Why Teaching Preschoolers Backfires: The Case for Creativity

The best preschool learning
The best preschool learning

Last week in an essay for Slate, developmental psychologist Allison Gopnik discusses two findings coming out in the journal Cognition that might make you think twice about enrolling your little one in an academically-focused preschool.

Gopnik, known for her books “The Philosophical Baby” and “The Scientist in the Crib” breaks down to the question of what little kids learn (and don’t learn) from direct instruction.

The basic point is that when kids are taught, they absorb information — and quick. But while they’re busy learning facts or processes, a whole set of arguably more important skills are falling by the wayside. Here’s why you may want to visit that exploration-based preschool program in your neighborhood:

While kids learn well from direct teaching, they tend to learn only the exact process they’re being taught. Sure, they can repeat it later, but they don’t end up taking risks or coming up with any creative or innovating ways to solve new problems or come to different conclusions.

In one of the studies Gopnik highlights, researchers showed a group of 4-year-olds a toy with a tube that squeaked (but also did many other things too). In one group, the researcher “played dumb” by pretending to accidentally discover how to make the tube squeak:

“Huh! Did you see that? Let me try to do that!” said the researcher, acting as if she had just stumbled upon the squeaky function of the toy.

In the other group, the experimenter acted teacher-like, saying “Im going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!” and instructing the kids how to make the toy squeak.

Then the kids were allow to play with the toy themselves. The first group played longer with the toy and were more likely to discover other neat aspects of it besides the squeak feature (like a hidden mirror inside another tube). The second group simply repeated the squeaky trick they had been taught.

Sure, both groups learned how to make the toy squeak, but discovering and creating the activity along with the preschooler inspired more creativity and exploration later on.

To me the value is clear — when kids have room to explore, the energy to learn is internally-directed, coming from the kid himself, as opposed to being externally directed by the teacher (or parent). That’s a fine line that teachers walk — providing enough structure and knowing how to help kids ask questions and experiment, but not zapping learning of its mystery by handing down direct answers.

Self-direction and exploration is a huge part of developing executive function, which, if you follow my writing, you’ve heard is a more important predictor of success than IQ. Here’s my recent feature on the kind of preschool learning most likely to boost executive function.

What’s your take? How much direct teaching should we do in preschool?

Image: flickr