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Taking Early Childhood Research Out of Context

These days, it seems like you can find research to support just about any opinion you might have. This is especially true when it comes to parenting and the decisions we make for our children. 

And I get it. It's natural to hear the phrase research has shown and take whatever follows at face value- especially when it aligns with what you already believe.

But no study that investigates human behavior can be interpreted as irrefutable fact, because so many difficult-to-control variables impact our behavior. And the truth is, some researchers control for those variables much better than others. 

In my last blog post, I discussed how to identify what content is and isn’t research. But beyond knowing whether or something is research, we also need to be equipped to determine what the quality of the research is. Because the truth is:

Not all research is created equal.

So when evaluating which research studies can be used as legitimate evidence, it’s crucial that we ask ourselves the following questions:

WHO conducted the research? 

One of the easiest ways to tell whether or not a study’s findings might hold weight is by looking at who conducted the study. 

If the lead author is a distinguished professor at a top-tier research university with hundreds of studies published in well-respected, peer-reviewed journals, there’s a good chance the findings are credible. If, on the other hand, an undergraduate student conducted the research as part of a class project, the reliability of the study might be questionable. 

Regardless of good intentions or intellect, someone without the credentials or experience of a veteran researcher could easily make mistakes that discredit their findings.

WHO was studied? 

Understanding the makeup of a study’s participant pool is critical to knowing if the study’s results apply more broadly. 

Socialization plays a huge, unavoidable role in human behavior, so dismissing factors such as socioeconomic status, race, gender, and age is irresponsible. If a study’s participant pool includes only people who share the exact same demographics, we can’t responsibly assume those results hold true for people from different backgrounds. 

WHAT was studied?

Far too often, researchers stretch their “findings” past their realm of applicability. For example, if a study shows people who eat five servings of vegetables a day live longer, that doesn’t mean eating vegetables is the reason those people live longer. It might be that people who eat vegetables are more likely to be physically active, and that’s the reason they typically live longer. It’s important not to overextend the results of a study to fit a certain narrative. Correlation is too often conflated with causation.

WHEN was the study conducted? 

Studies conducted in the last five years have a much higher chance of being relevant than studies from 50 years ago. The way children are taught has changed, schools have changed, and science has advanced a great deal. There’s no reason to rely on outdated studies if more recent studies with more accurate measures exist.

WHERE did the study take place? 

People are, in part, a product of their environment. Where we live, what language we speak, and the culture that raises us plays a tremendous role in how we learn and how we behave. 

For example, many people believe children shouldn’t start formal education until age 6 or 7, based on one study that suggests countries where the school entry age is older than in the U.S. have similar or better literacy rates. 

But age of school entry is only one factor of many to consider when comparing countries’ literacy rates. Other considerations include:

  • language phonetics
  • parental education and support
  • socioeconomic status
  • student-to-teacher ratios
  • methods of teaching 
  • standardized testing
  • typical school schedule
  • access to healthcare 
  • disparities between schools
  • number of languages being taught

…. and many more.  

Without completely controlling for all of these other variables (which is impossible), it would be disingenuous for us to assert that starting instruction at age 7 is the cause of higher reading performance.

WHY was the study conducted? 

In a perfect world, all research would be conducted with minimal bias and for the sole purpose of furthering science. Unfortunately, not all studies are carried out with pure intentions. Instead, sometimes companies fund studies with the intention of benefiting financially from the findings. That conflict of interest can impact the way researchers collect and interpret data, and it’s not uncommon for them to disregard or minimize findings that run counter to their funders’ hypotheses. 

For example, let’s say a company that sells a computer program that promises to teach your child how to read conducts a study on the impact of educational screen time. Those researchers may be more inclined to either minimize results that discourage screen time or over-inflate results showing positive learning outcomes related to screen time. 

All of these questions must be considered carefully for us to have the most accurate interpretation of the research we consume:

  • Who conducted the research?
  • Who was studied?
  • What was studied?
  • When was the study conducted?
  • Where did the study take place?
  • Why was the study conducted?

In this blog series, I will add much needed context to the various "research" studies weaponizing early childhood education. Because when it comes to your child's education, you deserve to make an informed decision.

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