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  When should you teach children, and when should you let them explore?

  IT IS one of the oldest debates in education. Should teachers tell pupils the way things are or encourage them to find out for themselves? Telling children "truths" about the world helps them learn those facts more quickly. Yet the efficient learning of specific facts may lead to the assumption that when the adult has finished teaching, there is nothing further to learn—because if there were, the adult would have said so. A study just published in Cognition by Elizabeth Bonawitz of the University of California, Berkeley, and Patrick Shafto of the University of Louisville, in Kentucky, suggests that is true.

  Dr Bonawitz and Dr Shafto arranged for 85 four- and five-year-olds to be presented, during a visit to a museum, with a novel toy that looked like a tangle of coloured pipes and was capable of doing many different things. They wanted to know whether the way the children played with the toy depended on how they were instructed by the adult who gave it to them.

  One group of children had a strictly pedagogical introduction. The experimenter said "Look at my toy! This is my toy. I'm going to show you how my toy works." She then pulled a yellow tube out of a purple tube, creating a squeaking sound. Following this, she said, "Wow, see that? This is how my toy works!" and then demonstrated the effect again.

  With a second group of children, the experimenter acted differently. She interrupted herself after demonstrating the squeak by saying she had to go and write something down, thus suggesting that she might not have finished the demonstration. With a third group, she activated the squeak as if by accident. To a fourth, the toy was simply presented with the comment, "Wow, see this toy? Look at this!"

  After these varied introductions, the children were left with the toy and allowed to play. They might discover that, as well as the squeaker, the toy had a button inside one tube which activated a light, a keypad that played musical notes, and an inverting mirror inside one of the tubes. All the children were told to let the experimenter know when they had finished playing and were asked by the instructor if they were done if they stopped playing for more than five consecutive seconds. The entire interaction was recorded on video.

  Footage of each child playing was passed to a research assistant who was ignorant of the purpose of the study. The assistant was asked to record the total playing time, the number of different actions the child performed, the time spent playing with the squeak, and the number of other functions the child discovered.

  The upshot was that children in the first group spent less time playing (119 seconds) than those in the second (180 seconds), the third (133 seconds) or the fourth (206 seconds). Those in the first group also tried out four different actions, on average. The others tried 5.3, 5.9 and 6.2, respectively. A similar pattern (0.7, 1.3, 1.2 and 1.2) pertained to the number of functions other than the squeak that the children found.

  The researchers' conclusion was that, in the context of strange toys of unknown function, prior explanation does, indeed, inhibit exploration and discovery. Generalising from that would be ambitious. But it suggests that further research might be quite a good idea.

  Hustling spires

  A psychological leap is needed—both in British academia and in Westminster

  EMO OF FRIESLAND was Oxford's first recorded foreign student, and since 1190 they have kept pouring in. Both sides have benefited: Britain's universities, economy and culture have been enriched, and foreign scholars have been privileged to mix with the best. In recent years foreigners' higher fees have helped to keep increasingly hard-pressed institutions solvent.

  Now, as rich-world students become more adventurous, and prosperous emerging countries churn out would-be undergraduates faster than good university places, the market in international higher education is booming. The number of students enrolled outside their home country has roughly trebled since 1980, on OECD figures. Britain is a world leader in this market, second only to America.

  But the business is changing. In addition to the traditional Anglophone competitors for foreign students, many continental European places now teach in English. Countries that once consumed international education now provide it: Singapore is well on its way to becoming a regional hub. Universities (including British ones) are setting up campuses across borders. In short, students have more choice than ever; they are less likely to tolerate being fee fodder to subsidise Britons' education just because a brochure boasts an ancient-looking crest.

  To flourish, British universities and their political masters must make a host of small changes and one huge one. The former mostly involve marketing. There is remarkably little differentiation now: Oxbridge colleges and former polytechnics all seem to have the same blurbs, which can lead foreign students to think they have been sold a pup. Too many universities think their job is done after the last exam: in fact forging strong alumni networks overseas is good for recruitment, good for ex-students and good for their alma maters' bank balances.

