Baby Steps Going Out of Style

Common wisdom dictates that in order to learn a complicated skill, it is best to break the skill down into parts, conquer simpler steps first, and then incrementally move forward, eventually getting to the hard stuff. For example, you don’t just tackle a multivariable equation, you start with easier examples. First, you learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Then, you learn how to solve 2x=8, then x + y = 7, and so on and so forth until you are aptly equipped to solve 2(5x + z) = 30x + 3y + 10. For those who made it all the way from fourth grade mathematics to senior year calculus, that’s an eight-year journey, and, until now, a necessary one. But what if that’s not the best or only way to learn something? New research suggests that diving straight into the tough problems first could actually be a better method for teaching children new skills.

The key to the new study, conducted by University of California, Santa Barbara psychologists Brain J. Spiering and F. Gregory Ashby, was realizing that complicated problems usually involve abstract thinking. A group of volunteers was tasked with learning a set of problems by one of three different methods: starting with easy problems, starting with harder problems and then moving on to easier problems, or being shown easy and hard examples in random order. Firstly, the results proved that the best method heavily depends on what is being taught. For simple categories (i.e. was the line horizontal or vertical?), all three methods worked equally well. For complicated categories, however, the volunteers that began with harder problems and then moved on to easier problems produced the best results.

The reasoning behind the results? Simple rules that apply to easier problems do not always translate to higher level problems. When faced with complex problems, the simplistic method is so ingrained that students will continue to apply it, even though it is no longer valid. Conversely, if students are initially presented with complex problems, they will think outside-the-box from the beginning and have more success throughout the problem-solving process.

Teachers and educators, listen up! These results could be helpful in determining teaching methods for various skill sets. Depending on what is being taught, the materials should be presented in a different and specific order. Before we know it, fourth-graders could be solving binomials, which leaves us to wonder if twelfth grade will be all about adding two plus two, leaving plenty of time for students to study a very complex variable: senioritis.