Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why preschool shouldn't be like school

"'College begins in kindergarten.' No it doesn't. Kindergarten begins in kindergarten."
-Sir Ken Robinson

If you are a fan of direct instruction and the banking metaphor of education, you might find it interesting to read Alison Gopnik's Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School. The article features two experiments:

In the first study, MIT professor Laura Schulz, her graduate student Elizabeth Bonawitz, and their colleagues looked at how 4-year-olds learned about a new toy with four tubes. Each tube could do something interesting: If you pulled on one tube it squeaked, if you looked inside another tube you found a hidden mirror, and so on. For one group of children, the experimenter said: "I just found this toy!" As she brought out the toy, she pulled the first tube, as if by accident, and it squeaked. She acted surprised ("Huh! Did you see that? Let me try to do that!") and pulled the tube again to make it squeak a second time. With the other children, the experimenter acted more like a teacher. She said, "I'm going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!" and deliberately made the tube squeak. Then she left both groups of children alone to play with the toy. 
All of the children pulled the first tube to make it squeak. The question was whether they would also learn about the other things the toy could do. The children from the first group played with the toy longer and discovered more of its "hidden" features than those in the second group. In other words, direct instruction made the children less curious and less likely to discover new information.
Does direct teaching also make children less likely to draw new conclusions—or, put another way, does it make them less creative? To answer this question, Daphna Buchsbaum, Tom Griffiths, Patrick Shafto, and I gave another group of 4-year-old children a new toy.* This time, though, we demonstrated sequences of three actions on the toy, some of which caused the toy to play music, some of which did not. For example, Daphna 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." 
Daphna 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 Daphna had not demonstrated). But when Daphna acted like a teacher, the children imitated her exactly, rather than discovering the more intelligent and more novel two-action solution.
All this brings new life to an old quote from Seymour Papert:

The scandal of education is that every time you teach something, you deprive a child of the pleasure and benefit of discovery.
But if this is true then perhaps it's not just preschool that shouldn't be like school. Perhaps all learners would be better off if every level of education was a little less like school.


  1. My observation:

  2. Mr. Bower, I am a student from Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 Class at the University of South Alabama. I want to thank you for bringing this up and providing such an interesting article and research. As I am studying to become a teacher, I’m learning various teaching methods, and I am definitely exploring some non-traditional forms of education as well. Your blog has provided me with various resources to explore this more. This post especially caught my attention though. It seems like students really are better off when they discover information on their own, but my concern comes with older students who are “too cool for school” or students who are unable to motivate themselves. However, I definitely believe that “learners would be better off if every level of education was a little less like school.” Thanks again for the post!

  3. At heart, I am a constructivist. But state standards require me to present many things directly because there just isn't time in the school year for students to discover/learn/synthesize everything they are supposed to according to the testing schedule. It's disheartening.

    But out of sheerest curiosity, I would love to know about this kind of research being done with older children. There is a shift that seems to happen around Grades 4 or 5 when kids more readily represent abstract ideas in symbolic ways. I am curious if there is a corresponding shift in one's ability to learn via direct instruction at that age.

    I have no preconceived answer, but I am curious.

    It reminds me of Vygotsky's research and the "Zone of Proximal Development." Much of his research examined adult-infant interactions and I've never read of its research findings in older children and/or adults; but it sure is used there all the time.

  4. Thanks for sharing this Joe. We often think direct instruction saves time. Perhaps not. Take the example given; direct instruction quickly revealed one piece of knowledge. There was more to be learned from the object. Would it take more or less time to teach the other "secrets"? How quickly would the kids discover them through their own exploration? As they became more experienced explorers they would discover more quickly. I see this in my class. Any time I take the direct instruction approach the impatient students tune me out and push ahead.

  5. I agree! It is sad that, it seems, as students progress through the grades of our system, the options they have towards, how to complete their work, diminishes.

    In lower grades, classes are brought to the library to pick a book to read. In higher grades, students are mandated as to which book to read.

    In lower grades, students are given complete open ended projects, while in high grades students must correctly answer "D" on a question to receive full marks.

    Sad world!

  6. Powerful thought. I totally agree with preschool not being like school, but you've got me thinking (which I love) about all learners! Thank you for making me think about this!

  7. As part of my IBL model, I include teachers being co-collaborators and modeling the various attributes they want students to have (curiosity, perseverance, etc.), I'd love to have other research resources to share regarding older children in addition to these. Thanks for the posting. I'll share it with teachers in my professional development workshops.

  8. Great interview with Alison Gopnick on CBC the Q this morning.

  9. I am an Early Years Practitioner and have a class of 22 children aged from 2.5yrs to 3.8yrs. I have always believed in free-play for children of this age and love the Reggio Approach, however, i am currently co-teaching with a teacher who believes strongly in direct teaching, assessing and strict planning is through the layout of the classroom which provokes and extends the childrens learning but apparently this is not enough and 'we' need to write what we are going to do with (though for me its more like to) the children. Thank you so much for your wonderful blog....its keeping me going and 'fighting' for what is right!

  10. kindergarten school in India are an extension for your child's quality learning experience that begins with our kids play school and Nursery programs and aims at preparing kids for a successful career.

  11. kindergarten school in india are an extension for your child's quality learning experience that begins with our kids play school and Nursery programs and aims at preparing kids for a successful career.
    best play schools in india
    kids play school
    pre school education


Follow by Email