My dad recently sent me this article, “Will Discovery Learning Prepare Alberta Students for the 21st Century or Will it Toss Out a Top Tier Education System?” and it got me thinking. Is “discovery learning” in the classroom an improvement over the current system? What would the ideal system even be?
I haven’t researched Alberta’s new Discovery Learning curriculum any further than reading this newspaper article about it, but the gist of it is that the curriculum will be more flexible, allowing the freedom for kids to collectively choose to pursue interests sparked by their learning and at least partially removing the compulsion for them to “finish everything” in the planned curriculum.
It sounds like bringing unschooling or interest-led learning into the classroom, giving kids the ability to choose what they want to learn about and loosening the reins of adult requirements. On paper, it sounds good.
But I know that no matter how good something sounds on paper, the real test is how it is implemented. And especially when you’re trying to roll out a massive ideological change with overfilled classrooms and underpaid teachers, there’s a lot of places where it may not turn out as first imagined.
I also know that this freedom and flexibility will be great for some kids, but miserable for others who thrive on predictability, quiet reflection or simply don’t care about whatever the rest of the class wants to do.
What do I think the ideal educational system looks like?
1. Small adult/child ratios. This is absolutely critical, at all ages. I would say that a maximum of one adult to 5-10 kids is about right.
2. Individualized expectations. This is why it is so important to have a low adult/child ratio – the more kids there are, the more they need to be treated as a collective unit instead of a group of individuals. Every child learns at a different rate, has different needs around structure, freedom and intellectual challenge, needs to have a strong attachment with the teacher/mentor and will be interested in different things. Small groups make attending to these differences possible. Why even bother? A child is more likely to be truly engaged and challenged when their work is personally meaningful, developmentally appropriate and they feel safe and understood.
3. In general, delay academics and abolish homework for kids under 12. Kids in Norway don’t even start school until they’re 7. More and more evidence is showing that the push to bring academics to younger and younger kids is backfiring badly. Let kids be kids when they’re little and they will be more likely to be driven to work and study hard when they are young adults. At the same time, if a 5 year old wants to learn to read, let her. Just don’t push at such a young age.
4. Provide lots of opportunities for mixed-age work and play. Ideally, those small cohorts of 5-10 kids would contain kids of all ages and learning abilities, up to age 12 or so. When everyone is different, there is less pressure to conform and more acceptance of everyone’s ability to contribute according to their strengths.
5. Adults would be involved in teaching empathy skills. Any time there is a conflict in the classroom, there is an opportunity for a teacher trained in Non-Violent Communication and somatic empathy to help the kids wire up their prefrontal cortexes by watching or participating in a discussion about feelings and needs. By actually helping kids get their needs for connection and individuality met, we could actually create a society of people who are in touch with their selves and able to engage in empathy as adults. What a difference that would make to the world!
6. The most important item on my list is so obvious that it seems ridiculous to even include it, but this statement at the end of the National Post article shows just how pervasive anti-child attitudes are, even among those whose work is to provide for children’s education.
“A particularly ‘distressing’ finding, according to the researchers, was that students appeared to love discovery learning, ‘even though they learn less from it.'”
Anyone working in children’s education should view kids’ enthusiasm as an opportunity, not as something distressing. In fact, I believe the researchers are correct when they say that kids learn less with completely unguided discovery, and that they benefit more from discovery with a “scaffold” or other non-coercive adult input. But the assumption that if you’re having fun you can’t be learning or working hard is at the root of miserable jobs and unfulfilling careers everywhere, and I believe we owe our kids more than that. We owe it to them to show them how to harness their joy and use that momentum to do amazing things.
What kind of educational system do you dream of? What kind of classroom or learning environment would have been perfect for you when you were a child? Would you be happy for your child to be in a Discovery Learning classroom, or would you prefer something else?