Preschool shouldn’t be like School

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In our age of pedagogy, parents instruct their children more and more, at younger and younger ages. Some mothers reach to the extend of reading books to babies in their womb. Many anxious parents pressure teachers to make kindergartens and even nurseries more like schools.

Few remain skeptical, of course, including many preschool teachers, some parents and even a few policy-makers. Shouldn’t very young children be allowed to explore, inquire, play, and discover, they ask? Curiosity and creativity are abilities that are more important for learning in the long run.

Two forthcoming studies in the journal Cognition, one from a lab at MIT and one from my lab at UC-Berkeley, lately suggest that the doubters may be actually right. While learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes them less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution.

How teaching affects learning? Almost any new program with enthusiastic teachers will have good effects, regardless of content. By definition, directed teaching will make children do better on standardized tests and term exams.

On the contrary, curiosity and creativity are harder to measure. Developmental scientists explore the basic science of learning by designing controlled experiments. The two new studies in Cognition are the first to systematically show that they would.

Two studies from different labs, using different techniques, have simultaneously produced strikingly similar results. They provide scientific support for the intuitions many teachers have had all along: Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific, but it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.

Why might children behave this way? Adults often assume that most learning is the result of teaching and that exploratory, spontaneous learning is unusual. Actually, spontaneous learning is more fundamental, studies have found. It’s this kind of learning, in fact, that allows kids to learn from teachers in the first place.

The most important task of parents now is to give children’s remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. That means a rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, both teachers and parents, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play. School for babies restricts children’s natural development .

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