The Danger of Discovery

One of the most heartbreaking things I hear is fatigued resignation from a parent: “I loved the curriculum, but I gave up after the first few weeks of trying to make my child like it. Maybe he would do better with a non-traditional approach, like ‘discovery learning.'”

Such a homeschooler has often spent months researching and approving the underlying vision, the tested efficacy, and the beautiful design of our curriculum; yet she allows an eight-year-old child to cast it aside. She acquiesces to a child’s adamant—or even tepid—dislike of being taught and guided in favor of letting him seek easier pursuits on his own through self-guided exploration. Yet research indicates that students, especially those with difficulties, perform better with explicit instruction than with discovery learning.

Contrast the first mother’s resignation with this powerful response we hear far more often: “I am so grateful I persevered. The progress in my child’s reading, language, confidence, and overall academics has been remarkable. We are now in the third year of the curriculum and we are amazed at how far he has come.” When we as parents and teachers trust the promise of the long-range view rather than the fleeting instincts of a child, we do not bow to the laissez-faire notions of education that are advocated by discovery learning theorists and rooted in the romanticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

Give him absolutely no orders of any kind. Do not even let him imagine that you claim any authority over him …. It is a mistake to try to get him to approve of things he dislikes.

If our own educational philosophies stem only from popular books, homeschooling blogs, or teacher training programs, we may be more influenced by these discovery-based approaches than we would like. Yet, when examined more closely, the absurdity of the pure theory might surprise us. Consider this from Rousseau’s Emile:

Let us lay it down as an incontestable principle that the first impulses of nature are always right. There is no original perversity in the human heart. If the child manages to upset things and break some useful articles, do not punish or scold him…. Do not even let him guess that he has annoyed you. Behave as if the furniture had got broken of itself. Consider you have done very well if you can avoid saying anything.

Such romanticized writing impacted influential thinkers in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Piaget and Kant, whose resulting philosophies were melded with the new “science” of pragmatic psychology. All of this became embodied in America in John Dewey, whose emphasis on discovery learning and “learning by doing” gained vast pedagogical sway across the country when Dewey became head of the department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy at the University of Chicago in 1894. Dewey’s Laboratory School urged plenty of child-initiated, “hands-on” discovery with child-centered teacher training, resulting in consequences that we still feel today.

Delight vs. Discovery

When parents say they want discovery learning, perhaps they should seek instead the more classical term—”delight.” The Memoria Press motto is docere, delectare, movere (to teach, to delight, to move), drawn from Cicero and Augustine. One dramatic distinction in the difference between delight and discovery lies in this first element of the triad: to teach. We do not take a hands-off approach to teaching in order to instill a hands-on approach to learning; rather, through teaching we seek to delight and move students. Until the arrival of modern notions, the formative principle of education was largely unquestioned, as was the central and invaluable role of the teacher: to teach.

When this changed, the child became the center point. Likening himself to Copernicus, Dewey institutes this monumental shift in 1899 in The School and the Society:

It is a change, a revolution, not unlike that introduced by Copernicus when the astronomical center shifted from the earth to the sun. In this case the child becomes the sun about which the applications of education revolve.

Dewey elevated discovery-based projects, resulting in a child-initiated school day:

The ideal home would naturally have a workshop where the child could work out his constructive instincts. It would have a miniature laboratory in which his inquiries could be directed …. Now, if we organize and generalize all of this, we have the ideal school.

Many educators heard this dogma in college. Our training directed our gaze away from our purpose as teachers and shifted it toward the child’s own discoveries. As Dewey wrote, we were to be occupied less with clear, teachable, academic content and more with “the immediate instincts and activities of the child himself.”

What Can We Do?

Through teacher-led instruction we can reclaim the calling of teaching as a noble vocation. We can pursue depth rather than scattered dabbling. From the gentle kindnesses of Little Bear to the great ponderings of the Iliad, we can study great literature deeply. We can choose the literature the child should read, and we can avoid skimming through towering piles of literature every year. We believe that a guided, penetrating approach cultivates mastery, concentration, and reflection. French philosopher Antonin Sertillanges encourages our efforts:

We must always sacrifice extent to penetration …. A danger lies in wait for minds that spread themselves over too many subjects: the danger of being easily satisfied. Content with their voyages of discovery in every direction, they give up effort.

Sidestep the Danger

By 1902, even Dewey knew the dangers of the extremes inherent in his own teachings. He began to warn against the inevitable indulgence that comes from placing undue emphasis on the interest of the child:

Appealing to the interest means … playing with a power so as continually to stir it up without directing it toward definite achievement. Continuous initiation, continuous starting of activities that do not arrive, is, for all practical purposes, as bad as the continual repression of initiative …. It is as if the child were forever tasting and never eating; always having his palate tickled upon the emotional side, but never getting the organic satisfaction that comes only with the digestion of food and transformation of it into working power.

Let us devote ourselves to perseverance in our calling as parents and teachers. If we face moments of doubt or discouragement that come from a student’s grumbling, we can rest in knowing that we are providing for him the gradual, well-earned satisfaction of depth, mastery, and true nourishment, and working toward definite achievement.

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