  A geographic bias must be corrected too. China has been the big story, its students flooding Western campuses. Britain targeted that market well. But as that one-child country ages, India is the place to go for. Britain is belatedly trying to fix a change to the visa regime that angered many Indian students in particular by appearing to lump them in with subcontinental terrorists. There is talk of British universities teaming up with Indian ones. But more could be done.

  The huge change is psychological: stop thinking of foreign students as mugs to be overcharged to subsidise poor Britons. That has never worked in any business and it is not going to work in this one. Rather concentrate on making British universities as good as possible. That above all means allowing them to charge domestic students something close to the real cost of their education.

  This is fair:the average value of an education to the recipient exceeds the direst estimates of the fees involved. It also creates a virtuous circle. Better-funded universities can hire more good professors and build more modern laboratories. Britons will get a better education, and it will attract more foreign students too—who can help pay for more.

  The man with the chequebook is your student

  With their famous names and skilled workers, Britain's universities are in the same state as its motorbike-makers and banks were half a century ago. One clung to state handouts and the idea that people had no choice: it disappeared. The other decided to sell to the world and deregulated. For all the City of London's recent travails, it is surely a better model for Oxford, Cambridge et al than the likes of the BSA Triumph.

  Game lessons

  It sounds like a cop-out, but the future of schooling may lie with video games

  SINCE the beginning of mass education, schools have relied on what is known in educational circles as "chalk and talk". Chalk and blackboard may sometimes be replaced by felt-tip pens and a whiteboard, and electronics in the form of computers may sometimes be bolted on, but the idea of a pedagogue leading his pupils more or less willingly through a day based on periods of study of recognisable academic disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, history, geography and whatever the local language happens to be, has rarely been abandoned.

  Abandoning it, though, is what Katie Salen hopes to do. Ms Salen is a games designer and a professor of design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design, in New York. She is also the moving spirit behind Quest to Learn, a new, taxpayer-funded school in that city which is about to open its doors to pupils who will never suffer the indignity of snoring through double French but will, rather, spend their entire days playing games.

  Quest to Learn draws on many roots. One is the research of James Gee of the University of Wisconsin. In 2003 Dr Gee published a book called "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy", in which he argued that playing such games helps people develop a sense of identity, grasp meaning, learn to follow commands and even pick role models. Another is the MacArthur Foundation's digital media and learning initiative, which began in 2006 and which has acted as a test-bed for some of Ms Salen's ideas about educational-games design. A third is the success of the Bank Street School for Children, an independent primary school in New York that practises what its parent, the nearby Bank Street College of Education, preaches in the way of interdisciplinary teaching methods and the encouragement of pupil collaboration.

  Ms Salen is, in effect, seeking to mechanise Bank Street's methods by transferring much of the pedagogic effort from the teachers themselves (who will now act in an advisory role) to a set of video games that she and her colleagues have devised. Instead of chalk and talk, children learn by doing—and do so in a way that tears up the usual subject-based curriculum altogether.

  Periods of maths, science, history and so on are no more. Quest to Learn's school day will, rather, be divided into four 90-minute blocks devoted to the study of "domains". Such domains include Codeworlds (a combination of mathematics and English), Being, Space and Place (English and social studies), The Way Things Work (maths and science) and Sports for the Mind (game design and digital literacy). Each domain concludes with a two-week examination called a "Boss Level"—a common phrase in video-game parlance.

  Freeing the helots

  In one of the units of Being, Space and Place, for example, pupils take on the role of an ancient Spartan who has to assess Athenian strengths and recommend a course of action. In doing so, they learn bits of history, geography and public policy. In a unit of The Way Things Work, they try to inhabit the minds of scientists devising a pathway for a beam of light to reach a target. This lesson touches on maths, optics—and, the organisers hope, creative thinking and teamwork. Another Way-Things-Work unit asks pupils to imagine they are pyramid-builders in ancient Egypt. This means learning about maths and engineering, and something about the country's religion and geography.

