Teaching can undermine discovery.

Wired recently published an article online about research that shows how over-directive teaching can hinder exploration in children.  In one study, children were shown a toy that had three interactive portions - I assume a beep, bloop and a clunk - by a teacher.  The teacher explained that a button on the device produced the beep.  The kids played with it for a little bit and most never discovered the extra functionality.  In a second group within the study, the teacher introduced g the device and acted surprised as the button produced the beep. They commented on their surprise and then gave the toy to the kids.  The kids played with the device for much longer and most discovered all three functions thorugh discovery. The conclusion is was that over-directive teaching hinders exploratory behavior.  When kids were told what a device did, they didn't look for other possibilities. 

This article poses some interesting questions for adult education.  First, and most important, Can this be applied to adults?  Given that my practice and the activities I build education around are based on a discovery learning philosophy, I obliviously think so.  Why? The drive to explore is an inherent one for humans.  It's a heterostatic drive to expand our understanding of the world.   The wired article sounds a note of warning that is valid, though.  They suggest that all kids are scientists by nature, but warn that we eliminate that from so many of their identities.  12-20 years of education teaches children to look for the one right answer, and when they have it, to move on.  Exploration and inquisition is rarely rewarded in our schools.  

That brings up another question. How do you integrate findings like this into adult education? My answer: carefully.  Valuing exploration in and of itself can be a problem for an L&E practitioner.  While exploration is a useful skill and attitude to have, it may not be what a training program is meant to foster.  In fact, most training programs are meant to direct behavior at the end of the program.   A specific new skill, new attitude or new knowledge is the outcome of most training.  Exploration needs to be bounded to be useful. 

Boundaries of exploration are another place to take care.  False exploration is a great underminer of education.  I once facilitated a team building program where the client manager asked for "an opportunity to explore leadership and teamwork".  When the group arrived, it was clear that the manager had a different goal in mind.  His behavior showed that he wanted his team to share his own conclusions on leadership and teamwork.  He thought that exploration was a great way to create 'buy in', but he wanted a very specific conclusion.  The result? A demotivated team and a dissatisfied leader.

Exploration is a key skill when encountering novel contexts, like the children and the toy.  It is also a great way to use an intrinsic motivation to encourage learning. The key to using exploratory learning is to use it for parts of your educational program where there is no clear answer, where an open discussion is permitted, and where the participants can shape the conclusions of the learning.