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?