Discovery Based Learning

I’ve always believed that children need a teacher and never really subscribed to the “let them get on with it” philosophy. While I’m fascinated by the resourcefulness of the street children figuring out how to use a computer, or the refugees I worked with figuring out how to get themselves out of danger, ultimately, I have some sympathy with the Daisy Christodoulou argument that kids need someone to teach them stuff. We’d all be out of a job otherwise. But…

My son is eight. The other day, he was moving around the house in an odd, stealthy manner before sitting down cross legged for five minutes and staring into space. I asked him what he was doing

“I’m meditating so that I can open up my root chakra”

“Your what?”

It turns out that a couple of weeks ago he found a book on world religions in his school library. It was a rainy day and so he read it. He’s pondered for a couple of weeks whether he wants to be a Hindu or a Buddhist and has gone for the latter:-

“I’m not sure about many Gods, but I do think it’s good to spend your life trying to find enlightenment” he tells my gaping jaw.

In town on Saturday, he sprinted past the children’s book section up the stairs to religion and asked us to buy him books on chakras and buddhism. He’s ordered buddhist stickers for his wall, taken up yoga via Youtube and can pretty much tell me the whole life story of Buddha, the different forms of Buddhism, how it manifests itself in different countries and what the key principles of the philosophy are. And this morning on the way to school he told me quite confidently that he was feeling “more connected to the earth.”

It’s all caused some gentle amusement in our house and we’re doing all we can not to quash this enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge while at the same time being completely bemused. And it’s made me think quite carefully about not dismissing or underestimating the power of a child’s interest in driving learning forward.

Last year, he was interested in the earth. He spent hours on Google Earth and could tell us where towns and cities were in countries we didn’t even know existed. This interest led him to avidly read National Geographic articles online and he’s a mine of information about volcanos, tectonic plates and tsunamis. Yet his schools report for Geography stated that he was ‘at expected level’. Standards really have risen when a six year old talking about pyroclastic flow is achieving an expected standard. I suspect though, that his teachers had no idea what he knew. Because there’s little time in the current system to find out what children are passionate about, what they know and what skills they have already acquired. And this is a terrible shame.

I’m not suggesting that we throw the National Curriculum away and let kids bumble along. And I’m completely aware that in order to acquire any of the information he already has, Sam needed to be able to read, operate a computer and have a good vocabulary, not to mention a working knowledge of how to use a dictionary when that vocabulary failed him. He also has middle class parents to take him to book shops. But nevertheless, we really are missing a trick as teachers if we don’t tap into our children’s passions. If we don’t KNOW them.

When he was in Year 1, my eldest son, currently somewhere deep in a jungle in Costa Rica, asked so many questions that his teacher kept him out of assembly so she could spend one to one time with him. They ranged from ‘how can blind people sew?” to “where do your thoughts go when you die?” They’d sit and chat for twenty minutes once a week and it made a world of difference to his confidence and his ability to articulate. Of course, she (and we) can’t do this for every child, and perhaps it was unfair to have done it for one. I think it was a solution to ease her sanity so that she could actually teach her class. But, where do we make space for finding out what our children already know? What their passions are? How they already acquire and use information? Do we build this into our planning, our schemes? Or do we teach them what we think they need to know whether they already know it or not? And to what extent do we construct our curriculum and lessons in order to spark off new passions?

I’m increasingly convinced that there is a balance. It is a nonsense to suggest that children can’t find things out for themselves. Every day this idea is disproved to anyone who is a parent (or at least a parent who takes notice). Finding that balance is tricky, but if we want an education system that starts where the child is at and builds from there, it is a necessity.

11 thoughts on “Discovery Based Learning

  1. Finding out where the child actually is and building on it is what child-centred education is. But it’s represented as ‘child-led’ which implies anarchy by those who push ‘knowledge-rich’ curricula.

    Kids need knowledge, of course they do. But they need other things as well – the skills to do something with the knowledge, curiosity to discover things for themselves so they don’t rely on being told, a questioning attitude so they don’t just take other people’s (or the media’s) words at face value.

  2. Excellent post Debra. Of course both positions have validity, and are not mutually exclusive but actually are mutually augmentative. The sooner we as a profession and an institution can resist and transcend the reductive urge to pledge sure-footed allegiance to either position at the expense of the other, the better off we all will be. And if I may end with a shameless plug, which I promise you was not my initial intention, but it seems apt – if you want a reply to those who cry “opportunity cost” – read tomorrow’s TES! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Were you at the NATD conference some years ago when Kieran Egan talked about us (as teachers) often overlooking the rigour and time that children will devote to something that interests them? He spoke about the lost opportunity to work with this ability. He mentioned then an embryonic idea about allowing children to explore an area of knowledge – in depth – over many years so that each child could become expert. Your post sent me searching and it seems his idea is taking off. Check out this clip.

    1. Thank you Maria. I was at the conference and thought his key note was really powerful. It’s really informed a lot of my thinking on narrative and inquiry. And thanks for the clip too – good to hear there are pockets of resistance ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I think I remember the original quote from Plowden? or something around that time was “Children should never be taught directly something they can be lead to discover for themselves.” The key word of course being “lead” and that clearly means the teacher. If a teacher poses a “what happens if?” type of question they should know where that can lead, but there is always the possibility that the pupil will find another valid answer. Either way was exciting for me.

    1. Unfortunately Plowden is misrepresented by those who attack so-called ‘progressive’ methods. They claim she advocated ‘discovery’ methods which had no teacher input. This is, of course, untrue, but the myth persists.

  5. Where are most children at?

    Your examples are interesting, but are they typical? How many children will pursue a topic in the detail that your child does? And how much of that detail will overlap with the, by necessity, broader scope of the curriculum? I agree that it would be a nonsense to think that children can’t find out things for themselves. The degree to which they do will vary from child to child, but I don’t see why learning outside of school (and outside of the curriculum) needs to be generally considered in school. I do think that both schools and parents should encourage it, though.

    And here’s another anecdote. My own children went to a secondary school that wasn’t brilliant. It was probably not even good….and struggled to attract top quality staff. One of my kids reached 6th form and wanted to study Computer Science, but the school didnโ€™t offer it. So, he and a mate went to the school authorities and asked if they could be provided with text books and entered for the exam, and they would teach themselves. The school agreed. They taught themselves, and both got A at A-level. Inspiring stuff, but what does it prove? Is it relevant in a general sense for the whole state system? I donโ€™t think so.

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