Discovery? Inquiry? It’s all Academic.


Hidden in the RSA’s report, Ideal School Exhibition,  last week was a little sentence that made my heart sink:-

“Of all the schools I visited, it is perhaps Bealings Primary School in Suffolk that is most exposed to this risk, employing, as it does, the ‘Mantle of the Expert’ role-play method, the purest form of child-led, discovery learning I witnessed.”

While the report went on to point out that the school in question was highly successful with five consecutive Ofsted Outstanding inspections and great data to its name, it misunderstood the nature of Mantle of the Expert, which is not discovery learning and nor is it child led. It is inquiry based learning, rich in knowledge and it is very much co-constructed with the teacher clear about what the learning outcomes are and the steps required to achieve them. I was thinking of penning a response when I read another blog about academic versus non academic subjects, in which the suggestion was made that drama is all about creating actors and PE was mostly about creating accomplished sportsmen and women and that while both are worthy pursuits, they are not really academic. Academic subjects, it would seem, are those that are pursued purely for the sake of becoming masters of knowledge in those subjects. Maths is academic if you become a Mathematician, but not if you become a doctor/engineer/actuary/accountant etc. I think. In short, only subjects with no useful, practical, future application are academic. So we’ve cleared that one up. I’m being flippant of course, but on a serious note, I’m not sure that it’s helpful to try to categorise in this way..

The misconception that drama = acting  or PE = football  is laughable, of course. But it masks a deeper misunderstanding – both act as practical and intellectual vehicles for other curriculum areas, reinforcing and supporting other subjects. One teacher reported seeing a lesson in which concepts in Physics were being explored in PE and clearly there is a strong anatomical/Biological component. In Drama/Theatre we, of course, study plays. Plays have contexts. Historical, philosophical, social and cultural contexts. And unlike English literature, set texts can be drawn from a range of original languages. So in my time, I have taught existentialism (Sartre), the fall of the Weimar Republic and rise of Hitler (Brecht), post war absurdism (Beckett), the political situation in Russia at the turn of the 19th century (Chekhov), gender and social politics in Ancient Greece (Euripides), the influence of the church in medieval society (the Chester miracle and mystery plays)…I could go on. In fact, it’s not really possible to pass advanced level drama by simply being a good actor. Knowledge is critical. But in addition to the knowledge, you have to interpret, design and create your own versions of plays – even if only on paper in the exam. You have to be critic, director, writer, actor, intellectual and technician. So, no, it’s not academic. It’s way more.

Mantle of the Expert is also way more than role-play based discovery learning, which is not to say that some forms of discovery learning don’t have their place. We come across this conflation between child led/child centred and discovery learning/inquiry learning way too often – it’s in Hattie’s work, in Willingham’s work, even in the reports of the OECD. And in confusing something that can be entirely without an adult or something that can be highly structured, we end up with tricky outcomes in terms of evidence. We hear that these methods are ineffective. And yet we then see that Bealings not only produce results, but have Outstanding judgments. Which is true?

Well let’s try to unpick them a little. Discovery based learning might be better spoken of as ‘child initiated learning’ and it’s most often seen in early years settings. At its best, the child initiates play and, through careful organisation of equipment/materials, questioning and observation, the adults will support the learning. Take for example Jonathan Lear’s example of the tap in the EYFS mud kitchen. When planning their outdoor learning area, staff had a choice of where to put the water supply for their mud kitchen. The obvious answer was to connect it to the tap at the sink. But they didn’t. They connected it to the wall, further away. That simple adjustment meant that the young children had to work out how to transport the water. But the staff had put holes in the obvious implements. So the children had to be canny. The process of learning, prompted and supported by questioning, led to children thinking more deeply than they would have if the answer had been, well, on tap. So it sits there, waiting to be played with and discovered. This is a lovely example of how discovery learning can work in some situations and settings, but of course, all other kinds of learning will be going on there too. Some of it explicit and some of it inquiry led.

At its worst, discovery learning is where the teacher has a cuppa while the kids run riot. Or where the children have been given a word/person/topic and told to get on their laptops and find it all out with no guidance. This is not really discovery learning. It’s idleness and in these days of high accountability and surveillance, you’re unlikely to see it happening anywhere in state education. But I think this is the conception of it that some have in their minds.

Inquiry led learning is probably the best fit for Mantle of the Expert. It is not child-led or initiated but more co-constructed. It allows the teacher and pupils to step in and out of a problem so that some areas of knowledge that need to be acquired in order to solve a problem, are taught explicitly. The context provides a purpose for what can be explicit teaching and once that has been done, the children can apply and transfer that knowledge to the problem they were engaged in. They move in and out of the role and problem as required. One mantle I ran with Yr 4 involved learning Russian language, geography and culture. It also involved creating spreadsheets, budgets, writing letters and reports and even applying for visas. All these tasks were planned for. They were managed by the teacher but the desire to know and do them came from children immersed in context. If you’d have asked the children what we were doing, they would have talked about doing all of this in order to save wolves in a forest in the Ural Mountains. The story provides the context for the knowledge and action to be enacted. And as we know from Willingham, stories are ‘psychological privileged’ in the human mind.