  Whether things will work the way Ms Salen hopes will, itself, take a few years to find out. The school plans to admit pupils at the age of 12 and keep them until they are 18, so the first batch will not leave until 2016. If it fails, traditionalists will no doubt scoff at the idea that teaching through playing games was ever seriously entertained. If it succeeds, though, it will provide a model that could make chalk and talk redundant. And it will have shown that in education, as in other fields of activity, it is not enough just to apply new technologies to existing processes—for maximum effect you have to apply them in new and imaginative ways.

  Coarse work

  BRITISH universities, it appears, are considering abandoning a 200-year old system of degree classification in favour of the American GPA model. At present, students are bunched into grade clusters. The top 10-20% receive a "1st", the majority receive a "2.1" or "two-one" and the stragglers receive either a "two-two" or a "3rd". The latter group can be very small (5%) at the elite universities but is larger nationally.

  The main reasoning for this is that it is hard for employers to distinguish between graduates if everyone has a 2.1 grade. But it is possible for employers to ask for a full transcript of individual grades, though this is not nearly as common in Britain as you might expect. The stronger point (which you might have already picked up on) is that the existing system can be difficult to interpret internationally. Adopting the GPA system would be helpful to undergraduates wishing to study or work abroad.

  I think this might be missing a trick. My experience of the 1st/2.1/2.2 system is that it has a very strong effect on students' work effort. For weaker students, either those of lower natural ability or the more workshy, fear of the notorious "Desmond" (cockney rhyming slang after the eponymous archbishop) is the ultimate motivator. Many attractive careers simply advertise the minimum requirement of a 2.1, and therefore getting the lower grade can be quite a handicap in the job market.

  For stronger students, the aspiration of a first, the only true distinguisher in the system, is also a strong incentive. The risk is that working quite hard could leave you with only a high 2.1, largely indistinguishable from all other 2.1's. The crudeness of the grading system drags everyone up.

  An interesting paper by Pradeep Dubey and John Geanakoplos of the Cowles foundation at Yale Univeristy makes the same point. They write:

  Suppose that the professor judges each student's performance exactly, though the performance itself may depend on random factors, in addition to ability and effort. Suppose also that the professor is motivated solely by a desire to induce his students to work hard. Third and most importantly, suppose that the students care about their relative rank in the class, that is, about their status. We show that, in this scenario, coarse grading often motivates the student to work harder.

  One might think that finer hierarchies generate more incentives. But this is often not the case. Coarse hierarchies can paradoxically create more competition for status, and thus better incentives for work.

  They give a simple example. Suppose there are two students, Brainy and Dumbo, with disparate abilities. Brainy achieves a uniformly higher score even when he shirks and Dumbo works. Suppose, for example, that Dumbo scores between 40 and 50 if he shirks, and between 50 and 60 if he works, while Brainy scores between 70 and 80 if he shirks and 80 and 90 if he works. With perfectly fine grading, Brainy will come ahead of Dumbo regardless of their effort levels. But since they only care about rank, both will shirk.

  But, by assigning a grade A to scores above 85, B to scores between 50 and 85, and C to below 50, the professor can inspire Dumbo to work, for then Dumbo stands a chance to acquire the same status B as Brainy, even when Brainy is working. This in turn generates the competition which in fact spurs Brainy to work, so that with luck he can distinguish himself from Dumbo. He doesn't want to be mislabelled. With finer grading everyone gets their own label so this effect disappears.

  The corollary to this in my example is that if the brainy student knows that even when slacking off he will still do measurably better than most students he may decide that he can still get a very good job with 70 to 80. There may be students who score 80 to 90 with superior credentials but academic performance is only part of the hiring criteria. If he can signal himself as a brainy student he might think this is enough.

  However, critical to all this is that all exams are taken together, as they are at Oxford or Cambridge universities, usually at the end of the degree in a consecutive-day marathon. The trend in other British universities has been to examine various courses throughout the degree. The result is that those in the middle of the ability range can work very hard at the beginning, bank a 2.1 and then slack off in the remaining years. It is partly for this reason that those universities pushing hardest for the changes have exams split across years. Oxford and Cambridge are less keen.

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