Explicit instructions given to children make them less likely to engage in spontaneous exploration and discovery, says a new study.
According to cognitive scientists, when teaching young children, there is a trade-off between direct instructions and independent exploration.
Researchers believe that the danger lies in leading children to believe that they've learned all there is to know, thereby discouraging independent discovery.
"If I teach you this one thing and then I stop, then you may say, 'Well that's probably all there is,'" said Laura Schulz, the Class of 1943 Career Development Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at MIT.
The confirm the findings, the researchers built an original toy, an appealing tangle of colored tubes with four different functions: pull on a yellow tube and it squeaks; press a button and a blue tube lights up; touch a pad to hear different music notes; and look through a black tube to see a reversed mirror image of your face.
They took the toy to Boston's Museum of Science, where they recruited 85 preschool-age children to interact with the toy under one of four conditions: pedagogical, interrupted, nadve and baseline.
In all four conditions, after the experimenter's dialogue, the child was left to play with the toy on his or her own, and researchers observed the ensuing behavior.
It emerged that the interrupted condition was identical to the pedagogical condition, except that immediately after the squeak demonstration the experimenter interrupted herself, saying, "I just realized, I forgot to write something down over there. I have to go take care of it right now!"
The results suggested that children are extremely sensitive to the subtleties of a teaching scenario.
According to Schulz, what matters is not if children are shown a function, but how they are shown that function. If they believe that an informed teacher has taught them everything, they will be less motivated to explore.
The study is published in the journal Cognition.