Researcher Alison Gopnik: direct instruction seems to make four-year-olds less clever

April 5, 2011 at 12:30 pm Leave a comment

by Alec Patton

Two very interesting studies have been conducted with groups of four-year-olds, in which a researcher demonstrates a toy and then leaves the kids to experiment with it. The researchers found that direct instruction led kids to be less curious, less thorough in their experimentation, and less resourceful.

As researcher Alison Gopnik, who wrote the piece, points out, this isn’t to say that direct instruction doesn’t have an important place in education. But it does suggest that the assumption that, for the most part, ‘education=instruction’, and ‘play-based’ or even  ‘enquiry-based’ learning is innately ‘softer’, needs rethinking.

Here’s an extract from Gopnik’s article:

Daphna Buchsbaum, Tom Griffiths, Patrick Shafto, and I gave another group of 4-year-old children a new toy.* This time, though, we demonstrated sequences of three actions on the toy, some of which caused the toy to play music, some of which did not. For example, Daphna might start by squishing the toy, then pressing a pad on its top, then pulling a ring on its side, at which point the toy would play music. Then she might try a different series of three actions, and it would play music again. Not every sequence she demonstrated worked, however: Only the ones that ended with the same two actions made the music play. After showing the children five successful sequences interspersed with four unsuccessful ones, she gave them the toy and told them to “make it go.”

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.

via Preschool lessons: New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire. – By Alison Gopnik – Slate Magazine.

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Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services.

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