In Praise of Discovery Learning

“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no-one else can make for us, which no-one can spare us, for our wisdom  is the point of view from which we come at last to view the world.”

Marcel Proust.


How teaching happens matters!

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment

A quick look through the DSE inspectorate reports shows that the popularity of discovery learning is showing no signs of disappearing. One inspection report from March mentions discovery learning twice, recommending that science teachers “should increase the emphasis on discovery learning” and another published last month recommends they “encourage the use of discovery learning by students” and criticises lessons where “too much time was spent on teacher instruction that impacted on discovery learning and student motivation”. A geography inspection report recommends “limiting teacher inputs” .One mathematics inspection praises “a particular focus…inquiry-based learning” and another recommends that “the tasks set should involve more discovery learning and foster independent learning skills”.

This enthusiasm  ignores the growing body of evidence that, when it comes to teaching factual knowledge, discovery learning “ignores the structures of cognitive architecture” and is less effective than teacher-led explicit instruction.  The latest (2015) PISA report found that “teacher-directed instruction” was more effective than minimal guidance, particularly in science, as @greg_Ashman explains here better than I can.

However, there is one area of learning where I think we can embrace discovery learning. In fact, we can embrace it so much that we can all but erase the subject from the curriculum, minimise its impact on the timetable and stop preaching to the kids about it, all without damaging outcomes in this “area of learning”. This is the area of “wellbeing”. *

I have long held the view  that –  while the welfare and safety of children has to be an important concern of schools and teachers –  lessons, talks, activities and programmes that aim to “teach” traits like resilience and grit, or to explain to children the importance of  good habits of self-care, are a pointless waste of time. They are also possibly harmful to children.  Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes make this case cogently in their book  “The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education”.

A book that’s very different to “The Dangerous Rise” but that touches tangentially on the same area is  Jonathan Haidt’s “The Happiness Hypothesis : Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the test of Modern Science”. Haidt explores how people managed before psychology and how some ideas about human happiness appear in remarkably similar forms in quite separate places and times.  The book, I think, works both ways: it puts the assumptions of modern psychology to the test of ancient wisdom.



Haidt famously conceived of the image of the “rider and the elephant” as a metaphor for the human mind. The rider can guide the elephant, but only as long as the elephant co-operates, and if the elephant ever does decide to do its own thing, there is very little the rider can do to stop it.  As teachers we focus on the rider, who is, after all, the brains of the operation. The elephant has a brain as well but its skill is in the force of its strength, not its intellectual capacity for reason. Are schools ignoring the elephant and thus failing to “holistically” educate?

I will say yes, and no more so than in the “area of learning” that is wellbeing. Proponents of Wellbeing might say that it is teaching children how to make their riders better control their elephants. Skills like managing  emotions, self-efficacy, how to be motivated, how to be nice are to be taught alongside – and even instead of – how to form the passé composé and calculate the side of a triangle. Discipline systems with even a hint of behaviourism are deemed inferior to restorative approaches that harness children’s cognitive conceptions of right and wrong.  Ironically the drive to teaching tacit knowledge explicitly co-incides with the turn towards teaching explicit knowledge through “discovery learning” where children [theoretically] work out the facts for themselves, acquiring them tacitly with minimal teacher explanation. Where the subjects don’t fit, they must be trimmed like the  ugly sisters’ feet, and where their content does not suit prescribed methods and aims, they must borrow content from areas that do. Following on from this, the time available for the subjects is itself trimmed and time is allocated to content that suits discovery learning but which previously was thought the responsibility of  parents rather than schools, or was understood to consist of the experience of life events and maturation. We end with nothing.

Haidt explains the folly of trying to take the rider off the elephant and educate him in isolation. He cites moral education, which will be familiar to anyone who has taught SPHE which has a module on “making good decisions”. The idea is that children can be trained in a decision-making procedure and then follow this procedure when faced with dilemmas like “how do I withstand the bystander effect when my best friend’s a bully?” and “should I smoke this spliff?”

“After being exposed to hours of case studies, classroom discussions about moral dilemmas, and videos about people who faced dilemmas and made the right choices, the child learns how(not what) to think. Then class ends, the rider gets back on the elephant, and nothing changes…Trying to make children behave ethically by teaching them to reason well is like trying to make a dog happy by wagging its tail.”

What if we have this all wrong? What if explicit knowledge was best taught explicitly and tacit knowledge was best acquired tacitly, through discovery learning where teachers and schools set up a formative learning environment rather than a wellbeing syllabus that will inevitably be largely delivered through chalk and talk  and for which the publishing companies are already producing textbooks?

