Month: August 2018

Discovery Learning by me – aged 6

I can’t remember too much about my first school but I do have evidence of a little trip I made when I was 6 years old with my friends Jonathan and Kelly from Selwyn Junior School in Plaistow in 1983. I have some memories and also I have a little newspaper article that I wrote that was published in a magazine.

The biggest memory was getting the chance to leave Miss Khodabandelou’s Class 1 and go with my best friends to do stuff with computers. I had recently got a ZX Spectrum bought by my mysterious grandparents that I had never met and I had excitedly told my mum how we could make it “talk” using the command “beep”. But this was much cooler as we were going to use a robot called a turtle. For a six year old kid on Free School Meals who had barely ever left Plaistow this was megacool. The only other trip I remembered was going to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the new robot exhibition. I was all into robots, computers, playing the recorder and the musical Cats. And dinosaurs. Everyone was into dinosaurs.

We got to the place and it was full of computers and ginormous awesomeness and there was a soft cuddly turtle that I hugged. Jonathan even drew a picture of me sitting on a chair cuddling the turtle. When I looked him up on Facebook 33 years later I found out he was a graphic designer. No surprises there. But something even more incredible was about to happen. There was a transparent robot turtle on the floor! And it could be controlled using a BBC computer using the programming language Logo. I had already used Logo before to make a green cursor move around a screen, probably one of the reasons I was picked for the trip.

We were given a task. A pure discovery-learning task. We had to get the robot turtle to go around a little maze without it going outside the perimeter. We were given a little bit of help – when the turtle went too far we were told to put a different number in, perhaps a bit less. But the part that was really hard was turning the turtle so it could go around the corner. For this we had to know a little bit about angles and crucially the idea that a corner was a right angle – 90 degrees. But we did not know this and so spent a frustrating amount of time trying to work it out. Finally (with help), we did get the turtle to go round the track, but only when we told to write in the code, “RT 90”.

Logo and turtle graphics were the brainchild of progressive educator Seymour Paupert and the idea was we would learn more by having a go and experimenting with trial and error. And he may be right – perhaps the frustration of being unable to solve the problem was fundamental to the my memory I have of this day. Like I said, I can barely remember anything else. Although I guess someone taught me to read and write. But still, if we were told the crucial fact that a right angle was 90 degrees we would have completed the task much, much quicker. And in the end we were told the fact even after all the experimenting. Perhaps if we were told the fact earlier we could have done some more complicated mazes. Did the experimenting help me understand angles? Not really, because I wasn’t thinking about the numbers. I was only thinking about getting round the track. I remember getting very annoyed that that the bloody turtle couldn’t understand the command “Corner Right”. Stupid robot.

I think this is one of the reasons why discovery-based learning has such a low effect size compared to direct instruction. The argument should not be about which is more effective, because that argument has already been comprehensively won by direct instruction – the research says it is close to twice as effective. Professor John Hattie tells us we shouldn’t really be looking at any approaches that have an effect size less than 0.4, yet every school I have worked in is going down the progressive discovery route, even though it is under 0.3. However, there may be an argument that the process of discovery may make learning more memorable. And if you are less likely to forget it or have to relearn it, perhaps that is one reason why we shouldn’t toss out the whole approach. I still think that in Primary Schools we need to base almost all learning on direct instruction and in secondary we should loosen up and allow a bit more discovery once students have the core knowledge secure.

I guess my question to all those teachers who rate discovery learning highly is simply, why won’t you let kids get quickly and accurately around the mazes you set for them? What is the benefit of withholding information to complete tasks? If it’s genuinely to make learning memorable then I’m OK with that. But if it leads to frustration or misunderstanding, let’s just tell them what works.

Stop making us feel guilty for direct instruction

“Don’t tell children something they could discover for themselves”. Nice, wise advice. Normally nice, wise advice from a consultant or manager. Someone who probably teaches less than twenty hours a week. For many teachers this advice is advice that makes them feel guilty. They feel guilty because they have made a short-cut. Or twenty short cuts that week. Instead of having a lesson where the children research Indian instruments, you told them what a tabla and sitar was by putting up a picture on PowerPoint. 15 minutes v 1 minute – same result, they know what a tabla and sitar are now. Instead of giving children a song on an MP3 player set up with headphones and some instruments nearby and asking them to work out “Smoke on the Water”, you’ve put a cryptic phone number on the board 035 0365 035 30, instructed the class how to read tab and told them to play it on the thick E string of the guitar. Ten minutes later you have a few spare minutes to show them how to play E minor.

We could go for minimal instruction and more discovery. But we DO NOT HAVE MUCH TIME. We have to:

  1. Sort out the show
  2. Sort out the concert
  3. Sort out the instrumental staff
  4. Plan lessons
  5. Teach lessons
  6. Jump through management hoops
  7. Write letters to parents
  8. Plead with parents to get Johnny back to Orchestra
  9. Explain to class teachers that music teachers don’t need to make up lessons if they went on a course or were ill
  10. Explain to class teachers that it isn’t OK to double up two classes because one of their colleagues is off on a course or is ill
  11. Explain to SLT that putting on a last minute reward trip to the bowling alley isn’t a great idea at the same time as the orchestras last practice before the concert
  12. Photocopy all the orchestra and choir music. Again.
  13. Run back for the stands and microphones, as the venue that promised you them actually doesn’t have any
  14. Locate the missing drum mat
  15. Lay down gaffer tape
  16. Lay down more gaffer tape
  17. Have a long conversation with a manager which results in laying down even more gaffer tape
  18. Locate the missing child
  19. Locate the missing parent
  20. Locate the missing music teacher.

Discovery learning, inquiry based learning and project based learning are fine when you are privileged enough to have loads of time. For the rest of us, just let us teach the kids and don’t make us feel guilty about it. Direct instruction is fine. According to Professor John Hattie, more than fine – twice as effective as any of the other approaches. And if people who don’t teach kids don’t like us doing it, perhaps you should give up your privileged position and TEACH THE KIDS.

Who Will Buy?

I have scored out “Who will buy?” – just the street seller bit.  I didn’t use the score, this is just from listening to the recording.  I wonder if it is almost correct?  If anyone has the real score can you have a look and … Continue reading Who Will Buy?