When teaching restrains discovery

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I have no formal training in journalism. The most instruction I ever received came from a two-day science communication course when I was still a hopeful research student in a molecular biology laboratory. The course was a whirlwind tour through the elements of good science writing – avoiding jargon, the value of active sentences, good openers, and so on. I have learned everything else on my own, through seven years of practicing regularly, experimenting with new approaches, and watching what others do well.

That two-day course might seem trivial in the face of everything that’s happened since. But it exemplifies what I have always found to be the most effective style of teaching. It left me enthused enough to go off and explore on my own, and it provided just enough instruction that I could do so from a running start. It launched a run of exploration, learning and fun. And this experience is relevant a longstanding debate about the best way to teach children, especially very young ones.

One camp believes that children learn mostly through teaching and direct instruction. The other says that children learn mostly by exploring and figuring things out for themselves. To them, formal instruction is too passive, and makes for children that receive knowledge without engaging with it. On the other hand, people who favour more direct teaching argue that children need more guidance. Leaving them to explore on their own, through so-called “discovery learning”, is inefficient and ineffective. These are, of course, extreme positions and the debate is more subtle. Both approaches have their merits and good teachers face the challenge of finding a happy medium.

That’s never been clearer than in a new study by Elizabeth Bonawitz from University of California, Berkeley. Through two experiments with pre-schoolers, Bonawitz has found that teaching can be a “double-edge sword”. When teachers provided specific instructions about a new toy, children learned how to play with it more efficiently. But the lessons also curtailed their exploratory streak. They were less likely to play with the toy in new ways. Ultimately, they failed to find all of its secrets.

Bonawitz used brightly coloured PVC tubes to create her own toy, with four interactive features. Children could pull a yellow “squeaker” tube out of a large purple one to make a funny noise. With other tubes, they could turn on a light, play music or see an upside-down image of their own face.

Eighty-five children, aged 4-6, got the chance to play with the toy, one at a time. For some of them, Bonawitz simply unveiled the contraption and said, “Wow, see this toy? Look at this!’’, before leaving them to play. For others, she provided more instruction. “Look at my toy! I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!’’  she said, before pulling on the squeaker.

When the children got their hands on the toy, those who had seen how the squeaker works focused on that feature at the expense of exploration (even though all of them were encouraged to explore for themselves). Compared to the other group, they played with the toy for less time, they tried doing fewer things with it, and they discovered fewer features.

This isn’t to say that teaching is an automatic anathema to discovery. Bonawitz found that it all boils down to style. In some cases, she showed the children how the speaker works before suddenly leaving to take care of something she forgot. Sometimes, she pretended that she had just discovered the toy and acted with surprise when she pulled the squeaker. In both scenarios, the children explored the toy more thoroughly than the ones who experienced an uninterrupted and more obvious lesson.

Context clearly matters. When the apparently knowledgeable teachers in the experiments provide a seemingly complete lesson about the toy, the children deduce that there is a no more to learn. If the lesson is interrupted, or if the instructor seems like a novice, the child deduces that there is more to discover. Bonawitz thinks that these abilities start from a very early age, when children are still in pre-school or kindergarten.

Children can also make these inferences when they watch their peers. In a second experiment, Bonawitz worked with the same toy and 64 new preschoolers. She showed every child how the squeaker works but in one of subtly different ways. She spoke to one group of children directly. The second group watched while she demonstrated the toy to another child. The third watched her show the toy to their parents. And the fourth watched as she played with the squeaker on her own, while talking to herself.

When the children finally got their hands on the toy, they were more likely to explore its other features if they had seen Bonawitz showing it to adults or playing with it herself. If she had talked to them directly or to another child, they focused more strongly on the squeaker at the expense of exploring the toy for themselves.

These results couldn’t be more important for science, where there is always more to discover. Bonawitz quotes the famous child researchers Jean Piaget, who said that the “principal goal of education” was to create people “who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done”. If we’re going to do that ,we’ll need to find ways of encouraging that natural instinct to investigate, play and explore, rather than suppressing it (as in this wonderful example).

Reference: Bonawitz, Shafto, Gweon, Goodman, Spelke & Schulz. 2011. The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.10.001

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