A Blog by Ed Yong

When teaching restrains discovery

I have no formal training in journalism. The most instruction I ever received came from a two-day science communication course when I was still a hopeful research student in a molecular biology laboratory. The course was a whirlwind tour through the elements of good science writing – avoiding jargon, the value of active sentences, good openers, and so on. I have learned everything else on my own, through seven years of practicing regularly, experimenting with new approaches, and watching what others do well.

That two-day course might seem trivial in the face of everything that’s happened since. But it exemplifies what I have always found to be the most effective style of teaching. It left me enthused enough to go off and explore on my own, and it provided just enough instruction that I could do so from a running start. It launched a run of exploration, learning and fun. And this experience is relevant a longstanding debate about the best way to teach children, especially very young ones.

One camp believes that children learn mostly through teaching and direct instruction. The other says that children learn mostly by exploring and figuring things out for themselves. To them, formal instruction is too passive, and makes for children that receive knowledge without engaging with it. On the other hand, people who favour more direct teaching argue that children need more guidance. Leaving them to explore on their own, through so-called “discovery learning”, is inefficient and ineffective. These are, of course, extreme positions and the debate is more subtle. Both approaches have their merits and good teachers face the challenge of finding a happy medium.

That’s never been clearer than in a new study by Elizabeth Bonawitz from University of California, Berkeley. Through two experiments with pre-schoolers, Bonawitz has found that teaching can be a “double-edge sword”. When teachers provided specific instructions about a new toy, children learned how to play with it more efficiently. But the lessons also curtailed their exploratory streak. They were less likely to play with the toy in new ways. Ultimately, they failed to find all of its secrets.

Bonawitz used brightly coloured PVC tubes to create her own toy, with four interactive features. Children could pull a yellow “squeaker” tube out of a large purple one to make a funny noise. With other tubes, they could turn on a light, play music or see an upside-down image of their own face.

Eighty-five children, aged 4-6, got the chance to play with the toy, one at a time. For some of them, Bonawitz simply unveiled the contraption and said, “Wow, see this toy? Look at this!’’, before leaving them to play. For others, she provided more instruction. “Look at my toy! I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!’’  she said, before pulling on the squeaker.

When the children got their hands on the toy, those who had seen how the squeaker works focused on that feature at the expense of exploration (even though all of them were encouraged to explore for themselves). Compared to the other group, they played with the toy for less time, they tried doing fewer things with it, and they discovered fewer features.

This isn’t to say that teaching is an automatic anathema to discovery. Bonawitz found that it all boils down to style. In some cases, she showed the children how the speaker works before suddenly leaving to take care of something she forgot. Sometimes, she pretended that she had just discovered the toy and acted with surprise when she pulled the squeaker. In both scenarios, the children explored the toy more thoroughly than the ones who experienced an uninterrupted and more obvious lesson.

Context clearly matters. When the apparently knowledgeable teachers in the experiments provide a seemingly complete lesson about the toy, the children deduce that there is a no more to learn. If the lesson is interrupted, or if the instructor seems like a novice, the child deduces that there is more to discover. Bonawitz thinks that these abilities start from a very early age, when children are still in pre-school or kindergarten.

Children can also make these inferences when they watch their peers. In a second experiment, Bonawitz worked with the same toy and 64 new preschoolers. She showed every child how the squeaker works but in one of subtly different ways. She spoke to one group of children directly. The second group watched while she demonstrated the toy to another child. The third watched her show the toy to their parents. And the fourth watched as she played with the squeaker on her own, while talking to herself.

When the children finally got their hands on the toy, they were more likely to explore its other features if they had seen Bonawitz showing it to adults or playing with it herself. If she had talked to them directly or to another child, they focused more strongly on the squeaker at the expense of exploring the toy for themselves.

These results couldn’t be more important for science, where there is always more to discover. Bonawitz quotes the famous child researchers Jean Piaget, who said that the “principal goal of education” was to create people “who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done”. If we’re going to do that ,we’ll need to find ways of encouraging that natural instinct to investigate, play and explore, rather than suppressing it (as in this wonderful example).

