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.