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New research calls into question push to make preschool more like school

Alison Gopnik
Photo by Kathleen King
Alison Gopnik

Writing in the online magazine Slate last week, psychologist and child-development scientist Alison Gopnik described new research that questions whether we’re doing the right thing by emphasizing direct instruction in preschool.

Direct instruction (roughly defined) is a teaching method in which the teacher explains and demonstrates things directly to the students — as opposed to, say, inquiry-based learning, in which children are encouraged (under a teacher’s watchful guidance) to learn through their own trial-and-error explorations.

As Gopnik points out, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act encourages more direct instruction in federally funded preschools.

But is direct instruction the best way that young children learn? Or are preschoolers neurologically wired to learn better through more playful and exploratory methods?

Two studies soon to be published in the journal Cognition — including one from Gopnik’s own lab at the University of California, Berkeley — suggest, says Gopnik, that “[w]hile learning from a teacher may help children get to 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 other words, it teaches them to be less creative.

Here’s Gopnik’s description of her latest study, which began with her and her team of researchers giving a group of 4-year-olds a new toy:

[W]e demonstrated sequences of three actions on the toy, some of which caused the toy to play music, some of which did not. For example, [one researcher] might start by squishing the toy, then pressing a pad on its top, then pulling a ring on its side, at which point the toy would play music. Then she might try a different series of three actions, and it would play music again. Not every sequence she demonstrated worked, however: Only the ones that ended with the same two actions made the music play. After showing the children five successful sequences interspersed with four unsuccessful ones, she gave them the toy and told them to “make it go.”
[The researcher] ran through the same nine sequences with all the children, but with one group, she acted as if she were clueless about the toy. (“Wow, look at this toy. I wonder how it works? Let’s try this,” she said.) With the other group, she acted like a teacher. (“Here’s how my toy works.”) 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 [the researcher] had not demonstrated). But when [the researcher] acted like a teacher, the children imitated her exactly, rather than discovering the more intelligent and more novel two-action solution.

This study’s findings (along with those of the other study Gopnik discusses in the article, which was conducted at MIT) offers, says Gopnik, “scientific support for the intuitions many teachers have had all along: Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is very effective way to get children to learn something specific — this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.”

“Knowing this,” she adds, “it’s more important than ever to give children’s remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. That means a rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play. Not school for babies.”

You can read Gopnik’s Slate article here.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 03/23/2011 - 09:08 pm.

    I am surprised not to see Piaget and Montessori mentioned here. Gopnik’s work seems to confirm their earlier studies or am I missing something here, not being an educational specialist?

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