Under-Imagined and Over-Taught?

We seem to have become a culture obsessed with programming our kids for success through instruction rather than acknowledging that real learning is mostly about exploration and discovery which includes a lot of the dreaded “F” word… failure. The juxtaposition of two items in the news this week, along with the reappearance of a J.K. Rowlings speech from 2008, speak to this obsession and good reasons to overcome it in favor of a more imaginative learner-driven paradigm for learning, to achieve the right dynamic between imagination and instruction in the human developmental process.

The first news item is recently published research looking at the earliest periods of human development, showing that instruction limits the imagination applied to play and learning among young children.

The ScienceDaily piece, “Don’t Show, Don’t Tell? Direct Instruction Can Thwart Independent Exploration”, looks at research on children’s play habits and how they are influenced by adult instruction. The results of the study shows that in many cases instruction limits imagination and time spent on self-discovery…

Explicit instruction makes children less likely to engage in spontaneous exploration and discovery. A study by MIT researchers and colleagues compared the behavior of children given a novel toy under four different conditions, finding that children expressly taught one of its functions played with the toy for less time and discovered fewer things to do with it than children in the other three scenarios… The danger is leading children to believe that they’ve learned all there is to know, thereby discouraging independent discovery. “If I teach you this one thing and then I stop, then you may say, ‘Well that’s probably all there is,'” Schulz says.

I think these results are a cautionary note for both parents, hyper-focused on programming their kids for success, and schools (and not just preschools) that believe that an ever increasing amount of instruction promotes that programmed success. Short of learning that involves instruction on a particular procedure or algorithm, the study suggests that kids spend more time learning and acquire more learned skill in many instances by not being instructed, and instead given an enriched environment for self-discovery. Though the authors of the study were focused on preschool age kids, I don’t know why these results would not be more widely applicable. In my thinking, any student at any age that is saying or thinking, “Just tell what I need to do to pass the test”, is part of the problem called out by this study.

Juxtaposed to the study, I also read the announcement of a “Race to the Top” effort to standardize pre-K education to better prepare kids to do well in K-12 school (which essentially means do better on the standardized tests in K-12 grades).

From Ed Week online on July 1, “New Race to Top Stresses Pre-K Tests, Early Ed. Program Ratings”

To win a grant in the U.S. Department of Education’s new Race to the Top competition for early-childhood education aid, states will have to develop rating systems for their programs, craft appropriate standards and tests for young children, and set clear expectations for what teachers should know.

Under Ed Department guidelines a winning state must, among other requirements…

* Develop and administer kindergarten-readiness tests, and develop rating systems for early-education programs;

* Have a good track record on early learning, and an ambitious plan to improve those programs;

* Make sure early learning and prekindergarten data is incorporated into its longitudinal data system.

I support an underlying goal here of trying to ensure that all kids in preschool programs (that the state has some control over) have equal access to the kind of early enrichment that helps them do well with their learning later in a regular school environment. There are specific developmentally appropriate things (including certain types of toys and venues for various physical activities) that benefit a child’s growth.

But my fear is that in our instructional obsession (including a focus on a drill and test approach to ensure that instruction “sticks” at least until after the test), state funded and regulated preschool programs will be pushed in the direction of teaching to the test, which I believe would do a great disservice to our kids’ healthy development. “Kindergarten readiness tests” are one thing if they are a low-stakes assessment for parents and other adults that work with the kid. They are quite another thing when they become a high-stakes assessment by the state of which preschool programs will receive or not receive funding.

If as I fear it becomes a high-stakes situation, adult preschool staff are highly likely to increase their efforts to direct children’s play more, while the study I cited above says that children’s development is generally facilitated by directing their play less. Even now, from my anecdotal experience, I’m concerned that many parents, childcare providers and teachers are way too directive when it comes to children’s skill development.

Commenting on the research for the ScienceDaily piece, University of Michigan psychology professor Susan Gelman says that we have a “natural” urge to instruct children…

The whole double-edged sword concept is really interesting… In almost any domain and across different cultures, we engage in spontaneous teaching. It doesn’t have to be in the classroom, we just naturally do this with young children — we show them how things are done, point out what’s important. This study shows how sensitive children are to the kind of cues that signal teaching.

I’m not convinced that it is really natural. I would tend to believe it is more about social construction through conventional wisdom. Why wouldn’t it be natural instead to let children figure things out for themselves unless they ask for help.

Anyway… moving on to what I feel is at stake here for human development and how it impacts our society. Over-instructing our children (that is telling them the “right way” rather then letting them explore, employ trial and error, and discover) seems to be the dominant mode of K-12 education already. There are of course instances where it may be appropriate, like learning an algorithm that helps solve a problem or a procedure for using a tool that protects both the user and the tool. But I believe there are many more cases where we instruct rather than letting kids explore, to their detriment.

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s coincidentally speaks to this in a 2008 commencement talk at Harvard about the importance of imagination and failure to real learning, which has popped up virally on Facebook recently. In her 2008 Harvard commencement address, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination”, Rowling talks about the dangers of young people not being encouraged to explore, try and fail, and discover for themselves, by addressing her own college experience…

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

What Rowlings only discovered after college, but wished she had figured out earlier, was the efficacy of self-discovery, with its trial and error and the inevitable failures…

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies… The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

Now I don’t consider Rowlings some great philosopher or expert on human development. She is merely one successful adult who has been able to leverage her imagination with her writing skills to become a hugely successful author. But being a successful writer, maybe her ability to frame things using the spoken (perhaps previously written) word may be worth noting. She says that if she had it to do over again…

I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement.

I would agree with her that passing examinations has become the implicit (if not explicit) goal of our education system. And hasn’t the “Race to the Top” efforts in that direction broadened th scope to a child’s preschool years? Isn’t an education system focused on teaching our kids the right answers to program them for success ultimately a weak developmental broth?

Says Rowlings…

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

Isn’t the teach to the test direction of our schools, now broadened perhaps in scope by a new standardization and testing focus in preschool years, contributing to a generation of school graduates who may be lacking in the imagination to do their part solving the vexing problems of our world and our society within that world? I hope those of us that work with kids – as parents, teachers, or other mentors – really ponder this and look carefully at the assistance we attempt to provide and the environments we attempt to facilitate to help kids learn. We should all adopt a version of the Hippocratic Oath…

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.

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