Children aren’t sponges

Small children aren’t “sponges” soaking up information, writes Dan Willingham on Real Clear Education. “Kids don’t learn important information that’s right in front of them, unless an adult is actively teaching them,” a recent study (Butler & Markman, 2014) shows.

Children aged 4-5 were shown a novel object and were told that it was a “spoodle.” Would they figure out the spoodle is magnetic?

In the pedagogical condition, the experimenter said “Look, watch this” and used the spoodle to pick up paperclips. In the intentional condition, the experimenter used the spoodle to pick up paperclips, but did not request the child’s attention or make eye contact. In the accidental condition, the experimenter feigned accidentally dropping the spoodle on the clips. In all of the conditions, the experimenter held the spoodle with the paper clips clinging to it and said “wow!”

Next, the child was presented 16 objects and was asked to determine which were spoodles. Half were identical to the original spoodle, and half were another color. In addition, half of each color were magnetic and half were not.

Children knew the spoodle had to be magnetic only if the adult had drawn attention to the spoodle’s magnetism. Observing the magnetic properties in the “intentional” or “accidental” experiments wasn’t enough. Those kids picked the spoodle by color.

Even in an environment rich in experiences, “little sponges” need to be taught, Willingham concludes. “Small differences in parenting may have important consequences for children’s learning.”

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  1. Linda Seebach says:

    Ages 4-5? How did they handle children who said “Spoodle? Don’t you mean magnet?” The children who *are* little sponges already know that, all the more so if they have the kind of parents who explain stuff to their kids.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Holy crap! You mean that the internet and tablets aren’t going to make all students equal by giving access to information?

    You actually have to *teach* this stuff?

    Who could have guessed?

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    This experiment isn’t about children being sponges. It is about how children put things into categories.

    The 16 potential “spoodles” have the same shape and size as the original spoodle and half have the same color (yellow). The children are never told, “a spoodle is something that picks up paper clips.” Sponginess might then have been measured by how well they “absorbed” and retained that fact. No, this was rather different.

    When “the experimenter said “Look, watch this” and used the spoodle to pick up paperclips,” they decided that pick-upness was what made something a spoodle.

    If the experimenter “used the spoodle to pick up paperclips, but did not request the child’s attention or make eye contact” of if ” the experimenter feigned accidentally dropping the spoodle on the clips … [and then] held the spoodle with the paper clips clinging to it,” they thought yellowness made it a spoodle.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Good point! It’s also a kind of fake environment– When your preschooler is following you around and mimicking you all day, they stary recognizing things for themselves. The different between a spoon and a fork, for instance. Who sits down with a toddler an says “Look, the fork has pointy tines! The spoon has a bowl!” No one. Yet, how many 5 year olds can’t tell a spoon from a fork from a knife?

      Also, in my experience, Toddlers/preschoolers are EXCELLENT at noticing things you don’t draw their attention to.

      “Mommy! Why does that lady have an ugly wart on her nose?” “Mrs. Bean,Mommy says you need to learn some manners” etc. etc.

      Perhaps a lab is not a good place to learn about how small children learn, since they’re ‘built’ to learn in a more organic environment?

  4. In other words, “discovery learning” , as often practiced, does not work. I’ve seen this fallacy in action at several recent outings with my young preschool grandkids; to a zoo, an aviary, an aquarium and a kids’ science museum. In all of those situations, I’m willing to bet that the kids (not just mine) accompanied by parents who clearly stopped and discussed each exhibit with their kids, learned far more than the school kids who went as a class field trip. The latter groups simply ran around, with few even reading the posted information, while their teachers watched and chatted among themselves.

  5. Yes, if the adult keeps all the toys to themselves and doesn’t let the kids actually learn, as children do, by doing, they need the adult to point out what the toy does.

    All we learn from that experiment is that kids don’t like sitting around passively observing someone else playing with things. Whoa, what an epiphany. Kids are bored when forced to sit and watch.

    Other experiments have shown that if you drop off computers in boxes in rural India, the children will learn how to use the computer, learn enough English to use the Internet to find answers and ask insightful questions very quickly. All because the kids were allowed to use the devices as a group instead of someone lecturing at them.

    • SC Math Teacher says:

      In the rural India experiment, was there a group of children who were taught about the computer directly with those outcomes compared to the children left to their own devices?

    • There’s a smidge more to it then dropping off computers in boxes but not a whole lot more and the threshold’s dropped in the years since Mitra ran his first “Hole in the Wall” experiment.

      Looking at Mitra’s web site – – it’s not looking all that promising. The latest item in the “news” page is from April, 2012. The Facebook page has more recent posts but not many. I have to wonder whether there’s something wrong with the concept or the organization? You’d think that if it was all Mitra claimed there’d be more interest and activity.