We can't expect children, without guidance, to rediscover the best efforts of the most advanced human minds over thousands of years. But we also don't want to shove it down their throats (rote learning) because that doesn't lead to deep or meaningful understanding, either.
Alan Kay suggests a three point solution to this problem:
"Human beings (even really smart ones) have a hard time coming up with ideas that are better than mediocre. For example, if you put a piano in a classroom, the children will explore it, and develop a "chopsticks culture" with it, but they won't invent for themselves how to play a keyboard instrument (it took centuries for experts to work it out). But every child can be taught to play the piano. Similarly, the children will not invent or discover important ideas in mathematics by themselves. But every child can be taught a powerful version of the calculus of vectors, and many other kinds of advanced mathematics. And both of these can be taught as a kind of play.I like what he is saying, that he uses timely multiple approaches, but also think that the importance of effortful study is being missed out here.
If you give children a medium to explore, they will generally wind up doing stories and games with it (in large part because that is how nature has set all of us up to learn when we are children). For example, Etoys is used widely in a number of places in the world. The places that emphasize "creativity", "discovery learning", "free exploration", etc., all wind up with lots of stuff done by children, but virtually all of it uses simple animations and multiple tasking to act out stories and games. This is no surprise (it took humans 100,000 years to invent math and another 2000 to invent science). If we are interested in having children learn non-obvious powerful ideas -- e.g. in math and science -- we have to scaffold their learning and discovery by careful curriculum design.
This teaching doesn't have to feel like the kids are being put in a lock-step chain gang. It can be much more like teaching and learning an established sport or musical instrument. There are parts that are almost impossible to invent, and thus have to be shown and practised. But with these parts there are large elements of free joyful play.
We suggest using at least 3 phases for each idea.
- The first is a guided creation of something interesting -- for example, how to make a robot vehicle on the screen that will follow edges. This can be done in a number of ways including Socratic leading questions, but basically it is giving the children something they would not think up for themselves. But as David Ausubel pointed out "People learn on the fringes of what they know".
- Now that the children know something, they can be given a specific challenge -- such as "Come up with a car and a road where the car will stay on the road". There are 5 or 6 ways of doing this and most children working singly or in pairs will find one of them. A few of these are elegant, and a few children will find these. Sharing the solutions as demos gives the children a sense that such problems are not only solvable, but there is more than one solution.
- The third stage is open play, where the children now know enough to think of many different fun ways to use what they've just done (and many of their ideas will be in the forms of games or stories). For example, some of the "middle of the road" solutions lend themselves to making a multilane racing track with multiple vehicles and using the random number tile to generate random speeds to make the race difficult to predict."