Exploring the unknown: The effects of social support on exploration in childhood
Our research looked at how children learn, explore their environment independently and how this learning may be influenced by the support of adults. Past studies have already proved that demonstration of tool use in a didactic learning environment can limit children’s independent information acquisition and innovation. For example, in one study, children were introduced to a novel object with four hidden features (e.g., periscope, sound tube, lamp, magnifying glass, etc.). However, the adult demonstrated only one feature. The results showed that when the demonstration is accompanied by pedagogical instructions ("this is how this toy works" or "this is how you can play with this toy"), children are less likely to explore the other functions, despite their propensity to skilfully find additional possibilities in uninstructed situation.
This may be explained by children’s emerging expectations in teaching situations, namely, that the information that is presented by the teacher is relevant and important for them. This in turn orients their exploration towards “capitalising” solely on the function or information presented. However, learning is not only didactic: children discover things themselves, and the role of the "teachers" (teachers, parents, peers) in such situations is to give feedback, confirm the information discovered or provide possible corrections. It was precisely for this reason that our research included a situation with an opportunity for prior exploration of the novel toy.
Children were first allowed to play with the toy without any instruction. When they uncovered the first of the four features, the experimenter then provided feedback on their discovery: this could be either an interruption without instruction, or the interruption could be accompanied by a pedagogical instruction ("this is how to play this game"). We wondered whether the opportunity for prior exploration makes children "resistant" to pedagogical instruction, or whether the pedagogical instruction creates the opportunity for children to infer what information is important in a given situation.
In case of the pedagogical instruction having an effect, we expected children to explore less and play more with the feature presented/first explored. To investigate this question, we repeated the previous research detailed above. However, we supplemented it with situations in which children had discovered the feature for which the feedback was given. Consequently, the children participated in four types of learning situations: (1) didactic pedagogical teaching, (2) interrupted (non-pedagogical) presentation, (3) pedagogical exploration, (4) interrupted (non-pedagogical) exploration.
Our results demonstrate that pedagogical instruction – both in the didactic, pedagogical teaching situation and the pedagogical exploration situation – influenced children's information seeking, regardless of the situation. Thus, children made fewer attempts at exploring and were more likely to play with the target feature - that is, the feature that the adult presented or that they first explored - when the adult supported their learning with pedagogical instruction.
In situations where no pedagogical instruction was given, children focused less on the target feature and explored the game more intensively. The results indicate that peer support plays a prominent role in children's information acquisition. Young children rely heavily on cues from their social environment for learning. They incorporate feedback and information from communication into the way they learn about the world.