Monday, March 21, 2011

Skip Those Teachable Moments

One of the ideas brewing in the recesses of my brain is to write a book that pulls together and succinctly summarizes all the recent research on how humans learn so that those of us who homeschool (and especially those of us who unschool) can have the pedagogical arguments we need literally at our fingertips. I'd also hope that putting all this great information into people's hands in an accessible way might have some positive impact on how schools operate.

What keeps tripping me up, though, is that every time I think, "Okay, there's enough out there for me to start," something else truly amazing pops up and I'd be heart broken not to have included it. Since I think there really is only one book inside of me to do with current learning theory and how that relates to pedagogical practice, I think it's best I wait and just keep putting things up on this blog instead. At this rate, the book might never get written and, to be honest, I'm okay with that (because I'm secretly hoping someone else will do it if I put it off long enough).

In the meantime, this post is really about this article: Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School by Alison Gopnik, a researcher from UC-Berkley. She discusses the recent research out of both her lab and MIT that demonstrates that children who are handed a novel object are much more willing to explore it and interact with it and will figure out how it works (and will do so more deeply and efficiently) than children who are explicitly taught how to use it.

In fact, the MIT study goes as far as to be titled, "The double edge sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery." What the MIT authors state in their abstract (because as much as I love you all, I'm not going to purchase the article for $41.95 just yet) is that when a teacher demonstrates the use of an object, because of children's previous experience with teachers, they assume that's all that object will do and tend not to explore further once they can replicate what the teacher did. Children who are simply presented with the object may take a bit longer to determine the function of the object, but then they go on and find other functions that taught children don't. The MIT researchers conclude: "...pedagogy promotes efficient learning but at a cost: children are less likely to perform potentially irrelevant actions but also less likely to discover novel information."

The UC-Berkley study looked at imitation. Children who are deliberately taught, by a "teacher", a sequence of actions in order to get the desired outcome tend to do all those steps as shown, a strategy the researchers labelled "overimitation". Children who are not taught but are shown what the object can do by a "naive" person who looks to be just exploring the object tend to figure out short-cuts and other ways to get the desired outcome. In this case, it's the perception of being "taught" that limits the children's ability to think outside the procedure being shown.

Alison Gopnik limits her article to pre-school aged children (the age of the subjects in both studies), but I suspect that this research will generalize to human beings of all ages. And, for me, the crux of this research is that the perception of being "taught", that there is someone who is an expert and who is showing you the correct way to do something or to think about something, is what limits learning... and exploration, creativity, discovery. The other thing that is clear is that if there is something to be discovered, humans will discover it--as long as they don't assume that they've already been shown all there is to know about it.

And how does this relate to those tempting little teachable moments? Usually those moments present when our kids are in the thick of discovery and exploration, knee-deep in true learning. When an adult jumps in to show or teach, as soon as we say or do what we are compelled to say or do we have neatly (and often unintentionally) told our kids that the expert is on the scene, this is what you are supposed to get out of this situation or experience, and the job is done. Go home folks, there's nothing more to see here. And kids do. Go. And we parents often are left wondering what it is about us that turns our kids off.

It's not us. It's just the way it works.

When we wrap something up with a bow (and an agenda attached), when we hand kids something as a fait accompli, then that will be the end of it.

If we are careful and skillful facilitators, however, allowing ourselves to not be the "experts" but simply participants, then we can explore along side our children, opening and supporting their experiences by our own on-the-side curiosity and desire to understand (as long as our enthusiasm doesn't co-opt the situation).

There is nothing wrong with direct teaching for certain things. As per a recent conversation, yes, I want to know that my surgeon has been shown how to properly use a scalpel and how to stitch everything back up. But learning (and growing and developing) is so much more than learning specific skills to do specific tasks. And kids will often ask to be shown how to do something if they really want to know how. But most of the time, they'll be learning in spite of us... as long as we don't get in their way.