A Study on “Teaching” Creativity

In the age of Waiting for Superman and the great debate about “good” teachers and “bad” teachers, there are researchers studying these exact questions: what constitutes good teaching and how do we measure it? Slate ran a fascinating article by one of the researchers of a study about to be released.

Two forthcoming studies in the journal Cognition—one from a lab at MIT and one from my lab at UC-Berkeley—suggest that the doubters are on to something. While learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes them less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution.

What do we already know about how teaching affects learning? Not as much as we would like, unfortunately, because it is a very difficult thing to study. You might try to compare different kinds of schools. But the children and the teachers at a Marin County preschool that encourages exploration will be very different from the children and teachers in a direct instruction program in South Side Chicago. And almost any new program with enthusiastic teachers will have good effects, at least to begin with, regardless of content. So comparisons are difficult. Besides, how do you measure learning, anyway? Almost by definition, directed teaching will make children do better on standardized tests, which the government uses to evaluate school performance. Curiosity and creativity are harder to measure.

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….

Daphna ran through the same nine sequences with all the children, but with one group, she acted as if she were clueless about the toy. (“Wow, look at this toy. I wonder how it works? Let’s try this,” she said.) With the other group, she acted like a teacher. (“Here’s how my toy works.”) When she acted clueless, many of the children figured out the most intelligent way of getting the toy to play music (performing just the two key actions, something Daphna had not demonstrated). But when Daphna acted like a teacher, the children imitated her exactly, rather than discovering the more intelligent and more novel two-action solution.

As so often happens in science, two studies from different labs, using different techniques, have simultaneously produced strikingly similar results. They provide scientific support for the intuitions many teachers have had all along: Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.

With all the standardized testing and emphasis on direct teaching, it seems that we are stifling children’s natural creativity. It’s too bad that we allowed politics, and not pedagogical reasons like the research above, to guide legislation like No Child Left Behind.

What do you all think about these studies?

13 thoughts on “A Study on “Teaching” Creativity

  1. That’s a very powerful demonstration

    My daughter’s teacher just attended a conference for science teacher in San Francisco. She came back and was bubbling to me this week about “the best lesson she’d ever taught” after coming back from the conference, setting it up so that the kids had to explore it for themselves… and how they were begging her for the answers because they were dying to know whether they’d concluded correctly. She loved it. And she was making them wait a few days for it and enjoying watching where their thoughts went on it.

  2. Inquiry based learning

    and experiential learning have been demonstrated in several studies to be more effective for learning science process skills than the traditional lecture format.

    • Yup

      This is what my office does.  I’d link to it, but for some reason the University site is down.  Our Critical Skills Program has been doing this work for 25 years- it’s really powerful and wildly unpopular with the Test is Best folks.

      • that was my response

        But I clicked over to one of the original articles and it looked way cool.   It’s one thing to “know” this is the way children learn, but it’s a whole other kettle of fish to gather good data demonstrating it.

  3. sad

    There’s a lot of great research out there that shows the way to higher, better learning and problem-solving involves letting kids formulate questions and hypotheses and test them out, but the vast majority of it is ignored in favor of bubble tests with one correct answer, outside of anything resembling context.

    • The real problem is

      if you let kids explore on their own they might not get the same answer as was put on the bubble test.

      I remember seeing a sample question about what terms to use in a search engine. They thought they were being hip. But as someone who was working on real life natural language search, I saw that none of their answers were definitively correct – it depended what search engine you used and what month it was.

      At the time, I was adding an exclusion to a particular application so that a yellow pages search for “death” would not bring up “Meats – barbequed.” :-)

      • this ties nicely into the morning thread

        That’s why I wouldn’t consider a Kumon-type enrichment program.  At the very lowest level you do need to get the right answer, especially in math.  So for a kid who is performing below grade level I wouldn’t have any objection.  But for anything that requires real understanding you need to let go of the right answer so you’re free to explore.  I’m trying to teach my kids to think in math and science, so I’d far rather get a good answer from them than a right answer.

        Or as my PhD advisor used to say, it’s easy to find an answer.  The really hard part is finding the question.  

        • Well stated Lyn

          With my daughter 1 or 2 grades behind level, she does get a lot of instruction, but I think the school she’s at gives her a lot of opportunities for exploration. She’s not articulate, but her creativity is off the charts, so I don’t worry.  It does make me feel better to hear that it’s ok that there is instruction, but I know too there is a lot of creative exploration as well.

      • This reminds me of standardized testing…

        when I was a kid.  I was an A student, and very creative…writing is my talent.  But those tests would have multiple choices and you had to select the nuance correctly for the 3 out of 4 that were similar. Any idea HOW impossible that is for a creative writer??  Especially when none of the questions had context. I’d sit think wondering who the heck the protagonist was and how could I figure the subtlety without knowing anything about him, lol…

        • There is a whole separate skill of

          choosing what the test designers consider the correct answer, independent of what may be the correct answer(s) in real life.

  4. interesting research

    My main quibble is that the author assumes most preschools are taking the direct instruction approach. My kids have gone through Montessori preschool, and I think even many traditional preschools are doing a lot of “learning through play/exploration” rather than the teacher demonstrating things and expecting children to copy.

    • I see a range

      The lower-income populations around me are getting a LOT more direct instruction. There is a much greater focus / time spent on sitting properly (criss-cross applesauce), being quiet a lot, lining up, raising hands, etc., than I see in the better preschools, in which those things are encouraged without taking over the curriculum. Similarly, in the better schools there is more teacher time spent with dyads or triads asking, “Did you hear what your friend said? Would you like to say something?”

      There is one upper-income preschool that is all about “projects,” and by that they mean “make yours look just like the teacher’s.” I feel like taking the parents aside and telling them they’re being ripped off.

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