Thinking about direct education versus exploration and free play reminded me of another article I read quite some time back on “The Expert Mind“. In it author Philip Ross refers to a comparison between chess grandmasters from 1911 and 1993 and it was found that the modern chess grandmasters played far more accurately. In fact, based on the point system used to distinguish a chess player’s ability, chess grandmasters from 1911 were ranked well below the level of the grandmasters in 1993 – some of them would not have qualified as grandmasters.
The reason why modern chess grandmasters were so much better was because of “the advent of computer-based training methods that let children study far more master games and to play far more frequently against master-strength programs than their forerunners could typically manage”. Modern chess grandmasters had resources at their fingertips that the old grandmasters did not have. They could learn from all the mistakes of their predecessors instead of making those mistakes for themselves. The chess grandmasters from 1911 had to work things out on their own so even if they fell well below the level of modern grandmasters in technique, they were far superior than them in terms of creative power.
Is it fair to suggest that making our own mistakes teaches us a lot more than learning from the mistakes of others? Is this why our children always seem hell-bent on finding things out for themselves rather than taking our word for it? Hasn’t it frustrated you beyond no end when your child keeps insisting on doing something you’ve told him time and time again is dangerous? It is almost as if he has to see for himself before he will believe you. That brings us back to a post I wrote not too long back about how being wrong can be good.
Is it also fair to make the suggestion that the example of the chess grandmasters is starting to sound a lot like the children of today versus the children from our era? I look at the precociousness of children today and I can’t help but marvel at how advanced they are compared to what I was at their age. I have had friends making similar remarks comparing the children of today to their recollections of their own childhood. No doubt this difference can largely be due to the availability of educational resources today compared to what we had as children.
Here are two simple comparisons:
Children today play with iPhones and iPads with educational apps that teach them a variety of subjects from music to reading to Math. I remember playing with Game and Watch where the aim of the games were to save people jumping from a burning building, to jump over all the barrels that Donkey Kong was rolling down the hill, or some other similar effect.
Children today watch educational programs on TV like Guess with Jess, The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That, WordWorld and Leapfrog. I remember watching cartoon programs like Tom and Jerry, The Smurfs, and The Road Runner. What did that teach us aside from the myth that you can survive falling off a cliff, being blown to smithereens, and that when you get flattened into a pancake, all you have to do is pump yourself back up.
So what’s the relationship between the above and direct education versus exploration and free play? Well, in some ways you could say that how the chess grandmasters from 1911 learned was through exploration and free play, while the modern chess grandmasters from 1993 learned through direct education. Just as the modern chess grandmasters are considered less creative than their predecessors, the same might be said of our precocious children today.
An uncle I went to dinner with summed up it pretty well when he said, “Children today have toys for everything. When I was a child, we had to used sticks to make a toy gun.” And he went on to describe how they made their toy gun work. Indeed, they were a lot more creative back then because they had to be.
There are pros and cons with direct instruction. It isn’t all bad because children can learn a lot through it. But at the same time it must not be forgotten that we need to do something to preserve our children’s creativity. So how can we have the cake and eat it, too? The more I ponder over this, the more I keep coming back to right brain development – right brain education programs like Shichida/Heguru/TweedleWink, music programs, and art (painting, drawing, play dough). Encouraging imaginative games like dress-up and “let’s play pretend” are great, too, because they stimulate the imagination and that is part of what being creative is about – being imaginative.