Peskin and Astington wanted to test “whether exposure to an explicit metalanguage [results] in a greater conceptual understanding of one’s own and other people’s beliefs.” For their 2004 study, they rewrote kindergartners’ picture books “so that the texts were rich in explicit metacognitive vocabulary, such as think, know, remember, wonder, figure out, and guess.” They compared the children reading those books with a control group who received the same picture books but with no metacognitive vocabulary.

They found that “hearing numerous metacognitive terms in stories is less important than having to actively construct one’s own mentalistic interpretations from illustrations and text that implicitly draw attention to mental states.” Children introduced to explicit metacognitive terms did start using them more, but they used them incorrectly…

To explain such counterintuitive findings, Peskin and Astington suggest that “the teaching of information does not automatically lead to learning.” What is required instead is a “constructive, effortful process where the learner actively reorganizes perceptions and makes inferences. … These inferences lead to an understanding that may be all the deeper because the children had to strive to infer meaning. Ironically, the more direct, explicit condition may have produced less conceptual development precisely because it was explicit.”


Why Fiction Does It Better, Chronicle of Higher Education