On the importance of observation

I’m still making notes on Peter Gray’s Free to Learn… He writes quite a bit on the benefits of age-mixed learning (a lovely argument to read). Consider, for example:

“In age-mixed groups, the younger children can engage in and learn from activities that would be too complex, difficult, or dangerous for them to do on their own or only with others of their own age. They can also learn simply by watching the more sophisticated activities of older children and overhearing their conversations. And they can receive emotional support and care beyond what age-mates could provide.” (p.185)

“In the 1930s, Lev Vygotsky – the Russian psychologist … – coined the term zone of proximal development to refer to the set of activities a child cannot do alone or with others of the same ability but can do in collaboration with others who are more skilled. He suggested that children develop new skills and understanding largely by collaborating with others within their zones of proximal development. Extending Vygotsky’s idea, the Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner and his colleagues introduced the term scaffolding as a metaphor for the means by which skilled participants enable novices to engage in a shared activity. The scaffolds consist of the reminders, hints, encouragement, and other forms of help that lift the child up to a higher form of activity. …
In the educational literature, Vygotsky’s and Bruner’s concepts are used most often to describe interactions between children and their parents or teachers. Feldman’s and my observations, however, suggest that the concepts apply even better to age-mixed interactions among children, where nobody is officially teacher or learner, but all are simply having fun. Older children are closer in energy level, activity preferences, and understanding to the younger children than are adults, so it is more natural for them to behave within the younger ones’ zones of proximal development. Moreover, because older children do not see themselves as responsible for the younger children’s long-term education, they typically do not provide more information or help than the younger ones want or need. They do not become boring or condescending.
In age-mixed play, where abilities differ considerably, scaffolding occurs continuously and naturally, often unconsciously, as a way of pulling the younger children up to a level that makes the game fun for all.” (p.186)

In an age-mixed environment, children learn from older children by watching and listening, even when they are not directly interacting with them. Through observing the activities of older children, younger ones get some idea of how those activities are done and become inspired to try them. Through hearing the more sophisticated language and thoughts of older children, younger ones expand their own vocabularies and improve their own thinking.” (p.191)

“David Lancy is an anthropologist who has observed children playing and learning in many societies throughout the world, including traditional societies in Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Trinidad. He is author of The Anthropology of Childhood and coauthor of The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood, in the latter of which he wrote, “the single most important form of learning is observation.” Very little explicit teaching occurs in traditional societies. Children in such societies do practice skills through active participation with more-skilled others, and some verbal instruction may accompany those activities, but most often children first learn about culturally relevant activities and skills by watching and overhearing their elders.
Lancy and a number of other anthropologists have suggested that Western schools – by indoctrinating students with the idea that learning occurs through top-down verbal instruction from a teacher and that copying others is cheating – may be teaching children not to learn through observation. By way of illustration, Lancy told me of a recent experience he had while skiing in Utah. A boy of about eleven years old, who had apparently never used a Poma lift before, approached this unusual type of ski lift without paying attention to how others were using it. When it was his turn to board, he held up the whole line of skiers behind him while he asked someone to teach him how to use the lift. In any non-Western culture, according to Lancy, a child in a similar situation would have had the sense to hold back and learn by watching how others did it. It is far more efficient to learn a task like riding a Poma lift by observation than by verbal instruction.
Indeed, there is some experimental evidence that children in the United States pay less attention to what is going on around them, and [-p.195] thereby learn less through observation, than do children in traditional non-Western cultures. In one such experiment, Maricela Correa-Chavez and Barbara Rogoff compared the observational learning of children in a traditional Mayan culture in Guatemala with that of middle-class European-American children in California. The procedure was to bring pairs of siblings into the laboratory and to teach one child how to build a certain interesting toy (a moving mouse or a jumping frog) while the other one sat nearby and was given a different toy to play with. Then, in the crucial test, the child who had not been taught to build the toy, but who could have learned by observation, was asked to build it. The result was that the untaught Guatemalans demonstrated significantly more understanding of how to build the toy than did the untaught Americans. Moreover, within the Guatemalan group, those from the most traditional Mayan families learned more, through observation, than did those from the more Westernized families.” (pp.194-195)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Peter Gray (c2013) Free to LearnWhy unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books: New York


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in differently abled learners, Literate Contexts, Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, play and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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