Debate Magazine

Why School Shouldn’t Be Like School

By Stevemiranda

Researchers at UC-Berkeley and MIT recently generated a fascinating set of data. Here’s an excerpt from an article in Slate written by one of the researchers, Alison Gopnik:

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.

This makes sense. When someone is speaking to you in a “teacher” voice, you assume that they’re the expert and will tell you all the information you need to know. There’s no reason for the kids in the second group to think there’s anything to discover. If there were, the teacher would have told us to discover it, right?

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The title of the article is “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School.” The author concludes, “Knowing this, 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.”

Wait a minute. If this is true, then we need a new article called, “Why School Shouldn’t Be Like School.” Why would we think it’s bad to stunt creativity and curiosity in pre-schoolers, but we’re fine with limiting those qualities in teens?

When a teenager walks into U.S. History class, sits in a chair and takes in a lecture per day as the teacher goes from September through June—from Columbus through the Reagan Revolution—he leaves for summer vacation satisfied that he has learned all of U.S. History. There is nothing left to discover. If there was, the teacher would have told us to discover it, right?

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Maybe we need an article called, “Why School Should Be Like Preschool.” Then we could provide teenagers with rich, stable, and safe worlds, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play. Teachers and students could spend an entire year playing with different events and ideas about U.S. History, and students would go home for summer having learned a lot, but also with the knowledge that there are more “hidden features” still to discover.

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