Back and forth on certainty

When first presented with a complex new toy, the typical child explored it intensely, exhibiting a serious face and eyes riveted on the toy. As the child manipulated the toy to discover its properties, the focused concentration continued, punctuated by momentary expressions of surprise, sometimes mixed with joy, as new discoveries were made. Only after exploring the toy for some time did the child begin to play with it, by repetitively acting on it to produce known effects or by incorporating it into a fantasy game.

According to Peter Gray (Free to Learn), this is what learning looks like: a child explores on his own will, acquires knowledge through interaction and observation, then develops skills through imaginative play.

Effective learning research is often at odds with this picture. A recent study finds that we most readily commit things to memory when we have certainty about the causal relationship1. Direct instruction–an authority figure telling a student that step 2 comes after step 1–gives her exactly that. Studies have found that testing is better than rereading or highlighting to learn new material2. Again, the presence of a test question with a single correct answer provides certainty. And when it comes to skill learning, deliberate practice suggests a state of strain and anxiety that doesn’t correspond with play3. We seem to need certainty that the movements or thought patterns we practice are correct.

After all, imagination won’t advance someone through thousands of years of mathematical discovery. And play won’t develop a runner to beat times that have been steadily declining over the years due to evolving techniques and training.

But certainty, perhaps, limits our imagination and motivation. In a study of children’s interaction with an unknown toy, children who were directly taught a particular function of the toy overwhelmingly attended to that aspect, while other children explored the toy to discover its other functions4. If we always choose the path of certainty and efficiency, we train ourselves, like a driver relying on GPS, to expect the next direction. Without it we feel impatiently lost. The child would tell us that we’re in exactly the right place to make our next joyful discovery.