Ask me why, don't tell me why: Asking children for explanations facilitates relational thinking

Erik Brockbank, Tania Lombrozo, Alison Gopnik, Caren M. Walker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Identifying abstract relations is essential for commonsense reasoning. Research suggests that even young children can infer relations such as “same” and “different,” but often fail to apply these concepts. Might the process of explaining facilitate the recognition and application of relational concepts? Based on prior work suggesting that explanation can be a powerful tool to promote abstract reasoning, we predicted that children would be more likely to discover and use an abstract relational rule when they were prompted to explain observations instantiating that rule, compared to when they received demonstration alone. Five- and 6-year-olds were given a modified Relational Match to Sample (RMTS) task, with repeated demonstrations of relational (same) matches by an adult. Half of the children were prompted to explain these matches; the other half reported the match they observed. Children who were prompted to explain showed immediate, stable success, while those only asked to report the outcome of the pedagogical demonstration did not. Findings provide evidence that explanation facilitates early abstraction over and above demonstration alone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere13274
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • abstraction
  • cognitive development
  • explanation
  • relational reasoning


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