Child-centered or teacher-centered? What’s the best way for children to learn?
To take the most extreme examples, it’s the old idea of students’ brains like empty pots to be filled, versus the newer model of constructivism, a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on their own experiences, children will construct their own understanding of the world they live in.
New Study Suggests Children Do Better Making Their Own Discoveries
Now a new study, just published in Cognition by Elizabeth Bonawitz of the University of California, Berkeley, and Patrick Shafto of the University of Louisville, in Kentucky, suggests that teachers should indeed encourage children to find out things for themselves.
Here’s how the research worked, as explained in The Economist:
Dr Bonawitz and Dr Shafto arranged for 85 four- and five-year-olds to be presented, during a visit to a museum, with a novel toy that looked like a tangle of coloured pipes and was capable of doing many different things. They wanted to know whether the way the children played with the toy depended on how they were instructed by the adult who gave it to them.
One group of children had a strictly pedagogical introduction. The experimenter said “Look at my toy! This is my toy. I’m going to show you how my toy works.” She then pulled a yellow tube out of a purple tube, creating a squeaking sound. Following this, she said, “Wow, see that? This is how my toy works!” and then demonstrated the effect again.
With a second group of children, the experimenter acted differently. She interrupted herself after demonstrating the squeak by saying she had to go and write something down, thus suggesting that she might not have finished the demonstration. With a third group, she activated the squeak as if by accident. To a fourth, the toy was simply presented with the comment, “Wow, see this toy? Look at this!”
Conclusion: Too Much Prior Explanation Inhibits Discovery
So how did the experiment turn out? According to The Economist, children in the first group spent less time playing (119 seconds) than those in the second (180 seconds), the third (133 seconds) or the fourth (206 seconds). Those in the first group also tried out four different actions, on average. The others tried 5.3, 5.9 and 6.2, respectively. A similar pattern (0.7, 1.3, 1.2 and 1.2) pertained to the number of functions other than the squeak that the children found.
The researchers’ conclusion was that, in the context of strange toys of unknown function, prior explanation does, indeed, inhibit exploration and discovery.
As an educator, I love it when a student figures out things for herself, and there’s an “aha” moment, where we are both excited. I also know that my students tend to better remember the information that they’ve discovered personally.
Teaching Is A Science And An Art
But it is also my job to lead them in the right direction and provide a basic grounding upon which they can build. There’s a delicate balance here: I need to be very structured every day as I guide my students forward, but I also need to allow them the opportunities to make discoveries.
Teaching is a science and an art, and I would love to see more research following up this study by Bonawitz and Shafto.
Photo Credit: San Jose Library via Creative Commons