Many of the  learning outcomes from the Wellbeing guidelines could be better learned through experience than taught didactically. When I say “learned through experience” I do not mean a teacher-devised and managed classroom activity that takes time away from building children’s knowledge base. I mean learned  via the broad experience of school life, including classes on the structure of the atom or the formation of ox-bow lakes, and equally through every human interaction they have on the premises whether with teachers or with peers. Many of the latter type of experience will be hidden from teachers’ eyes, and to a great extent immune to our manipulations,  but are no less formative. (In terms of their classroom experience, children’s maturity and well-being are fostered through habits of work, application and organisation, and through an atmosphere that insists on respectful communication. These can happen regardless of instructional methods, the choice of which should be guided by the content being covered. Attempts such as this one to raise children’s self-esteem through group-work put the self-conceptual cart before the attainment horse). There is also a case to be made for “service learning” through blocked social placement that has minimal impact on the timetable, or even better, through extra-curricular opportunities for volunteering.  And I also mean the experience of life beyond school, both physically and temporally. The end of third year cannot be seen as a deadline for achieving the kind of wisdom, common sense and “life skills” that most of us where still acquiring well into our twenties. You could argue that  very many people die at a ripe old age without achieving half  of what we expect fifteen year olds to master (“Use good communication skills to respond to criticism and conflict” for example). Some more examples are:

-express emotions in an appropriate way [who decides which ways are “appropriate??]

-help others to feel included in the group

-recognise how gender and sexuality is [sic] part of what it means to be human

-learn from their mistakes and move on

-appreciate the importance of respectful and inclusive behaviour.

-recognise their capacity to extend and receive friendship

-appreciate the importance of talking things over

-appreciate what it means to live with mental ill-health.[It amazes me that anyone, anywhere thinks that there is any classroom activity –  including listening to a guest speaker –  that could even begin to achieve this outcome]

-use coping skills for managing life’s challenges [surely a tautology?]



Haidt also warns against confusing people with machines, especially computers. It is tempting to see the modern educational obsession with coding as extending into the idea that children need to be programmed with the attributes we find desirable in adults. If the device comes with the software apparently missing, then some-one must install it. If parents can’t be trusted, it must then fall to schools to do the installation. There is no button (or combination of buttons) on a child that you can press to make her act like an adult. But everything she needs to be one is already there. Adolescence is a complex, biological and social process, that is barely understood by the very young science of developmental psychology. We tinker with it at our peril and the peril of the children themselves, who are not machines, but animals who are infinitely more resilient than machines, and harder to break, but conversely more challenging to repair.

Another of the book’s warnings is about over-protection. By making “staying well” an actual learning outcome, we are encouraging children to live life inside the confines of the white-picket fence. We risk trying to make teenagers into emotional self-managers who put their own comfort and welfare ahead of any cause or any ambition.  This is seen in the annual hand-wringing fest that decries the State Examinations as damaging to the mental health of candidates. The Junior Cert, in particular, was a pressurised yet ultimately low-stakes event that did more to foster resilience and confidence than any Wellbeing syllabus yet to be devised. The stakes are higher at Leaving Cert, but – as its name implies – these young people are leaving childhood behind and setting out into an adult world that will contain challenges at least as hard and often harder than sitting an exam for which there is a well-defined curriculum and marking scheme, focused tuition for the two-year lead-up and, for most candidates, is sat at a time of very few commitments or responsibilities.  We wouldn’t put ten year olds through the process (a madness currently proposed in an education system not too far away), but switching to softer, more gameable assessments could deny our teenagers what is for most of them an admittedly very stressful yet formative experience.  Haidt writes, drawing on the work of wisdom researcher Robert Sternberg,

“Shelter your children when young, but if the sheltering goes on through the child’s teens and twenties, it may keep out wisdom and growth as well as pain.”

So I would suggest a re-balancing. When it comes to Wellbeing we need to put more emphasis on the elephant through the practices and habits of daily life in school, while  allowing students to cope with challenging situations where the rider can discover the tacit skills of elephant communication. We need to realise that interventions that exclusively target the rider (such as providing factual information about personal safety) are limited in scope and are more than catered for in the time already allowed for SPHE; there is no need for an increase. Rather, the vast bulk of our time in the class room should be focused not on things children can work out for themselves but on things for which they need schools, and for which they need teachers to teach them.


*When I say “wellbeing” I don’t include Physical Education, even though that subject is now included under the Wellbeing umbrella. I refer instead to the psychosocial aspects of SPHE and CSPE and all learning outcomes relating to attitudes, character, mental health and “awareness”.


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