When should you teach children and when should you let them explore?

I read with interest, the article in The Economist last week recounting an experiment where 4-5 year old kids were to play with a toy, having been given different amounts of information about the toy from an adult.

The results showed that the children who were left to play with the toy having  been given little or no information about the toy remained interested in the toy for longer and discovered more features of the toy as well.  The children who had been shown all the features of the toy had played with the toy for a far shorter period of time.

The message clearly is that we should allow children to make their own meaning through what they encounter, and try to play the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage”.  One premise of the study was the belief that if students are given facts by the teacher, once the transfer of knowledge ends, the students assume that is the boundary of all knowledge for that topic.  Whereas with a more discovery based approach, the boundaries of knowledge do not exist.

I can see that the internet is an ideal discovery tool: a limitless encyclopaedia of knowledge and opinion from which children can make their own meaning.

Reference
Bonawitz, Elizabeth. “Educational Psychology: Now You Know | The Economist.” The Economist – World News, Politics, Economics, Business & Finance. The Economist, 26 May 2011. Web. 02 June 2011. .

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About eadurkin

Originally a HS Mathematics teacher from New Zealand, currently working as Associate Principal in the Secondary School at Canadian Academy, an international school in Kobe, Japan. Married with two children.
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6 Responses to When should you teach children and when should you let them explore?

  1. Amy Sunke says:

    Great article! I struggle with this with my own children and what type of school that they should be in. Both my husband and I felt strongly about a Montesorri education because it allows for exploration and time that they want on the subject. They are charge of their own learning.
    What was gained from this study, “The researchers’ conclusion was that, in the context of strange toys of unknown function, prior explanation does, indeed, inhibit exploration and discovery.”
    Parents of our generation want to point everything out and use it as a teachable moment, I guess we need to take a deep breath and let them figure it out.

  2. Back to this age old question…
    There are many articles on this topic. Most of them support letting children explore as opposed to teaching them. Sometimes letting students explore is teaching them, but it almost makes me wonder if the profession of teaching will become obsolete. With today’s technology expanding, how much exploring vs. teaching is there to do?
    -Karen

  3. M Leon-Sweeney says:

    The article you read seem quite interesting. Even though it talks about a debate that has been around for a long time, it is still a current topic. “The message clearly is that we should allow children to make their own meaning through what they encounter.” (Durkin, 2011) summarizes well the results of the experiment. I agree with you, the internet is an ideal discovery tool for children to make their own meaning; however, some expert guidance will be helpful in their journey.

    Mary

  4. Becky Herges says:

    The title of your article definitely caught my attention. As a math teacher, I sometimes struggle with finding the balance between allowing students to explore and directly teaching a concept. Sometimes I feel that we have so many time constraints that there isn’t enough time to allow students to explore every topic. Maybe it begins with one topic at a time.

    You brought up another great point about student interest. You said that “the children who were left to play with the toy having been given little or no information about the toy remained interested in the toy for longer and discovered more features of the toy as well.” I often feel that my students lack the interest in many math topics and I’m sure some of that is that they are simply being told about things rather than exploring them themselves.

    Thanks for sharing this article. It definitely made me think (and will continue to!)

    Becky

  5. Serge Labrecque says:

    Excellent article Liz,
    It reminds me of one my my professor, he highly recommended us to start labs and activities with what he called messing about. Giving time to students to use the material before starting an experiment.

    Serge

  6. What’s sad is that we have known this to some extent for years. This was the philosophy, perhaps unsupported by research, that I was taught in teacher training over 20 years ago. For electricity, we just dumped a load of wires, batteries, etc. on the table and told the students to come and show us things that they discovered and it was only after that discovery time that we stopped to develop and begin to explore specific questions as a class. I had to go and rescue the principle because the students had a series of wires connecting her zipper to a locker to a . . . eventually completing the circuit.

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