Show or Tell? Demonstration is More Robust to Changes in Shared Perception than Explanation

AbstractSuccessful teaching entails a complex interaction between a teacher and a learner. The teacher must select and convey information based on what they think the learner perceives and believes. Teaching always involves misaligned beliefs, but studies of pedagogy typically focus on situations where teachers and learners share perceptions. Nonetheless, a teacher and learner may not always experience or attend to the same aspects of the environment. How does this influence teaching? We hypothesize that the efficacy of different forms of communication depends on the shared perceptual state between teacher and learner. We develop a cooperative teaching game to test whether concrete communication mediums (demonstrations, or “showing”) are more robust than abstract ones (language, or “telling”) when the teacher and learner are not perceptually aligned. We find evidence that (1) language-based teaching is more affected by perceptual misalignment, but (2) demonstration-based teaching is less likely to convey nuanced information. We discuss implications for human pedagogy and machine learning.

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