Nothing shuts down learning quite like teaching. There’s even a study now to prove it.
Researchers Elizabeth Bonawitz of the University of California, Berkeley, and Patrick Shafto of the University of Louisville, in Kentucky, wanted to know whether telling kids facts is an effective method for getting them started in learning. After all, offering up truths is pretty efficient — get past a bunch of details and then kids can hunker down and really find out some stuff.
Teaching = learning, right? Wrong.
A short article in the Economist explains that in this study on learning, 85 four-year-olds on a museum visit were allowed to play with a toy they had never seen before — a tangle of colorful pipes. The kids were divided into four groups, each giving a varying amount of instruction about the toy.
One group was shown that by pulling a pipe, you could make the toy squeak. Following the squeak demo, the instructor said “that’s how my toy works” and then let the kids play with it.
In another group, the instructor made the toy squeak and then was interrupted and left the room. In the third group, the instructor acted like the squeak was an accident. In the fourth group, the toy was simply presented, no demos.
Kids who were in the last group played with the toy for the most amount of time. They also found out the most about the toy — inside one of the tubes there was a mirror, another had a button that turned on a light. Kids in the first group — the, “that’s how it works!” group — played with the toy the least and didn’t find many of the other features.
Kids in the third group — the accidental squeak group — played a little longer than the first group and found more features, but played for a shorter amount of time (and found fewer features) than the group with the instructor who was “interrupted.”
I love this study for many reasons, one of which is that I feel vindicated. With each of my kids I spend less and less time getting down on the floor and showing them stuff — playing with them, etc. I noticed early on with my first kid that the more I did when we played the less interested she was in playing. I remember doing busting out Play Doh for the first time. I got really into it, making a miniature baby with lips and hair and ears and a little diaper and everything. My daughter loved it. So she made Play Doh babies. Every damn time I got out the stuff.
I tried to get her on other stuff, so I made a tree. Then she made a tree. I made a snake. She made a snack. Balls, balls. Drumstick, drumstick. I didn’t have a Play Doh problem with my other kids because I never sat down to do Play Doh with them (that’s what sibling s are for).
It goes beyond Play Doh. This study also vindicates my decision to send my kids to school that, among other things, has a very unconventional way of teaching math. They don’t start out with math facts — 2+2=4, 1-1=0. Rather, they help kids discover those things themselves. It’s called “constructivism,” it has a terrible rap, but when done right it’s totally great.
Instead of simply knowing the math drills, my daughter has discovered other things about the world of numbers. Like the kids with the wacky toy in the study, she’s — metaphorically speaking — found a hidden button that turns on light, noticed a mirror buried deep in the tube. How? Her teachers gave her some word problems and got out of the way.
Photo: Elizabeth Bonawitz via Economist
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