Teachers are sometimes told to be the "guide by the side" instead of the "sage on the stage," but research shows that this is a false choice.

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A few years ago, I interviewed Laura Schulz, a cognitive scientist at MIT,  about a fascinating study she had c0-authored showing the difference between teaching preschoolers how a toy worked and  letting them monkey around with it themselves.

The toy was specially made for the experiment out of colored PVC pipes attached to a board and had several features that weren’t obvious.

For example, if kids pulled a yellow tube out of a bigger purple tube, the toy squeaked. One end of a blue tube lit up when kids pushed a small button inside the other end. A yellow pad played musical notes if kids pressed it. Or they could see their own faces reflected if they looked into a black tube.

Kids who were explicitly taught how the squeaker worked, but nothing else about the toy, spent less time exploring and discovered fewer of the toy’s other functions than kids who weren’t taught.

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Schulz told me that some reporters concluded the experiment showed teaching was bad because it shut down a kid’s natural passion for discovery.

But she said that is the wrong conclusion. The real message, she said, is that teaching involves trade-offs.

Children taught how the squeaker worked spent more time playing with it than the kids who weren’t, so teaching promoted more efficient learning of that part of the toy.

But the trade-off – what the researchers call the “double-edged sword of pedagogy” — was that children were less likely to discover the toy’s other features, perhaps because they assumed the teacher had already shown them everything important.

The researchers concluded that teachers need to balance discovery with instruction.

In preschool for example, different kinds of play work better for different lessons.

In an article last year in Phi Delta Kappan, which mentioned Schulz’s study, the authors talked about the difference between free play, which helps kids learn how to get along, and guided play, which is better at helping them gain early reading and math skills.

Children run the show in both types of play, but in guided play, teachers nudge them toward learning goals by asking open-ended questions about what they’re doing.

Another study, published in the journal Memory  & Cognition in 2014, tested the efficiency of self-directed learning with students at New York University.

Researchers gave the students a test on a computer that required them to memorize objects on a series of grids. In the first test, students had a lot of control over how the information was presented and when. But in the next two tests, the researchers made adjustments that reduced the gap between active and passive study. In the fourth and final test, the only thing students could control was when to advance to the next item by pressing a button.

The researchers found that students’ active control over the learning always led to an advantage over passive observation, even if it was just pressing a button.

I emailed the lead author on the study, Doug Markant, who works at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, and asked for his thoughts.

He agreed that it’s a false choice to pit self-guided learning against direct instruction.

“Of course it’s a difficult problem to figure out the right balance between those,” he said, “but at a minimum our results suggest that a total lack of control during learning is likely to render even the best instruction less memorable.”

He also mentioned that he and his colleagues are working on some similar experiments with children age 5 to 8 and the results so far suggest that students remember more when they have some level of control over the learning environment.

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