When I was about thirteen my father idly commented that the lock on the outside door of his treatment room was broken. Without asking I decided to set to and see if I could fix it. I worked out how the lock was embedded in the iron-framed door and removed it. Half an hour later the lock was in bits and I was in panic.
I quelled my fears and proceeded to work out how it was meant to fit together. Several hours later I had it working. A spring had come off its support post, the spring loop needed tightening and reinstalling on the post. Had I known what I was doing the job would have taken 20 minutes but what I experienced was 2 and a half hours of discovery learning.
The experience obviously had a great impact on me, in part due to the response of my parents, but mainly due to the sense of the power that my ability to “work things out for myself” gave me.
My mother’s response was to speculate that because I was “good with my hands” perhaps I should be going to a technical school rather than the college that I was attending. It has to be said that I was not achieving well at this college. In fact I hated it.
On reflection I now understand that the college was not at all the place for a discovery learner to succeed, as the model for learning that they employed was the “body of knowledge” model. In this model it is understood that one must learn the accumulated wisdom of our civilization and in due time contribute in small part to that body of knowledge.
The technical school may have suited me a little better, but the truth is, I was born 15 years too early. What I needed was a free school, one that was run along the lines of A.S.Neil’s Summerhill.
Although they did not use the term, educators like Neil were driven by a belief in what I call discovery learning. In schools like Summerhill staff endeavoured to create a stimulating learning environment in which children initiated their own learning. The role of staff was to encourage, to stimulate and to proffer suggestions of possible new lines of enquiry, or to point students in the direction of helpful resources. This philosophy is based on an abiding trust that human beings are by their nature inquisitive and have a profound desire to learn.
With some exceptions in individual schools, our education system across Australia has returned strongly to the body of knowledge model. I have to concede that this model really suits some learners. Our understandings around how we learn have really developed over the last thirty or so years and we have identified a vast array of learning styles. We need an education system that reflects these new understandings and that adequately caters to the range of learners that we provide for.
There is evidence that we are moving in the right direction with the introduction of the special studies projects in year 12 and a growing number of primary schools that focus on creative activities as a core part of their learning programs.
The explosion in knowledge that the information revolution has produced has created a need for learners who are critical, who know how they learn and whose learning is driven from within, rather than learners struggling to digest mountains of information. We need to rediscover the joy of discovery and encourage this style of learning.