Lessons from a Toy: New (to me) Research on Pedagogy and Cognition

Now that the summer has brought with it the slowing-down that is the hallmark of the academic calendar at this time of year, I have found some time to work on my book that explores the ways in which understanding the biological basis of learning* can benefit those of us who teach in the Humanities (the book proposal can be found here).  As I was doing some research the other day, I came across a fascinating article from 2011.

In it, a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists from UC Berkeley, the University of Louisville, MIT, Stanford, and Harvard report on an experiment they conducted with 85 children between the ages of 4 and 6.  The children were divided into four groups, with each group experiencing a different experimental condition.  Each condition involved the use of a specially designed toy.  In the first group,

the experimenter said, “Look at my toy! This is my toy. I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!” The experimenter then pulled the yellow tube out from the purple tube to produce the squeak sound. She said, “Wow, see that? This is how my toy works!” and demonstrated the same action again. (325)

In the second group, the experimenter began the same way but interrupted herself before the second, reinforcing demonstration of the squeaking function and left to attend to other matters.  For the third group, the experimenter appeared to suddenly discover the toy, wondered aloud about how the toy worked, and “accidentally” discovered the squeaking.  The reinforcement demonstration was completed in this condition.  Finally, in the fourth group, the experimenter simply showed the toy to the children and walked away.  As the researchers note, “In all conditions, the experimenter then said, ‘Wow, isn’t that cool?  I’m going to let you play and see if you can figure out how this toy works.  Let me know when you’re done!'”

Can you guess where we’re headed here?

The first group–the one where the children were intentionally instructed as to the function of the toy–played with the toy for less time and did less with the toy than all of the other groups.  They explored less and tried out fewer possibilities.  The results, in fact were not only statistically significant but impressively so (326).**

The researchers suggest that direct instruction, while valuable for conveying specific information, had a negative effect on the desire to find out new information.  Part of this may have to do with the cues given by teachers that point out significant information.  As proponents of natural pedagogy point out, though, this response may also be evolutionary.  Human beings, that is, may be hard-wired to process information from teacher figures in ways that are the most advantageous for accomplishing essential tasks.

I was drawn to this article because I think it has implications for higher education.  Although our brains change and mature dramatically as we age, the mechanisms by which we learn do not necessarily shift as much as we might think.

Certainly, these findings would add to the recent (and not so recent) mounting evidence on the ineffectiveness of lecturing straight through from the beginning to the end of class.  But might it not also suggest that presenting only one possible side to or perspective on an issue, even in discussion-based courses, contributes to shutting down our students’ innate curiosity and desire to research a question further?

In the end, higher ed’s lesson from the toy might be this:  relying too heavily on direct instruction may be good for teaching to the test but not for our students’ learning overall.


*Many thanks to Christina Petersen who, in a recent email exchange, convinced me that “biological basis of learning” is much more appropriate and accurate than “brain-based learning,” which is the more common nomenclature.

**There was a second part to the experiment, too, that involved the ways in which the children processed instruction directly from adults, indirectly from adults, and from children that would make for another post entirely.



5 thoughts on “Lessons from a Toy: New (to me) Research on Pedagogy and Cognition

  1. That sounds like an interesting article, and I agree that it has implications for our work in higher education. (We medievalists and our close cousins the classicists should of all folks know how dated the lecture is as a model of instruction.) Active and experiential learning that allows students–on their own or in groups–the opportunity to explore, to create/discover knowledge, and to engage in real-world application of that knowledge seems to be a significant trend now. Hopefully, it will continue to be in the future.

  2. Thanks for the link for the article.

    One of the problems I have with the model of teaching to the test is that it also hampers students’ ability to develop research projects. Far too many times (in my advanced classes), students come to me with ideas for research projects, only to drop them when I don’t know exactly what they should look at. They will ask me what articles/books/resources will prove their argument; if I don’t know, those students will give up and move on to another project. Some students, on the other hand, use these research assignments to explore. And even if those students wind up at dead ends, they have learned a great deal along the way (about the subject matter, about the process of researching, etc.).

    I know of many faculty who teach “research methods” courses as a step-by-step instruction regarding how to find specific materials in response to a specific prompt; students then repeat the process and come to the approved conclusions. Far too often, in my opinion, the education industry penalizes exploration and emphasizes repetition and rote learning. While repetition and rote learning do have their place in education, too often they are over-used because they can produce easily understood, measurable results.

    So what do we do? How do we change the direction of institutional culture?

    • Great comment, Jim, and one that I wholeheartedly agree with. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to your questions, though. We keep pushing the research, keep trying. That will be our start.

  3. Pingback: Significance and Montessori in Higher Education | A Lavender's View of Higher Ed.

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