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December 20, 2011

Exploration and Discovery Limited by Instruction

A link to this blog was emailed to me today by the Director of the National Project for Excellence in Environmental Education. I thought I'd share...

Bonowitz, Shafto, Gweon, et al. did some very interesting research, which they describe in an article titled The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Their key finding is that when a preschooler is taught about an object by a teacher, s/he is less likely to explore that object when given the opportunity. However if the adult instead of overtly teaching pretends to discover something interesting about the object or simply presents the object, the preschooler is more likely to explore that object and make discoveries about it.

It appears that these very young kids (4- and 5-year olds) already have internal expectations of teaching. One expectation is that if someone is teaching them about something, the teacher will teach the relevant bits of information. Thus further exploration is expected to be less fruitful. It's unclear whether these expectations come about through experience or whether they might have evolutionary roots.

The authors did two experiments. In the first preschoolers were randomly divided into four conditions. They interacted with an adult who behaved differently in each condition. The experiment involved a toy-like object that had four interesting features. In some of the conditions, only one of these four features was demonstrated. The question was how long would the children interact with and explore this toy and how many of the other features would they discover on their own.

The four conditions were:
  1. pedagogical : the adult said s/he would teach the kid about the toy-like object and demonstrated one feature and left
  2. interrupted : the adult acted as a teacher, but after demonstrating one feature, pretended to need to immediately attend to something else, and left
  3. naive : the adult did not act as a teacher but instead pretended to accidentally discover one feature and left
  4. baseline : the adult brought out the toy, looked at it without demonstrating any features, and left it for the child

The pedagogical group spent less time exploring the toy, performed fewer actions on the toy, and discovered less about it. The naive group discovered the most about the toy. And the baseline group spent more time playing with the toy and tried more actions.

The second experiment looked at indirect teaching, where the preschool participant watches either another preschooler or an adult being taught. Watching a peer being taught leads to similar behaviors as being taught directly, that is less discovery. But watching an adult being taught leads to better discovery. When watching an adult being taught, it appears that the preschooler believes the teaching is less applicable to themselves and is therefore more willing to explore.

Some of this may seem a bit counterintuitive. Why wouldn't a child avail themselves of these opportunities to explore and learn? One of the themes of the SESAME model is that the world contains far too much for a comparatively small brain to learn. There is a bias to learning that which is heuristically more likely to be useful. Those of you who took one of Steve Kaplan's classes may remember the four molar learning rules, four conditions which tend to result in enhanced neural learning. Listing them here would get us off track, although if you're curious please feel free to start a blog discussion in which they can be explored.

Teaching by instruction can be very efficient and undoubtedly has an important role in the education of children. For those who teach children, and perhaps adults equally, the challenge is in figuring out when to create the conditions conducive to exploration and when to use direct teaching. This is just one of many decisions a teacher must make and there are no easy answers.

For a final bit of inspiration, let me recommend Dan Meyer's TED Talk in which he describes how he approaches teaching high school math. His pedagogical approach encourages discussion and exploration. At the end of his talk he gives five recommendations, one of which is to "be less helpful". If you have a spare 12 minutes, Meyer's talk is well-worth watching.

What are some techniques you've used in a teaching environment to encourage exploration?

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