This is not the only way to inquire of course. I’ve seen few better examples of non role-play project based learning than that devised by Joe Pardoe at School21. There, all inquiry is rigorously accountable to knowledge. But it is also creatively transferred and applied. Take their chess board. A study into the cold war results in sculpted chess pieces – busts of the major historical figures of the cold war. The children are asked not just to know and to create, but to apply. Who would have been the King? The pawns? Why? They are being held accountable to knowledge. This is child centred learning, but the teacher is deeply present throughout – in conception, design, delivery and analysis. The teacher is always present in both inquiry led and discovery led learning. But much more so in the former.

So we need to move on. We need to move away from the quagmire of what constitutes academic or practical subjects, progressive or traditional ideologies, explicit or inquiry led teaching. We need to recognise (and to be fair the Ideal Schools report is attempting to move in this direction) that there are horses for courses. That knowing what you do, why you do it and the impact of what comes out of it,  is far more important than what you call it.


13 thoughts on “Discovery? Inquiry? It’s all Academic.

  1. I absolutely agree with everything you have said here, but I fear the post will fall up deaf ears. When I worked as a manager in industry, he regularly would say at meetings “please don’t confuse me with the facts, I have already made my mind up”.

    I would thank you for pointing me in the direction of the report as I was wondering from where the comments on MOE were coming. They referred to a document but until today I couldn’t find it.

    I have with great interest read through the document briefly and in detail at comments that specifically refer to MOE.

    I find the report to be a mishmash of understandings, misunderstandings and confusions. It seem to be a regurgitation of much of the recent illogic posted on the bloggerspher/twittersphere by a minority of teachers who pine for the old days when kids sat in neat rows as quiet as church mice practising their tables/date ready for the test. A good number of sources quoted are from consultants who only have a passing acquaintance with these topics but are referenced as if they are Gurus.

    It reads to me a bit like a “traditional methods” literature review. As an eclectic teacher that does not really concern me as I often use traditional methods and quite effective they are too. I do however work in an IB World School where I have the privilege to work with by far the best curriculum I have engaged with. It is enquiry based. I would in MYP at year 5 and the IB Diploma Programme, the latter being one of the most rigorous and knowledge rich courses I have ever delivered, and yes it is inquiry based.

    Like most comments I see on edu-twitter and edu-blogs in the UK, the opinions I see are pitiful and come from people who have no real understanding of what enquiry learning is about, how it is delivered or what it demands of learners. I would pit my IB DP students against A Level students in the UK and/or AP students in the US and having taught in all three within the last 6 years I think I am able to make the judgement. Top performing UK private schools deliver the IB curriculum and the best students will easily gain places at Oxbridge or US Ivy League. I know because I have a good number of students who have done just this.

    Merriam Webster define bigoted as…

    “obstinately or unreasonably attached to a belief, opinion, or faction, and intolerant towards other people’s beliefs and practices”

    This for me describes the sorts of views illustrated by this report and many of the more “traditional only” teachers I find on UK twitter/blogs.

    I teach in the Middle East where I find teachers to be a much more eclectic bunch of what I would describe as professional educators. We have a broad mix of backgrounds but the common denominator is that they are generally eclectic, they can use the best method in the best context. Where I agree with the report is that teachers who can teach eclectically are truly talented people in my experience. We don’t have disengaged students even though they could be really disengaged if they wished. Look at some more “traditional British” schools in the Middle East and they have this down to a fine art.

    We have students who ask us for more work, they work hard to achieve their best and they perfom consistently at or above most of what you see in the UK. We are not selective.

    I say these things in general support of Debra who I think I interpreted correctly as being peeved that enquiry/inquiry learning is consistently misunderstood and misrepresented. I work harder here that I ever did in the UK. I interact with learners (directly) more that I ever did in the UK and I impart more knowledge that I ever did in the UK. All with enquiry learning.

    Many of the individuals referenced in the document are not teachers, a situation the edu twitter used to complain about until they heard their views being spoken by consultants. Consultants are now all the rage with the same ed-tweeters. Some have been successful teachers but very few of those referenced are in the classroom full time now. The report is designed to appeal to that segment of the educational market, after all RSA is simply a money making machine.

    As far as the comments about MOE are concerned, I think they are extraordinary. I can see why it might have been necessary for RSA to paint MOE in a poor light, after all it goes against just about every other piece of advice and supposed evidence chosen for the report. Clearly this school have an outstanding record, according to Ofsted and just about anyone else who has visited. Even the RSA have seen the flaw in the arguments made in the report, that MOE seems successful but at the same time is off message. It may be a complete coincidence that they considered MOE to be risky unless skilled practitioners were there to deliver it. My humble view would be that all teaching is risky unless there are skilled practitioners to deliver it. I have seen many more teachers crash and burn using teacher talk rather than enquiry. Indeed many advocates of teacher talk speak sadly about their teaching experiences and they always have an external locus of control. It was always behaviour, or SMT Then there is the small rural school angle which is extrapolated to the point at which RSA questioned whether it could work, by I didn’t see evidence or even any sensible propositions from which to draw that conclusion.

