02
Nov
14

against discovery learning?

Who could be against discovery?

We define it ill.

Today it means entrepreneurship, novelty, knowing and doing, making culture, apprenticeship. There is a goal, a telos. To innovate, to change, to add, to perform, to practice. MakerSpaces, Genius Hours.

It is theory and practice united. Learn A-Z, now go and create a letter or alphabet that has yet to be imagined.

engagement with mystery

Yet I hesitate to embrace wholesale the concept of engaged learning that suggests a workshop mentality to every learning situation.  I picture a broader conception of discovery: the intersection of acts of imagination and with the apprehension of mystery. I am torn between wanting to invest time and energy in collaboration and invention, or in slow reading, deep thinking, and sustained conversations that stem from as well as lead to acts of attention expressed through writing.

Below are my musings about my uneasy rest in the Discovery learning camp.

discovery and revelation are  inseparable

My reticence stems from appreciation of an older form of the word discover which indicates unveiling, revelation, and making known. As long as we can admit

A few years, Plato described a kind of discovery learning that the learner finds difficult to convey to others. The true world outside his Cave is beautiful and true, but incommunicable to other cave dwellers. It must be seen to be believed, but darkness and limited vision harness the learner’s contemporaries.

There is a problem to solve: how to communicate a life-altering mystery to fellow human beings? Words alone will not succeed.

Imagination is necessary.

In my own classrooms I listen to student voices discovering that literature speaks, igniting empathy and other products of imagination. The harshness of Maya Angelou’s early years as represented in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings sensitizes students to inequalities and injustices in history and their own cultures, lives.

The “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedict contrasts with the unforgiving imaginations whose violent inflexibility stabs Hero. Whereas B&B discover self-knowledge, Hero herself learns, as Tess Derbyfield does, “there is no good in men”; then she marries one.

imagining and making

A liberal education, in contrast to one emphasizing practical application can teach how both innovative and ancient ideas have been expressed, challenged, and modified; you can learn to evaluate the properties of an enduring idea. The student of ideas learns to revolve concepts in the mind for examination, facet by facet; theories are apprehended, applied, modified, or generated in physical labs and through discussions, writing, limitless activities, and by reading.

It isn’t a far stretch of vocabulary to compare today’s MakerSpace classrooms with the patronage system of the Arts: studio space, time, and materials are provided by schools (whether privately funded by tuition and grants or publicly by taxes) or public libraries whose leaders believe such classrooms are consistent with its mission, purpose and goals.

inquiring minds

I am wondering if a spell being cast by the nova nebula has underplayed the roles of imaginative language and free inquiry in learning. There is much to be said on the for the internal view of life and reality which takes shape over a long period of sustained engagement with a universe of ideas.

But if we as educators thrive on providing learning experiences which have the goal of innovation and new discovery, I fear we bypass crucial moments of the discovery process, at least we exclude such moments from the current broader rhetoric about learning.

new & ancient creations in dialogue

I want my students to see new artwork that reflects a point of view critical of ideas harmful to women, to read journalism describing attacks on freedom, such as threats against women who are opposed to violence against women in video games, or pepper spray deployed against pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong. I also want them to dig down and consider what democracy is, and at what cost it is delivered or purchased. Does one wish it upon others? must it be discovered and learned or can it be given to and taken from a culture?

Artist Jerusha Pimentel allowed me to use her images

Pimentel "Stripper" series

Pimentel “Stripper” series

of women and men as an introduction to and commentary on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I hope that seeing an artist who wrestles with ideas will drive them to think about the ideas a novelist wrestles with; I assuredly hope they too will begin wrestling with ideas, and will generate new and provocative ways of representing their own voices in dialogue with the present and past. 

As I adjust my thinking about this as a balance of theory versus practice–it may not be as simple as pitting “useless” gifts (thinking) against “useful” ones (doing) – a dichotomy Dylan Thomas uses for humorous effect in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”. A child’s mind and hands like toys. We teachers have come to see productivity as a measure of understanding, and engagement as a measure of learning. What is practical to adults is often useless and boring to kids.

learningspace vs makingspace

Production does not equate with learning.

Human work is not all artistic and theoretical pursuit, or even inventing, engineering, or marketing useful products that simplify or enrich our lives; much of our endeavor is mind-numbing, repetitive, and hazardous. As Tim Keller writes, it is cursed because we are too far removed from its original and dignifying purposes (Every Good Endeavor 2012).

I suppose that whatever educators can do to restore enjoyment of good endeavors is beneficial to learners. It is good for people to learn to enjoy work and the satisfaction it can bring, rather than looking to financial gain or performing for a grade or promotion. But do we make demands on the work, or does the work make demands on us?

demands of work

In the movie “Birdman” Michael Keaton’s character is beset by doubts about his own relevance and dignity, dramatically represented by conflicting voices in his life. Ed Norton is the voice of the actor’s work, work above all; Emma Stone is the voice of purpose – What does it all mean? The villainous alter-ego of his early career fame as Birdman speaks urgently into his head appealing to his prideful desire for staying power and box office draw. In an ironic scene the main character seeks dignity in his life even as he parades around a theater block in undignified dress yet trending on Twitter. His life spins out of control.

Lucy in Sara Zarr’s Lucy Variations wrestles with the coinciding pleasures and pressures attendant on the career of a competitive concert pianist. Demands encroach on her life — demands made by her family, mentor, and herself.

Work will always make demands on us. But there may be a peace that comes with relinquishing control.

relinquish control

Even in my own classroom, I find tremendous satisfaction in those numerous moments — whole days, even– when authority and control are shared among all participants. Ironically, I  continue searching vigorously during my off hours for ways to engage students even more: to offer them greater freedom, control, and autonomy. From my restless pursuit, I cannot desist.

I am not against exploring, discovering, creating. I just want to save some time for reflection, rest, reading. Ceaseless activity is wearying.

In my new post, I will investigate the role of creativity in problem-solving, teaching for thoughtfulness, and making connections with ELA content and skills.

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