Science-- there's something for everyone

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Instruction can limit exploration

Children who are given explicit instructions may be less likely to explore on their own.  So says a study by Laura Schulz of Harvard, Elizabeth Bonawitz of Berkeley, Patrick Shafto of the University of Louisville and their colleagues. 

In order to determine what effect giving specific directions would have on children’s creativity, the researchers built a colorful, gadgety toy with four hidden functions.  Pulling or pressing parts of it could make it squeak, light up or play musical notes, and looking down one of the tubes would reveal a reverse mirrored image.  85 preschoolers were recruited to play with the new toy under four different conditions.

One group (pedagogical) was explicitly shown one function (how to make the toy squeak). The second group (interrupted) was also shown how to operate the squeak function, but the experimenter immediately excused herself (claiming to have forgotten something important) and left the area. For the third group (naive), the experimenter pretended to have just figured out the squeak function by accident. Finally, the fourth group of children was simply offered the toy with little comment.  Each of the children was then left alone to examine and play with the toy.

 Playing with the toys

Gabriella, 5, plays with the researchers' toy in the PlayLab at Boston's Children's Museum.
Photos: Patrick Gillooly.

The group that was least likely to discover even one other function of the toy was the pedagogical group.  The authors speculate that when someone is explicitly taught how to use an object, he or she assumes that that’s all there is to it.  These same children also spent much less time playing with toy.

This reminds me of a parental dilemma.  I’ve often thought, upon stumbling across something I was sure my young child would find fascinating, that the best scenario would be for her to discover it on her own.  Barring that, would it be better to point it out to her (and risk diminishing her interest) or hope that she would one day find it without help (and risk that she never would)?