    To quote a current practitioner who it appears has nothing but positive feedback from school leaders at all levels in the report and then to question the effectiveness of MOE is for me quite unacceptable without evidence. If it were me I would be seeking legal advice, but it is not so I will not comment further.

    As an eclectic teacher, the report affects me little and matters to me little personally. It is a shame that the effort that has gone into this report has not produced a better quality product. Enquiry learning continues to deliver excellent results across the world and it will continue to do so.

    One last point I would make is about the manner in which I judge reports like this. Firstly I ask do they quote fashionable ideas and theories at the expense what actually appears to work. used to be “VAK” and now “knowledge rich”. Secondly I look for the words “teaching to the test” as if it were a bad thing. As a fully trained and experienced professional educator, my job is to teach people so that they learn stuff and the test that they know the stuff. It’s quite simple really. Armed with the learning outcomes expected I design a curriculum which I deliver and then assess students against the outcomes. You see I am fully trained (not so risky). I teach the curriculum against which the test is designed and if have done it correctly the students will have achieved the learning outcomes.

    Every professional educator needs to teach to the test as the test has been specifically designed to against the curriculum. Why would I not teach to the test, unless the test does not test the student against the learning outcomes. Against my two criteria, this report seems woefully lacking in rigour which gives me even more reason to worry about their comments on MOE.

    I don’t know enough about discovery learning to offer a comment.

  2. The mud kitchen example is a lovely description of how learning works in EY – we’ll often use these provocations to push learning forwards. I’m starting to suspect that the main thing that separates academic/non in some people’s minds is whether or not the subject involves *using your body* as well as your mind. I’m reminded of the Ken Robinson line about academics seeing themselves as ‘brains on legs’.

  3. I think it was the Plowden Report that stated Children should be lead to discover with the implication that they shouldn’t be left to discover. Plowden, Cockroft and Bullock all came out with broadly the same recommendations and these were, I think, Royal Commissions Employing groups of Academics, Industrialists, Parents and Teachers given 3 years to find what worked best in Primary, Mathematics, and English Language respectively. Some contrast with todays decisions on education which often appear to be based on political bias or seeking electoral advantage by using the perceived faults in education (often caused by earlier decisions and financial cuts) to seem to be better than their opponents.

    1. Yes, and again this is all largely misrepresented in the debate – some elements of the Plowden report that are quoted didn’t even appear in the report – they were notes in appendices. This critical difference between lead and left is vital to understand I think. Thank you.

      1. Possibly even more damaging was the way some inservice training got it wrong. I was lucky, but working with others trained elsewhere I was horrified. Comments along the lines of “I let the children do what they wanted and it didn’t work”. What a surprise. Then there was an infamous school in London that carried this to an extreme and as a result the children wrecked the Library. Being lucky enough to visit some of the “Plowden” schools was a wake up call for me. Like most teachers, before those visits I judged my progress by seeking to match the best teachers I saw, but seeing some of the best was a real eye opener.

  4. I like lots of this. I think the Ofsted grading is a dilemma. Lots of schools (although am sure not all) who use discovery learning (in an unstructured way) have children from middling, educated backgrounds so you could argue they will succeed regardless and thus the ineffective use of discovery learning isn’t picked up. What do you think?

    1. I’ve never really come across discovery learning in an unstructured way in a British state setting to be fair – not in the last 20 years certainly, so I don’t really know. It’s certainly a possibility. Here, where it is structured, it tends to be successful, certainly in EYFS settings. But I think we need to be very careful if we’re going to use these terms, about what we mean, and be clear that inquiry led and discovery based learning are different both in structure and purpose. I suppose what does unite them is a belief that the child isn’t just an empty vessel – that their thoughts and ideas matter and can contribute. Woodrow School in Redditch do mantle very well in a disadvantaged area and their data and gradings hold up too. And School21 serves a very diverse community, so it’s not really true that this can only work in middle class settings. But it is highly skilled work.

  5. Debra:

    Great post, as ever. As someone who trains teachers in PBL, giving STEM a social context, and developing critical thinking in students, I strongly echo your comments about discovery learning. Perhaps 30 years ago there may have been some teachers who would view ‘projects’ as something that students ‘led’, But it’s the height of intellectual laziness to assume that’s where practice currently lies. I don’t even know what ‘discovery’ learning is. I certainly don’t know anyone who would say that they deploy it. The only people who seem to use the term are the people who only seem to believe in what Brian described as ‘teacher talk’. It could be that they’re being intellectually lazy in not checking their biases and prejudices with more current practice. Or it may be that they feel threatened by anything that might require them to open up the doors of possibility and co-construction, and change their own practice. Either way, it’s only in the UK that these polarised and irrelevant arguments find traction – the rest of the world has moved on – and it’s time we did too.

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