Reference: Bonawitz, Shafto, Gweon, Goodman, Spelke & Schulz. 2011. The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.10.001

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15 thoughts on “When teaching restrains discovery

  1. I certainly feel there’s something here, and that it applies in older age-groups if not throughout life. Looking back on my time in University it was the courses that struck the right balance between instruction and discovery, or the ones that made it clear there was more to the course than just the lectures, that provided the best stimulation. It was those same courses that I also got my best marks in. The key point is to find the right way to engage the student. Overall it’s probably the combination of the parents, schools, universities that provide that kind of learning environment, couple with the more highly aware and/or self-exploratory students/children that learn the best/most. It’ certainly something to look into and discuss more given the results of the study.

  2. That sounds like a great study on how we learn. What it seems to boil down to is that we need to get better at teaching the things that are unlikely to be changed by new discoveries (the science of motion and energy, the musical scales, English language and spelling… no wait, etc.) while allowing greater exploration for the things can go in new directions (the cutting edge of biological and materials sciences, musical composition, effective writing). It’s going to take expertise to split between the two paradigms without stiffling some new discovery in a field we thought “complete”.

  3. @Terry,
    While I appreciate the purpose of your “split” between the two styles of teaching in the interest of efficient learning, I disagree. I see the very act of exploration to be an invaluable teaching tool because it trains a student how to problem solve.

    Lets assume that we were able to correctly identify the “unchanging” disciplines (science of motion and energy, etc.) and the “developing” disciplines (materials science). Now lets assume that, by implementing non-discovery based learning models to the unchanging disciplines, we were able to increase learning efficiency of those subjects. That’s great! Students can learn the multiplication table 50% faster, or recite Newton’s laws of motion with 25% more accuracy. Increased learning efficiency is a good thing…no doubt about it.

    But if we only use discovery-based learning for developing disciplines, then the student loses out on all that potential problem solving. I have a unique example: our highschool physics teacher* never told us the laws of motion. He gave us lab equipment and let us discover the laws through experimentation and data analysis. I might not be able to recite all the laws of motion, but I know how to figure them out if I ever needed to. He could have taken the simple route: requiring us to memorize and write out the laws of motion as if they were writ on high.

    Ultimate question: Which teacher would you rather have for your child?

    (*This was a public highschool teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Yes…public schools can do the job too!)

  4. I’ve seen similar effects on my 7-year-old in summer activities, I think. There’s a Nature Camp that has some planned activities and some free time playing. I think when he’s turned loose to play with his friends in the trees or in the stream, he explores more than when he’s looking for something in a specific activity.

    I suspect it’s true with college students, too – but getting college students to explore can be challenging. (Given complete freedom on a geology field trip, for instance, they talk to each other, text their friends, or go back to the van.) I tend to go for some kind of middle ground – tell them to look at something (maybe evidence to support one side of an argument, maybe something more open-ended), and encourage the ones hanging back to get their hands dirty or look closely at the rocks, but not tell them what I see until they’ve sketched or described or argued.

  5. I actually failed to do a bachelor’s thesis becuase I couldn’t think of a topic. The classes made it seem like everything was all wrapped up, no more discoveries to be made.

  6. Dr. Titzer (Your Baby Can Read) has other ways of engaging the very young. Pretty interesting how the littles ones can absorb so much, much more than we think they can.

  7. Interesting article and experiment! Resonates for me with teaching experiences for the very young and in high school, as well as when I am learning.

    A sense of discovery and adventure can pull us forward, while the foundation of experience gets us started. Both of these in a balance of “creative tension” let us build on and spring forward from our knowledge base.

    Finding the balance for each subject, group of learners and the setting/situation is where the “artful form” of teaching arises and is sparked. Can life get much better as we constantly learn anew how each learner and/or group approaches and accesses opportunities with various subject matter, learning styles and methodologies?

