Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Direct Instruction

Some time ago, I read about a study performed at a prestigious university -- MIT, I think -- in which the researchers invented a toy that had several "functions" built into it. I don't recall the specifics, but there was a way to make it squeak, some sort of door to open, a dial, but the point is that children had never played with it before. When they introduced it to their first study subjects, they showed the kids that it could squeak, then turned it over to the children. All of those kids made it squeak for themselves, but for a high percentage, they were then done with it. When they introduced the toy to the second study group, it was offered without the instruction. As you might imagine, not only did the kids figure out how to make it squeak on their own, but they also discovered all the other functions of the toy. Some even figured out new things to do that were not built into it and all of them spent more time and appeared more focused than those in the second group.

That's normally the challenge with direct instruction. When we show a child where to look, it often has the effect of putting blinders on the kids, narrowing their focus so much that it prevents them from discovering the rest of the world. This is why I tend to eschew direct instruction in favor of child-lead or play-based learning: it opens the world to kids in a way that direct instruction simply cannot. That said, there are times when direct instruction is appropriate, such as when a child has a query or request that requires a specific answer: "What kind of dinosaur is this?" "Help me write my letter," "Why is that man in a wheelchair?" Yes, I suppose you could guide the child toward their answer, but these are moments when they've turned to an adult in their lives for the answer to one of their own questions and direct instruction has the virtue of being the most efficient way to get the child back into the play from which the question emerged.

Every now and then, however, one comes across a situation in which an adult sees that a child really could use some information in order to stay safe or otherwise improve his life, and a little bit of direct instruction can go a long way. A couple years ago, for instance, I noticed that one two-year-old was repeatedly knocking over the block constructions of his classmates, often leaving them in tears. This isn't so unusual, of course, two-year-olds can't be expected to always maintain the self-control required to not knock over buildings, but in this case I could see that it wasn't intentional on his part. Indeed, most of the time he would kick over the structures inadvertently while trying to help, and he really wanted to help, but he was just a bit to "lurch-y" to do so without doing the damage, a situation that left no one happy, especially for this boy who often appeared distressed by the commotion he had caused.

One day, as I watched him take a seat near a construction site, I noted that he sat with his legs stretched out in front of him, his booted feet inches away from the already tottering structure. The other children had intuitively taken up kneeling positions with their feet curled under them. I took a flyer, "I see that your feet are very close to the building. If you kick it, the building will fall down."

He looked at his feet which is where I'd directed his attention.

"I see the other kids are kneeling. Their feet are far away from the building so they won't kick it down. If you sit like that, you also won't knock it down."

He took a moment to observe what I'd pointed out to him, then carefully folded his legs under his body. For the next several weeks then, when he sat down to play with blocks, I'd point out how close his feet were to the blocks and he would respond by kneeling.

It was a kind of break-through for him, this simple thing. Today, as a five-year-old he is a master of collaborative constructive play. Yesterday, we were building with a set of small wooden unit blocks. I was on the floor with the kids as he worked with his friends. I remembered that lurch-y two-year-old who has grown into still a somewhat lurch-y five-year-old, but not when it comes to building. It was like a kind of ballet watching him move his body so as to avoid bumping, jostling, or otherwise disturbing the work in progress. I'm not claiming that he wouldn't have learned it on his own, but as I watched him skillfully navigate the game, I saw a straight line between that brief moment of timely, limited direct instruction and the present.

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