Sunday, March 20, 2011

Alison Gopnik: "Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School"

An excellent column over at Slate:

Sidebar Link

Let Kids Rule The School by Susan Engel.

Developmental scientists like me explore the basic science of learning by designing controlled experiments. We might start by saying: Suppose we gave a group of 4-year-olds exactly the same problems and only varied on whether we taught them directly or encouraged them to figure it out for themselves? Would they learn different things and develop different solutions? The two new studies in Cognition are the first to systematically show that they would.

In the first study, MIT professor Laura Schulz, her graduate student Elizabeth Bonawitz, and their colleagues looked at how 4-year-olds learned about a new toy with four tubes. Each tube could do something interesting: If you pulled on one tube it squeaked, if you looked inside another tube you found a hidden mirror, and so on. For one group of children, the experimenter said: "I just found this toy!" As she brought out the toy, she pulled the first tube, as if by accident, and it squeaked. She acted surprised ("Huh! Did you see that? Let me try to do that!") and pulled the tube again to make it squeak a second time. With the other children, the experimenter acted more like a teacher. She said, "I'm going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!" and deliberately made the tube squeak. Then she left both groups of children alone to play with the toy.

All of the children pulled the first tube to make it squeak. The question was whether they would also learn about the other things the toy could do. The children from the first group played with the toy longer and discovered more of its "hidden" features than those in the second group. In other words, direct instruction made the children less curious and less likely to discover new information.

Does direct teaching also make children less likely to draw new conclusions—or, put another way, does it make them less creative?


  1. karthik said...

    As much as I am grateful to the system in India for the education I have received- I always wonder how many ideas/thoughts- I miss out on, due to a somewhat rigid/conservative approach inherent in our system. I hope such studies are made mandatory for all teachers and all students learn to develop a more creative outlook to life/academics...

  2. Skeptic said...

    Hmm...I wonder which was the blog that ridiculed Mashelkar when he said that rote learning, lack of irreverence etc. are not good for creativity!!

  3. Abi said...

    @Skeptic: Your snark is misplaced. I hope it doesn't stem from an inability to see the difference between (a) an academic (such as Gopnik) describing methods that help kids to learn better and develop their creativity, and (b) an ex-top dog at the helm of an Himalayan bureaucracy claiming -- with no evidence -- that Indian scientists have low status because they lack creativity.