The words “children” and “learn” are so inexorably linked, that a quick Google search will yield nearly 30 million unique search results on the subject of children learning. We, as a society, are reasonably obsessed with the topic of how children actually learn, and have pushed legislation (No Child Left Behind) to mandate a certain type of direct instruction to insure “learning” is taking place throughout our schools. While I plan to address the merits and drawbacks of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 in a post later in the month, I wanted to take a look at how direct instruction vs. exploratory learning is quite possibly failing our children, namely in the early years of preschool.
New research on the subject is revealing that direct instruction (that is the practice of having a teacher provide a very distinct lesson with clear cut parameters of engagement) as opposed to a more exploratory learning approach (allowing the child to ask questions, explore, and figure it out for themselves) is fostering a generation of children who are finding it more and more difficult to think for themselves. In an article for Slate.com, author and UC Berkeley researcher Alison Gopnik, showcases two studies, done with preschoolers, she participated in (one at UC Berkeley and the other at MIT) that suggest 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.
Anyone who has spent any quality with young children might be able to tell you as much, but take a look at the formalities of our current educational system, and you will not see a system that reflects this truth. As Gopnik’s article outlines:
“Adults often assume that most learning is the result of teaching and that exploratory, spontaneous learning is unusual. But actually, spontaneous learning is more fundamental. It’s this kind of learning, in fact, that allows kids to learn from teachers in the first place.”
This is certainly not to say that direct instruction has no merit or place in education. Direct instruction is exceptionally useful and effective in teaching a child something very specific and this sort of direct teaching will assuredly allow children to perform better on standardized tests, which the government uses to evaluate academic performance. But this sort of direct instruction (as the research indicates) tends to hamper children’s natural curiosity, and makes them less likely to draw new conclusions – conclusions that had not already been demonstrated by a teacher. In essence, as practical as direct instruction may be, it tends to limit overall creative thinking.
In all likelihood we are dealing with more of a deficit, rather than a worst-case scenario (we are raising a generation of drones who, by the age of 22, will be unable to engage in any form of critical thinking and only be able and required to utter things like, “paper or plastic?”). Still, it seems our early educational system is a bit out of balance, with an emphasis on following the lead of the teacher and learning to conform to what it means to be a “good student” rather than a good learner. Shouldn’t young children (and older children as well) be encouraged to explore, inquire, discover and even play as a way to familiarize themselves with the world around them? Or should we stay the course and keep the test scores running in the positive margins?