How to Effectively Teach New Concepts to Others?

Have you noticed how you tend to remember things better after you've figured them out for yourself rather than listening to someone else's explanation? Well, this phenomenon is typical for toddlers, too.

According to a study published today, toddlers have an easier time learning new words when they figure out the meanings themselves.

"There are two ways to learn as a child: you either learn because you figured it out yourself, or you learn because somebody told you, and lots of our school-based education is engaged in people telling us things," said Justin Halberda, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins.

Meredith Brinster, an undergraduate researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, compared the effectiveness of two different word-learning strategies on 100 children between the ages of 36 and 42 months. Her findings indicated that words learned through inference, by the process of elimination, for instance, are more easily retained than when learned through direct instruction.

For the inference study, Brinster showed the children images of familiar and unfamiliar objects, such as a ball and a plumber's "T" connector. After saying a made-up word, like "blicket," she asked them to identify the corresponding item. The children knew what a ball was so they had to infer that the plumber's "T" was the "blicket."

In the direct instruction trial, the children were simply shown the unfamiliar objects and told the made-up names. Then Brinster let the children play with the familiar objects and then brought out the unfamiliar objects, asking them to help her identify them.

"Overall, we found that the children were more accurate when the words were presented with another picture, or as an inference trial, compared to the instruction trial," Brinster explained in an interview. "From what I see, they're going though a process of elimination and using their own existing information, which could be creating all these other links," Brinster said.

I think this is really important for teaching; designing each lesson as a problem-based study where students are provided with all the clues they need to figure out what they need to know rather than simply telling them facts (as if they listen to their professor, anyway!)

Cited story.


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This is already the method of lesson plan design they're teaching in the UTeach program at the University of Texas at Austin. They teach it as the 5E Method (engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate) and each lesson designed this way is structured around activities where the students actively explore information or a process to synthesize knowledge which they then explain with a little guidance and prompting from the instructor. After explaining and understanding the basic concept, the instructor then elaborates or extends the concept into new situations.

Little kids, by the time they are learning to read, are very good at modular arithmetic.

Ask the kid, if it's 11:00 now, what time will it be 2 hours from now.

Ask the kid, if today is Tuesday, what day will it be six days from now.

You can set up 20 such questions, and point out that the kid got all 20 correct.

Look how different this is from a formal presentation on modular arithmetics.

This surely has a fair bit to do with the "Socratic method" of teaching. His original idea was to first give the student everything they need to figure out the answer, then lead them through the steps, including such "setups" as described here.

Naturally, Socratic method doesn't work for everything, but that doesn't excuse lazy teachers abandoning the students to guessing games or "consensus facts"!

By David Harmon (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

The analogy to pedagogy is misleading because you don't need to clear certain thresholds for IQ and personality traits in order to learn your native language. Everyone who isn't profoundly disturbed does it without any instruction. That's the opposite of things you go to school to learn: you'd never learn your multiplication tables naturally, or the narrative of your nation's history, and so on.

For the subjects that consist mostly of learning lots of facts, like history, there's not much figuring out to do, and memorization will always be central. Even in classes like math and science where there is figuring out to do, most kids who aren't at a gifted level of IQ won't be able to figure out that the area of a circle is pi*r^2, to choose only one example. Think of how basic that is to your math studies.

Lest folks think I'm beating up a straw man, in Montgomery County, MD, the public school textbook on geometry has NO formulas. It contains verbal and visual exposition, concluded only by a blank that the student has to fill in: e.g., "As you can easily see, the area of a circle = ? " And as we all know, any moron can figure out by themselves that area = pi*r^2, right?

The math nerds may not have tons of trouble, but everyone else will. That's something we easily forget: most people are not as smart as we are. That's not to be arrogant, but to remind us that people are different and thus need different methods of instruction -- the Socratic exploration might be fine for math nerds in a gifted program, but it would destroy a regular or below-average group of students. I'm below average in height (5'8), and I would be furious if the architects of education designed the school to easily accomodate only those who were 6'3 or taller.

The point is probably that the teaching method engages attention in a way that simple spoonfeeding methods don't. I'd like to suggest that the benefit of letting people work things out for themselves is is probably an inverse U shaped function. Too little instruction/guidance and people flounder, too much and there is little retention of information in the long term.

This article and study misuses the term "direct instruction".

According to Zig Engelmann, who is the father of "Direct Instruction", instruction must be "logically faultless",

Faultless Communication (Faultless Instruction): A sequence of instruction, frequently involving examples and non-examples in a well-crafted order, which logically leads to an accurate communication of the concept and eliminates the possibility of confusion.

For an example of faultless communication, please see

Using the term direct instruction to describe simply giving a positive example as opposed to giving a negative example, overly simplifies the term, especially since true direct instruction would also include logical inference as described in the study.

This study will be taken out of context to further perpetuate failed pedagogy. Look in the mirror.

This "researcher" doesn't know anything about Direct Instruction, or she would have realized that what she called inference is much closer to DI than to what she called "direct instruction."

In a carefully constructed microlesson, so constrained that the only possible inference a child can make is correct, then inference may lead to slightly better retention than being told.

But the world is not carefully constructed, and some significant portion of the inferences children make will be wrong. That is, the real-world choice is not between the retention rates of correct inferences and the retention rate of imparted information; it is between how much correct information children will know after they have been told it and how much correct information they will know after they've spent years floundering around trying to guess what is correct while the ed-school graduate "guide on the side" paid to teach them refuses to tell them.

Research like this, as the physicist Pauli said, is so bad it isn't even wrong.

By Linda Seebach (not verified) on 01 Apr 2007 #permalink

The two methods are not comparable as they do not control for differing amounts of attention. In one study, the kids actually have to say the names themselves, in the other the kids are told the name. So in the first we know the kid has paid attention - they have to have pointed to the object and said "blicket". In the second, we don't know if the kid has paid attention to the teacher saying "blicket" or not.

Brinster doesn't know if the difference between the two methods is inference vs direct instruction or due to differing amounts of attention. A more appropriate test of direct instruction would have been to ask the kids to repeat back what the object was.

It doesn't sound like there were any controls on the scientist here either. It sounds like Brinster formulated the hypothesis and did the testing herself so we don't know if she was more enthusiastic about the first method compared to the second.

I really hope this study gets some decent peer review.