  8. Encouraging Discovery & Inquiry in Science education is very important. I am a HS Biology teacher, and I’ll give you my take on it.

    It is a great strategy & idea – but there is a bunch of ‘pre-teaching’ that needs to be done. Students at the HS level need to be taught about the scientific method, variables & controls; AND they need good guidance with it too. They also need a tremendous amount of TIME.

    Its that time aspect that is the main problem. Once you go towards standardized testing as a way of measuring students (and teachers!) there is a pressure towards students learning & memorizing CONTENT over process, and understanding. All that matters is the test score & final mark, not what the student can process, or discover.

    The problem lies deep within the educational systems that allow public/parental input into course standards & policies. Education is one of the only areas that we allow such an odd marriage – can you imagine a hospital being run by patients? Or a doctor being told how to operate or medicate a patient BY the patient? Or a lawyer being told which angles & strategies to take in a case by the client?

    But that’s what we do in education. The inmates run the asylum – then when it goes wrong we blame the messengers, but not the policy makers who bent to public/parent pressure.

    Turn education over to the PROFESSIONALS and watch it grow – it does in many other countries, the ones the US lags behind.

  9. I love it! I’ve always been intuiively a student of this school of thought: that in education, less is more. Most students need to be pointed in the right direction…not led by the hand. John Holt is highly recommended reading for anyone who would like to explore this concept further – in particular, “How Children Learn” and “How Children Fail.” These two books have probably influenced my teaching more than any other literature.

  10. This article is interesting how it shows the difference between instructional and exploring teaching styles. Both kind of teaching but i prefer the exploring after there had been an introduction to a subject but also there are some topics that need to be explanations overall there need to be a discovery teaching method.

  11. For me personally, I find it very interesting to see the many different results to the “experiment”. But then again It doesn’t surprise me to see that all of the different groups reacted differently from the rest. I believe that every individual all have different ways of learning and discovering differently. And I agree, in the end it all depends on the instructor and how they instruct it to the student.

    Looking back at my past education, I have many different experiences. Every single teacher/professor I have ever had all have different impacts on me. I believe that I am a very visual learner, and when my past teachers have given me a lot of hands on experiences, those events tend to stick with me more than others.

    Now that I am thinking more and more about my past learning experiences, all of the teachers that give me direct instruction give me more security in knowing my outcome. But at the same time, it was very frustrating because it never allowed me figure things out on my own, or create my own. So yes I would have to say yes. When teachers just give me the direct instruction, I will always look for an easy way out, look for that way around it all. I also don’t like the idea of “being told what to do”. So when I get forceful directions, I just feel like it’s a job more than a personal want. I find it more common as well when it is a subject that I have no interest in.

  12. I believe the idea of this article is to acknowledge that people absorb and process new information differently. It is interesting because the subjects are children. Children can be very curious about new things where as adults will have developed a certain mind set towards exploring new information.

    Past teachers in my life have all had different teaching styles. My math teachers were more direct with instructions while my english teachers encouraged more free thought obviously from the subjects being taught. When my math teachers taught me a specific method to a problem I stopped learning and used the cookie cutter method to solve problems. It wasn’t until I joined the army that an instructor said, “This is one way to do it, not the only way.” His comment implied that there are more ways to do things, you just have to find out what is is. When I heard that, it made me think more unorthodox or outside the box to tackle issues and problems.

  13. I believe that the idea of this article is to make people of all ages, especially the young generations, realize that learning isn’t all because of a direct approach and daily lesson plan. Learning can also be done by the process of experimentation. If someone is always there to hold your hand through a process, experiment, etc, then there won’t be opportunity for independent learning. I believe that “learning through discovery” on your own, will further enhance the individual’s creativity.
    In my educational career I have experienced both types of learning. Classes like math, english, and history were all taught through direct lesson plans. I also was able to experience learning through discovery in classes like art, mechanical drafting, and wood shop. Both ways of learning can be very effective, but it depends on the teacher and the type of class being taken.

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