Discovery and Uncovery

We all love to rumble on about lifelong learning . But how does that happen when learning is presented as a series of predefined steps and stages that learners must master and hurdle – the endless hamster wheel of material, test, grade, material, test, grade, move on. Where is the room for the infinite variety of human capacity? Where is the room for individual curiosity, agency, independence and drive?

When the center of gravity is outside the learner it’s not a deeply personal and individual journey but filling in a bingo card.  The card is pre-stamped and the fillings are delivered at random and by someone else. Knowledge is presumed to reside somewhere out there. The learner’s job is to run the race, leap the hurdles, outpace the competition and reach the finish line? The finish line? How does lifelong learning fit into that scenario?

flashlight_liziboydFlashlight is a story of curiosity, wonder and discovery.  And it’s a delight. It’s a beautifully illustrated and wordless book for children by Lizi Boyd about a little boy who sneaks out of his tent at night. He shines a light to uncover what is out there under the cloak of darkness.

He discovers a wonderland of wildlife, a string of flags, a yellow boot. And then the light is turned and he is in the beam.

It’s all about adventure and discovering what can be uncovered when one is ready to look and then look more closely.

Flashlight reveals to us a child at the center of his own learning, taking the initiative to follow curiosity and pursue discovery.

“Discovery, like surprise, favors the well-prepared mind.”

Jerome Bruner – who celebrated his 100th birthday this month – is often considered the originator of discovery learning. He certainly gave it prominence and credibility although it is closely associated also with the earlier work of John Dewey and others. Bruner’s influence on cognitive psychology and learning theory remains enormous. His essay “The Art of Discovery” looks at what is behind the process of learning and creativity.

It’s in his 1962 collection On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand that explores many aspects of the creative experience.

Practice in discovering for oneself teaches one to acquire information in a way that makes that information more readily viable in problem solving.

Bruner’s work helped usher in the discovery learning movement of the 1960s. Its mantra echoes Dewey in valuing active learning and learning by doing. Bruner also believed that practice in finding out for oneself helps the learner learn about learning – something that always has to be an individual project. This shift to an intrinsic drive to learn – he thought – meant that it was personal, valuable and therefore memorable. After all we only remember (truly learn) things for the long-term that are personally relevant. To check this for yourself think back to high school. Of all the courses and units and study and time on task – what actually stays with you now as most memorable, useful and meaningful?


flashlight_liziboyd3The child in Flashlight is out there alone uncovering the mysteries of the night. And it is magical.

In his learning theory Bruner had a more guided process in mind – learning by discovery with specific goals, pre-determined criteria and with the guidance of a skilled teacher.

He was not a proponent of freedom in the sense of leaving children to their own devises and without the teacher as guide, scaffolder, facilitator and coach.

As so often happens, his thinking was taken to an extreme by those who failed to grasp this element of his thinking. It was taken by some to mean that all we needed to do was provide a rich environment for learning and then stand back while the child went about discovering. It was taken beyond Bruner’s original intention to imply: “Let the learner free, stand back and all will be well.” Admirable, desirable and effective while that may be (or not) it was not what Bruner had in mind. He did not support detaching from the provision of context nor the untethering of the learner from structure and guidance.

Ten years later – in the preface to The Relevance of Education 1971 he wrote:

I had, some years before, published a paper entitled “The Act of Discovery” (Harvard Educational Review, 1961), which had been interpreted as the basis for a “school of pedagogy” by a certain number of educators. As so frequently happens, the concept of discovery, originally formulated to highlight the importance of self-direction and intentionality, had become detached from its context and made into an end in itself. Discovery was being treated by some educators as if it were valuable in and of itself, no matter what it was a discovery of or in whose service.

What Bruner had in mind with discovery was the social process embedded in great teaching and learning – the interaction between people. He used as an example how infants learn to talk by interacting with the support, love and recognition of the adults in their lives.

Encouraging free range learners and students with agency, growing autonomy and control is not akin to setting children adrift in a lifeboat in heavy seas after the ocean liner has sunk. It is rather an interactive process of individual exploration and effort and supportive guidance.

The student is not a bench-bound listener, but is taking a part in the formulation and at times may play the principle role in it. He will be aware of alternatives and may even have an “as if” attitude toward these and, as he receives information he may evaluate it as it comes. (J. S. Bruner, 1961.)

He also outlined the importance of having a model:

Thus, within the culture the earliest form of learning essential to the person becoming human is not so much discovery as it is having a model. The constant provision of a model, the constant response to the individual’s response after response, back and forth between two people, constitute “invention” learning guided by an accessible model. (J. S. Bruner, 1971, p. 69)

Bruner re-evaluated his thinking about discovery – modeling for us what it means to reflect and grow as thinkers. He concluded that discovery was not the holy grail when it comes to educating children. However he also concluded that curiosity, creativity and discovery are essential components in learning. The active use of one’s own mind within a supportive human framework – that is the key that allowing learners to draw on their own experiences and prior knowledge, interact with those ideas and make full use of one’s own mind to pose questions, propose solutions and seek solutions to problems.

Bruner believes that discovery like surprise favors the well-prepared mind. I wonder how the mind of our hero in Flashlight was prepared for his adventures in discovery and uncovery. How do we best prepare all children for such personal learning, curiosity and wonder?

Illustrations by Lizi Boyd from ‘Flashlight.’ Featured photo: Ninth grade field work at Sunset Lake, Vassar College.

And now – for your pleasure and delight – an animated trailer for Flashlight.

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