Thronged by visitors all year round, the Discovery Room Q?rius in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History endeavors to unleash children’s curiosity through inquiry-centered, open-ended, hands-on activities imbued with an element of play. While it’s encouraging to see the society recognize the role of these unique educational settings, questions emerge regarding what is it that we value and how that might influence learning and meaning making. 

While handling specimens from the museum’s collection, kids discover how animals adapt to their environment, curiously look for patterns in insects’ survival strategies, or simply dig into fuzzy areas searching for patterns to crack a puzzle. They make and analyze observations, hypothesize, consider multiple options and look for alternatives (while solving puzzles for example), persist in the face of ambiguity– even initial “failure,” and develop decision-making acumen in reaching conclusions regarding what works. All in all, kids get to develop the aforementioned thinking skills that facilitate learning & meaning making.

Unintentionally though, commenting on “how quickly” a kid can solve a puzzle or interlock plastic blocks to construct a crane etc. might put a stricture on their exploration by raising self doubts in their minds if they take long, even when they might be developing new understandings and strategies through the very struggle involved in solving puzzles or reaching hypothesis. The following vignettes provide a window to how what we say influences the development of such thinking patterns: (names of children are assumed)

Parent: (explaining Matilda’s inability to crack a puzzle “instantly”) “Don’t know what’s happened to her today! She’s so good at this.” 
Parent: “Oh! Derek is really bright & does it so fast but sometimes he does like this” (referring to his inability to get it instantly, while Derek plays with the puzzle, seemingly enjoying the challenge posed by it and duly exercising his mind to crack it. He looks at the pieces, turning them around in his pudgy fingers, perhaps trying to make sense why it’s not fitting in the space provided, looking at the animal’s picture in the booklet to assess if he’s choosing the right sized block etc).

A 6ish year old boy Mark: “I get it quickly because I have a smart brain.” Skipping from one activity to another (e.g., attempting to place resin bones in their respective space on a skeleton sketched on a canvas, apprehensively trying to take cues from Mr. Bones- the life-size skeleton dangling in the showcase), he barely spends a minute on any activity, fleeing if unable to instantly figure out how to get around the problem. Taking cognitive dissonance to be falsely indicative of his “inability,” he abandons activities that pose a challenge lest his persistence and effort should adumbrate his “lack of competence.” This continues until he comes to what his sister about 3 years younger to him is doing!
While a toddler Kenji happily makes random attempts at dovetailing blocks, his mom is “efficiently” maneuvering his little palms to shove the pieces in the right places.

Goals & Beliefs

Students with a learning (or mastery) goal engage in activities and figure out strategies that will help them learn, e.g., make sense through experimenting and analyzing, recognize effort as the key to competence, and persevere in the event of failure, evaluating “failure” as a stepping stone to learning what works and what doesn’t and duly changing their strategy. A massive amount of evidence from research suggests that kids with learning goals are more likely to succeed through being more engaged and in having an intrinsic value for learning rather than a mere concern for performance (Alderman, 2003). Conversely, students with performance goals choose those tasks that maximize opportunities for proving competence to save self-worth. So, what role does feedback play and what’s so wrong about ability-centric feedback? 

As a society, we often equate one’s self-worth with one’s accomplishments (Alderman, 2003), inducing children to believe that ability is crucial for attaining success (or failure is indicative of lack of ability). To protect their self worth, children resort to failure-avoidance, e.g., stumped by some puzzles, Mark barely spent time/effort on them lest it became obvious that despite effort he couldn’t get it! Furthermore, students tend to procrastinate– deliberately put things off so they can later explain the poor result on ‘studying at the last minute’ so their ability can’t be blamed (Alderman, 2003). 

How we shape the environment determines the beliefs children hold about ability & competence. Giving undue precedence to ‘result’ and undermining the role of the process & the struggle involved, we condition children to performance goals. A considerable body of research indicates how ability beliefs affect curiosity, persistence, (intellectual) risk taking etc. (Alderman, 2003) that facilitate learning.

Feedback, Speed & Competence: 

Open-ended activities aim to encourage a sustained inquiry that shapes children’s thinking as they explore ideas, discover and determine the best fit, and reach new understandings. Serving as a Vygotskian scaffold, the process itself provides cues, prompting children to navigate their way to solutions- perhaps fortuitously to begin with but eventually through reaching understandings. When kids persist in their attempts to crack the film of ambiguity surrounding seemingly inscrutable problems, they become open to novelty and pursue ideas that make little sense to begin with, but may eventually lead to finding creative solutions emerging in the process. Research indicates that these thinking dispositions are conducive to learning and help explain intelligent behavior far and above intellectual aptitude (Perkins, Tishman, Ritcchart, Donis, & Andre, 2000). 

I think there’s a widespread belief that positive feedback serves as a motivating factor. Now I don’t dispute the role of positive feedback; however, I suspect that complementing kids on speed and associating it with competence could deter them from exploring and using their imagination to its apogee. In such a climate, kids may choose to not engage in challenging tasks to save their self-worth (like Mark). Improper feedback can etch in kids’ minds notions (like knowledge is static) that might bear down on knowledge seeking behaviors and it becomes incumbent on us to delete such notions. 
Feedback needs to be incorporated in an open-ended way so kids can use it as a tool to assess their strategy and change it if needed, thereby serving to scaffold so they reach solutions through their taking cues from the feedback itself, without discouraging independent thought/action through overindulgence (like Kenji’s mother). Asking Kenji “is it big (or small) enough for the space you are trying to fit into?” might have steered Kenji to become actively involved in assessing and thinking through his action. 

Conclusion

Intellectual ability develops depending upon how environmental or contextual factors provide the space to use the mind and induce thinking. Encouraging kids to ‘play around and see what happens’ and ‘not worry about the mistakes’ promotes them to be curious etc. & learn by virtue of such thinking. For most part, however, the educational endeavor limits its focus to evaluating students on the success of their solutions, while ignoring the ingenuity applied and the risk involved in trying something novel. We tend to limit educational goals to mere memorization of facts and procedures, getting the answers right and quickly, and prepare our children for tests and grades. We rely on achievement and speed as if they were good predictors of success later in life (Eisner, 2003). 

It’s a challenging world that children are going to inherit. In order to meet those challenges head-on, it is clear that children need to have critical thinking skills in addition to strong academic skills. Learning that follows an unconventional code of evaluation by engaging kids in unstructured exploration develops the tendency to wonder and probe. To this end, museums are a model in providing mysteries to be solved rather than facts to be memorized, offering problems to be investigated than data to be absorbed. Feedback can sure serve as a catalyst in learning provided it underscores the specific thinking behavior involved, the ingenuity applied, or simply effort expended in solving problems. 

References:

Alderman M. K. (2003). Motivation for Education
Eisner, E. W. (2003). Artistry in education. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 47, (3).  
Perkins, D. N., Tishman, S., Ritchchart, R., Donis.  K., & Andrade.  A. (2000).   Intelligence in the wild: A dispositional view of intellectual traits. Educational Psychology Review, 12, (3). 

About me

I specialize in facilitating learning and cognition through research-based motivational techniques that enhance the learning experience of individuals in formal as well as informal settings like Museums and out of school programs.

Anu Bhatia

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