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Researchers address that question in the September issue of the journal Cognition.
The subjects, 85 preschoolers whose mean age was 4 years and 10 months, were shown a novel-looking toy—colored PVC pipes attached to a board. When a yellow tube was pulled out from inside a larger purple tube, the toy squeaked; when a button hidden inside a blue tube was pressed, it made the tube light up. There were four such functions in all. In the "pedagogical" condition, the experimenter showed the child how to make the toy squeak; in the "baseline" condition, the experimenter showed the child the toy, but not how it worked.
The children were then given a chance to play with the toy. The children who'd been instructed played with the squeaker longer than the children who hadn't, but they discovered fewer of the toy's three other functions than the children who'd gotten no instruction, and they played with the toy for significantly less time overall.
Although the test subjects were young children, "the results suggest the possibility of a new perspective on longstanding debates in the field of education," the authors write in their study,"The double-edged sword of pedagogy." Direct instruction "promotes efficient learning but at a cost," they say. "Children are less likely to perform potentially irrelevant actions but also less likely to discover novel information."
The five cognitive scientists, from Harvard, Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Louisville, make clear their own view on the issue, quoting the renown 20th Century developmental psychologist Jean Piaget: "The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done—men who are creative, inventive and discoverers."