The Great Unknown – Part One


However, it seems that by directly instructing children—giving them the answers to problems, then testing them on memory—we are inhibiting creative problem solving, to quite a significant degree.” – Andrea Kuszewski

My thoughts have been in a bit of a muddle today.  I blame Andrea Kuszewski, a researcher with METODO Social Sciences Institute.  She offers a couple of hypotheses in her blog post for Scientific American called The educational value of creative disobedience which really got me thinking.  I’ll tackle just one today!

Hypothesis One: “Teaching and encouraging kids to learn by rote memorization and imitation shapes their brain and behavior, making them more inclined towards linear thinking, and less prone to original, creative thinking.”

In support of her hypothesis Kuszewski cites work by Dr. Alison Gopnik of UC – Berkeley who asks, “Shouldn’t very young children be allowed to explore, inquire, play, and discover, they ask? Perhaps direct instruction can help children learn specific facts and skills, but what about curiosity and creativity—abilities that are even more important for learning in the long run?”  Everyone nodding their heads?  Fans of Montessori feeling pretty good?  It is easy to agree with after all, nothing is less-glamorous in the education world than rote memorization.  It seems so Little House on the Prairie.

Well the study she cites is not one about memorizing math facts but rather learning a sequence of actions leading to the activation of a toy.  Dr. Gopnik writes, “When [the researcher] 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 [the researcher] had not demonstrated). But when [the researcher] acted like a teacher, the children imitated her exactly, rather than discovering the more intelligent and more novel two-action solution.”  The conclusion drawn seems to be that a clueless but curious adult model is better than an instructive adult model when it comes to teaching “what matters most.”  But what about the carefully scripted Montessori lessons?  A mom teaching her daughter to tie her shoes?

While this research certainly has important implications, I think the analysis offered is ultimately a bit too binary.  A child may not need to know the definition of a haiku to write a poem but they need at least a basic vocabulary.  It seems to me that direct instruction, errorless learning and rote memorization are particularly well-positioned to teach that “vocabulary.”  Arguably they give children bricks with which they can build homes of their choosing.

I think it would be interesting to compare the “creativity” of children with varying prerequisite skills taught through imitation or rote memorization.  Is there an ideal level of prerequisite learning?  Anyone seen any work like this out there?


5 thoughts on “The Great Unknown – Part One

  1. This seems to be a hot topic these days. Check out this article from The Nurture Shock authors wrote an article for Newsweek a few years ago on this very subject.

    The challenge seems to be that people talk about “teaching” creativity when it is really something that just needs space to grow and most American classrooms are not designed with this space in mind.

    1. Great link Lizz and so true… I’d be so curious to know how (or if!) professors in the field of education talk to new teachers about nurturing creativity! Any ideas?

  2. This might be true with something like a jack in the box, but to demonstrate the steps involved in problem solving that are extensive- the steps, I mean, is a way of approaching a totally unfamiiiar activity.

    I am thinking, for example, of the red rods, which look like they are for banging together, or throwing, or hitting someone with, until you see what they can be for, which is for sorting by length, or building a spiral. After watching the spiral be built, children will explore in all sorts of ways, but before any lesson, they use them for banging.

    Perhaps, in a culture in which children constantly were given real things instead of crappy toys they would learn to wonder what a real use could be, instead of just pretend play or banging. That would be something interesting to study.

    In a Montessori classroom, we let the children use the materials in any way that is respectful, but without lessons on the materials that require attention, order and careful movement (even scrubbing a stool comes in here), they are not successful, which means, they break the red rods, they slop the water all about, and we are not willing for that activity to happen. We are, I would argue, setting the children up for success.

    One thing I would wonder about is the extent to which children can adapt a way of using one material to the way to explore many things. This is very open ended and intriguing, I would think.

  3. Sorry, I was also thinking of cooking. If, when your child wanted to help you make pancakes, you let them “freely explore”, I am sure that would be the last time they got to help until, perhaps, they had watched you enough to be successful at helping?

    1. Hi Mary,

      I think you make a great point here! It seems to come again to the idea of freedom within limits. Your example of cooking is a terrific one! Without any adult support, the majority of young children would not be able to access the natural reinforcement, namely a tasty bite of pancake, if they have never prepared them before. Some – probably those who have had many pancakes prepared for them and have had some experience cooking – might be able to persevere through a bad batch or two but those without that experience would not know what they are missing. Gets me thinking about I thinking about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development…

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