Lessons from a Toy

I originally posted this piece on my personal blog in 2014, but as I have been working on my book How Human Beings Learn for West Virginia University Press this summer, I find that I keep coming back to a fascinating article from 2011.  I thought it was worth putting this post out there into the wild and wooly blogosphere again, then, because the issues are still so relevant.

In the paper linked above, a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists from UC Berkeley, the University of Louisville, MIT, Stanford, and Harvard report on an experiment they conducted with 85 children between the ages of 4 and 6.  The children were divided into four groups, with each group experiencing a different experimental condition.  Each condition involved the use of a specially designed toy.  In the first group,

the experimenter said, “Look at my toy! This is my toy. I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!” The experimenter then pulled the yellow tube out from the purple tube to produce the squeak sound. She said, “Wow, see that? This is how my toy works!” and demonstrated the same action again. (325)

In the second group, the experimenter began the same way but interrupted herself before the second, reinforcing demonstration of the squeaking function and left to attend to other matters.  For the third group, the experimenter appeared to suddenly discover the toy, wondered aloud about how the toy worked, and “accidentally” discovered the squeaking.  The reinforcement demonstration was completed in this condition.  Finally, in the fourth group, the experimenter simply showed the toy to the children and walked away.  As the researchers note, “In all conditions, the experimenter then said, ‘Wow, isn’t that cool?  I’m going to let you play and see if you can figure out how this toy works.  Let me know when you’re done!'”

Can you guess where we’re headed here?

The first group–the one where the children were intentionally instructed as to the function of the toy–played with the toy for less time and did less with the toy than all of the other groups.  They explored less and tried out fewer possibilities.  The results, in fact were not only statistically significant but impressively so (326).*

The researchers suggest that direct instruction, while valuable for conveying specific information, had a negative effect on the desire to find out new information.  Part of this may have to do with the cues given by teachers that point out significant information.  As proponents of natural pedagogy point out, though, this response may also be evolutionary.  Human beings, that is, may be hard-wired to process information from teacher figures in ways that are the most advantageous for accomplishing essential tasks rather than developing sustained interest.

I was drawn to this article because I think it has implications for higher education.  Although our brains change and mature dramatically as we age, the mechanisms by which we learn do not necessarily shift as much as we might think.

Certainly, these findings would add to the relatively recent (and not so recent) mounting evidence on the ineffectiveness of lecturing straight through from the beginning to the end of class.  But might it not also suggest that presenting only one possible side to or perspective on an issue, even in discussion-based courses, contributes to shutting down our students’ innate curiosity and desire to research a question further?

In the end, higher ed’s lesson from the toy might be this:  relying too heavily on direct instruction may be good for teaching to the test, but if our goals are fostering deep learning and cultivating our students' curiosity, then we may need to look elsewhere.  In future posts, I want to delve more deeply into some techniques for encouraging this kind of curiosity in our courses.


*There was a second part to the experiment, too, that involved the ways in which the children processed instruction directly from adults, indirectly from adults, and from children that would make for another post entirely.

Posted on August 6, 2015 .