy knowing that even when the interest fades, the roots of the knowledge network will remain, supporting your child’s learning efforts in the future.

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Citations
(1) Crowley, K., & Jacobs, M. (2002). Building islands of expertise in everyday family activity. Learning Conversations in Museums, 333-356.
(2) Simon, H. A., & Chase, W G. (1973). Skill in chess. American Scientist, 61, 394-403.
(3) Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363.
(4) Crowley, K., Callanan, M. A., Tenenbaum, H. R., & Allen, E. (2001). Parents explain more often to boys than to girls during shared scientific thinking. Psychological Science , 12(3), 258-261.

 

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