The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery

Elizabeth Bonawitz, Patrick Shafto, Hyowon Gweon, Noah D. Goodman, Elizabeth Spelke, Laura Schulz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

283 Scopus citations


Motivated by computational analyses, we look at how teaching affects exploration and discovery. In Experiment 1, we investigated children's exploratory play after an adult pedagogically demonstrated a function of a toy, after an interrupted pedagogical demonstration, after a naïve adult demonstrated the function, and at baseline. Preschoolers in the pedagogical condition focused almost exclusively on the target function; by contrast, children in the other conditions explored broadly. In Experiment 2, we show that children restrict their exploration both after direct instruction to themselves and after overhearing direct instruction given to another child; they do not show this constraint after observing direct instruction given to an adult or after observing a non-pedagogical intentional action. We discuss these findings as the result of rational inductive biases. In pedagogical contexts, a teacher's failure to provide evidence for additional functions provides evidence for their absence; such contexts generalize from child to child (because children are likely to have comparable states of knowledge) but not from adult to child. Thus, pedagogy promotes efficient learning but at a cost: children are less likely to perform potentially irrelevant actions but also less likely to discover novel information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)322-330
Number of pages9
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Bayesian model
  • Causal learning
  • Cognitive development
  • Discovery
  • Exploratory play
  • Pedagogy


Dive into the research topics of 'The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this