Playing, Learning, and the Teaching Problem

Babies learn through imitation and play. What about new college students?

August 3, 2016

Allison Gopnik, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, had an interesting piece in last Sunday’s New York Times that has been sticking to my brain like a burr. She argues that our current obsession with preparing children for success gets in the way of their learning. She describes several recent experiments with small children, who are naturally curious and determined to figure things out - and remarkably good at it. They learn about the world around them by observation, imitation, and play, not by being taught. In fact, she argues, if they are taught, they will imitate accurately, but being told how to do something takes away the opportunity to figure things out. When small children observe and imitate, they are testing the physical world around them and coming up with their own understanding of how things work. Explicit instruction short-circuits that process. She writes:

Parents and policy makers care about teaching because they recognize that learning is increasingly important in an information age. But the new information economy, as opposed to the older industrial one, demands more innovation and less imitation, more creativity and less conformity.

In fact, children’s naturally evolved learning techniques are better suited to that sort of challenge than the teaching methods of the past two centuries . . . We don’t have to make children learn, we just have to let them learn.

Every fall, as new students arrive on campus, I struggle with what to do to help them feel comfortable exploring ideas in the library and beyond. In that first semester, they tend to be stressed and pressed for time. They don’t have models in front of them for how scholars do research, but they’re often asked to find scholarly sources to use in an argument as they are introduced to academic writing. They are intensely curious about what the teacher wants, if not about the topic they’re researching, and often focus on getting that boring task done as efficiently as possible. It’s not just that there’s no time for creativity, or that they think creativity is a violation of the rule that you have to quote other people in this kind of writing. It’s simply too big of a risk.

When they come to the library for an hour or two to do some guided poking around, they want to know the rules. How many sources do I need? Will these ones do? They’re not particularly interested in how those sources got there. In fact, they’re often not interested in reading them. After all, it's right there in the rubric: points for citing articles accurately; nothing about reading them. When they patch together quotes lifted out of context, it’s hardly surprising. Since they haven’t seen how scholarship actually happens, and have never seen this way of mapping out the evolution of ideas, they have nothing yet to imitate or puzzle out. The rules are all they have.

There are ways to help new students get a handle on how scholars invent new ideas. Anne-Marie Deitering of Oregon State University, for example, has come up with some great ones, and is very smart about taking a cultural approach to this stage in student learning. But if you’re hoping students will practice writing formal academic writing using sources in the way academics do so that when they finally have a chance to do actual research they’ll know how to package it, you’re doing them no favors. Showing new students how to find sources and cite them might actually interfere with the kind of learning we want, the kind babies do when they are doing what comes naturally – figure out through imitation and play. If you learn how to cite a source before you’ve had any experience seeing how scholarly writing is webbed together through these not-so-hyper links, if you’ve never sought a source that you first encountered in another source, this citation business is simply a matter of compiling an ingredients list that’s required by law. You have to do it right. There are penalties.

The way we search now isn't through connections, the way scholarly conversations work. We have been doing everything we can to flatten those conversations into a Google-like search box that takes terms in and returns a list of things to choose from, trying to make it easier and more familiar. Chris Bourg, director of the MIT libraries, gave a fascinating talk a short while ago about efforts to move from search to a richer kind of discovery, one that makes it possible to see connections and find new paths to follow. She builds on that old saw that only librarians like to search, people like to find, and asks how we can help people discover and have fun while they are building their own understanding.

What I’m wondering about right now is how to help new students see the library a place where you can discover and have fun rather than a place where you accomplish tasks efficiently by following obscure rules that, if broken, carry harsh penalties. How will we give them a taste of the culture they’ve landed in, a sense of what people do at universities, and help them experience their own capacity to learn through self-directed exploration? How will we convince them that what we do with ideas is play with them when they are so used to being taught?


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