Best Way To Learn: Teacher Tells You Or You Discover For Yourself?

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


jane richmond
jane richmond6 years ago

Known this for years. How much did it cost to "discover" this???

April Thompson
April Thompson6 years ago

It is a combination of both.

Maarja L.
Maarja L6 years ago

Combining different approaches is the best solution, I think.

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

gmm, but there are still learning styles. being told how to do something and being shown how to. and doing while being told how to, or reading about how to.
some can't follow diagrams, some do better with mimicry. some have to work along side of.

Heather B.
Heather B6 years ago

Kids learn best when they discover things on their own....the information sticks better (how many people REALLY remember much of what they where "taught"...not many)....Plus kids are not lazy, they like to learn it is human nature...but when adults drill kids day in and day out they loose that love....

Helen K.
Helen K6 years ago

I'm not a teacher but I would imagine it is a combination of both. Just as with traditional teaching the idea is to get the information across in as many ways as possible - because some people remember what they hear (I'm one of those), some people remember what they see (the readers), and others remember what they do (the experimentalists). None of these is exclusive (although I remember most of everything I hear, I do not forget everything I have ever read) so I therefore conclude combination is the most effective.

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams6 years ago

Children need to somehow learn enough skepticism to see through advertising--to recognize bias when they see it. I was more skeptical as a first grader than as a third grader--too much forced rote memorization over that two-year span.

Rosie Lopez
Rosie Lopez6 years ago

interesting thanks!

Daniel Lehmann
Daniel L6 years ago

I have to say that I agree with your statements. It is a balance.
There is a big difference between being taught FACTS, and shaping your own UNDERSTANDING of the way things are. Facts must be taught. When I was in primary school, the education system tried an experimental curriculum with us, where it was based on learning on your own and in groups. Although it did help the children who were generally below-average students, the high achievers among us suffered. Overall, the system was a disaster. I believe that facts need to be taught, or at least, the students must be taken on a direct path that will lead them straight to the truth you want them to discover. But they should by no means be left to their own devices to learn everything for themselves. At the same time, I absolutely agree that it is easier to remember and retain what you have discovered for yourself.