Taking the Teaching Out of Preschool

Family Matters on 04.13.11

Photo: Ella's Dad/Creative Commons

The question of just how structured education should be for kids starting out in school is one that you could debate for hours, but two recent studies lend weight to the argument that less direct teaching -- and more creative exploration -- will do more for a child's curiosity and learning skills.

In Slate's "Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School", developmental scientist Alison Gopnik sums up the results of the studies this way: "While learning from a teacher may help children get 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."

In the first study, two groups of 4-year-olds were introduced to the same toy, which had four hidden features. For one group, a teacher pretended to discover one of the features and then left the children alone with the toy; with the second group, the teacher showed them how to work the first feature and then left the room. The first group was more likely to discover the other hidden features -- the second group wasn't as curious and didn't play with the toy as long.

In a second study, researchers showed two different groups of 4-year-olds how to use a different toy but, again, pretended to be discovering how the toy worked with one group while directly teaching the second group how to use it. The results:


"When she acted clueless, many of the children figured out the most intelligent way of getting the toy to play music (performing just the two key actions, something Daphna had not demonstrated). But when Daphna acted like a teacher, the children imitated her exactly, rather than discovering the more intelligent and more novel two-action solution."


So what does this mean for your child's development? According to Gopnik, the similar results from two unrelated studies point to the idea that "spontaneous learning is more fundamental" than direct teaching, and that giving young kids the space and freedom to discover new knowledge on their own can be better for them in the long run. 

Do your kids respond better to direct teaching or exploration? Tell us in the comments.


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