How school systems shape childrens’ knowledge and creative abilities

Solange Denervaud, Alexander Christensen, Yoed Kenett & Roger Beaty

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Concepts are the building blocks of knowledge, essential for understanding the world. They provide a basis for our daily thoughts and ideas. Concepts are thought to be stored and organized in our mind as an interconnected network in semantic memory—our memory for facts, knowledge, and meaning. A central question is, how do concepts come to be organized in semantic memory, as we learn and acquire new knowledge? 

Across child development, education is crucial for supporting the acquisition of new concepts: children from 6 to 12 years old learn on average 800–900 new concepts a year. In western societies, traditional education systems emphasize efficiency and performance, evaluating concept learning through quantitative metrics (like test scores) more than qualitative markers (like how students appreciate and are personally engaged in the learning process). However, several studies with adults find that a “flexible” organization of concepts in semantic memory (i.e., "semantic memory networks")—where concepts are more connected to each other—is critical for higher cognitive abilities, such as creative thinking. When concepts are organized in this flexible and enriched way, we can use them accordingly to think, interact with others, and create. Conversely, if this semantic organization is less flexible—with concepts isolated and fixed—thinking may also be less flexible and creative. How do traditional education systems shape children’s semantic memory? Do traditional education systems facilitate a more flexible semantic memory structure, which has been shown to be conducive to creative thinking? Or perhaps do alternative educational systems, such as Montessori pedagogy, better facilitate such flexible semantic memory structure?

There is a growing interest in alternative education systems, which differ in their approaches to teaching concepts. One example is the Montessori pedagogy, in which children learn mainly through self-directed, hands-on activities. Learning-by-doing offers a perspective on less fractionalized, more concrete, and interdisciplinary knowledge. As students pursue their intrinsic interests, their discoveries may better match their readiness for learning these concepts. Furthermore, the social environment differs between school systems. In Montessori classrooms, children from different age groups grow and learn together. Peer-to-peer learning occurs daily, and children often talk about their schoolwork with each other. Experience with concepts within these environments, compared to traditional schooling environments, may influence how they are stored in semantic memory.  

In a recent study of ours, we investigated the semantic memory network structure of Montessori students and compared them with students from traditional schools (67 students, ages 5-14, of similar socioeconomic status and intelligence). A simple task that is used to represent semantic memory is to name as many examples from a category as possible (usually 1 minute), such as animals. The order of the retrieved category exemplars, along with their co-occurrences, can be used to infer their organization in semantic memory (e.g., cat and dog are often close to each other, while cat and iguana are further apart).

We observed that Montessori students exhibit a more richly connected semantic memory network (i.e., more connections between concepts) compared to their peers in traditional schools. We also observed that they organized concepts more flexibly (e.g., for example, cat was connected with more different and distant concepts, such as lion, leopard, and rat).

In addition, we also found that Montessori students resulted in higher scores on tests of creative thinking. Given previous research showing a strong link between semantic memory network organization and creative thinking—representing concepts as “closer” makes combining them easier when thinking creatively—one possibility is that the flexible semantic memory network structure of Montessori students contributed to their performance on the creativity tests. This remains a tentative interpretation, however, because we could not directly relate creative performance to semantic networks. 

Semantic memory networks thus seem to reflect educational experience. But why might this be the case? Children in a Montessori pedagogy are immersed in a more enriched and diverse school environment. They explore concepts through real-life activities and interactions with their peers. Social interactions compel students to adopt and integrate peers' points of view on concepts, dynamically deepening their understanding. Dealing with hands-on activities within social diversity requires students to cope with and regulate more unexpected events; it engages their memory and comprehension, and it may train their flexibility. A student who has integrated flexible and varied knowledge can then access it similarly to benefit their creativity (i.e., the knowledge is not perceived as rigid, static, or isolated)—consistent with their higher scores on the creativity tests.

These results raise important questions for traditional pedagogical practices. Traditional schooling focuses on learning in isolation, rote memorization, and graded knowledge assessment. Although these practices can increment learning, they may also have unintended consequences for other cognitive abilities, such as creative thinking. Moreover, traditional schooling may also have social implications beyond the personal capacity to use concepts and come up with new ideas. The personality trait, openness to experience—the tendency to seek out and enjoy diverse experiences—is tightly related to semantic memory organization in adults. Children, by perceiving concepts and understanding more flexibly, may be more open to others as well (i.e., the way other human beings behave and think). Social tolerance and co-working crucially need people with such abilities to adjust and to introduce ideas that go beyond the norm. Our study suggests that educational practices can play a central role in literally shaping the minds of students to be more flexible and creative.

For a summary in French, visit the ARDEM website here.