Learning From Each Other

By Maria Dogero, Teacher

What we know about the world is much more than what we can directly experience.
         —Professor Hyowon Gweon, PhD

Children learn so many things through their own self-directed experiences and observations, especially when given the time, materials and freedom to play, explore and test out their hypotheses. But, by virtue of living in a social context, they also come to know many things and make many inferences based on what they pick up from other people. Bing teachers and staff learned more about social learning when Hyowon Gweon, PhD, assistant professor in psychology at Stanford, spoke about her research during a staff development day held Oct. 10, 2014.

In one set of studies, Gweon looked at children’s ability to make inferences based on their observations of others. Researchers gave 16-month-old children a malfunctioning toy (when they pressed the button it failed to play music). How they responded indicated their assessment of the problem. Is it me or the world? Did I make a mistake, or is the toy broken? Their judgment depended on what they had observed prior to receiving the toy. In one condition, children observed two researchers push the button, which worked and failed once for each of them, suggesting that the toy was unreliable. When their own attempts foundered, they inferred that the trouble was due to the toy, and reached for another similar-looking toy instead of asking for others’ help. In the other condition, children observed two researchers push the button, which worked twice for one experimenter and failed twice for the other experimenter, suggesting that some users cannot operate the toy. When their own attempts failed, children inferred that the failure was due to themselves, rather than the toy: They handed the toy to the parent sitting next to them to ask for their help, instead of reaching for another toy. This study suggests that extremely young children can use information embedded in others’ actions as evidence to interpret their own experiences.  

Additionally, Gweon shared a set of studies that addressed how preschool-age children learn from information provided by others. Researchers presented children with a novel toy with four functions: a squeaker, a mirror, a light and music. In one condition, a researcher brought the toy to the child and specifically showed him the squeaker. In the other, the toy was presented “accidentally:” The researcher told the child “I just found this toy, I wonder what it does” and seemingly by chance squeaked the squeaker as she placed it on the table. Both groups of children were left to play with the toy, but only the children in the “accidental” condition explored the toy and discovered all four functions. The children who were directly taught about the squeaker focused on that single function, and were less likely to discover the others. According to Gweon, “In a pedagogical context, evidence is selected with a particular intent to teach and children expect that what is presented is true and representative of what needs to be learned.” The study suggests that children can make inferences about the intention behind information provided to them. Such inferences sometimes even mislead learners, because pedagogical demonstration may inadvertently imply that there is no additional information to learn.

In other studies, Gweon addressed a third kind of social learning: learning about other people and their credibility. In one study, researchers gave 6- to 7-year-old children either a toy that had one interesting function (spinning light), or a toy that had the spinning light and three additional interesting functions. Children were allowed time to explore all of the toys’ functions. Then, all children saw a puppet “toy teacher” demonstrate the spinning light on the toy, and were asked to rate the toy teacher. Even though the toy teacher’s behavior was identical across conditions, children who had played with the four-function toy, and therefore received insufficient information from the teacher, rated the teacher much lower. A second experiment showed that children use this information to guide their future learning. After having seen the puppet “toy teacher” demonstrate the spinning light on the one-function toy or the four-function toy, children were presented with a novel toy. They watched the same puppet demonstrate one interesting function of the toy. The children who trusted the teacher inferred that the toy only did that one thing, and focused on playing with that particular function. The children who had learned that the teacher was unreliable inferred that the toy probably did more than one thing, and explored the toy more broadly. These studies imply that children evaluate others based on the quality of information they provide, and they explore the world more broadly when the informant’s credibility is in doubt.

The findings of Gweon’s studies have important implications for anyone who sets out to teach a child. Pedagogical learning may be an efficient way to transmit information, and there are some things that would be difficult, if not impossible, to learn without learning from others. But teachers, especially when they are assumed to know everything, can be misleading. Conversely, when teachers are not assumed to know everything, when their demonstration of the subject seems more “accidental” or when they are believed to be unreliable, children may explore more broadly. We are reminded of famed psychologist Jean Piaget’s warning that “When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” After reflecting on Gweon’s research, it seems that teaching a child something may not only take away his chance of discovering it for himself, but also change how he discovers information about it. Hearing Gweon’s research was a reminder to Bing teachers of the importance of supporting children in their own discovery, discovering alongside them and emphasizing that what they are taught may not be all there is to learn.