Discovery Learning – Why Teachers might believe it works for children.


Ok. Speculation piece. But you have to bear with me, as usual, while I go off on a bit of a tangent.


Discovery learning has a number of features that its supporters would claim for it. One is that for a child to work something out for themselves means better learning than being told. Why might a teacher believe this to be true. One reason is that many adults work in that way. Take me and computers, as an example.


I have a new laptop and while much of how it works is the same as my previous now broken laptop one feature is not the same. My old laptop had two buttons just below the trackpad. One could click the left button or the right button to do different things. My new laptop has a bigger trackpad, nice, but NO buttons to click! So how was I to get a menu up? On my old laptop, the right button did that. I tried to click with two fingers on the trackpad (That should have worked I later learned but perhaps I am two fingers inept). Eventually, I resorted to reading the manual. I had to download it and read it ina PDF reader. I am quite happy to do that. It is the way the world works. I scanned the manual to find how to get a menu up and it was either two finger clicking, or hold the alt key and tap the trackpad. Worked fine. I will always remember how to get a menu up. Discovery learning!!! Super stuff.


But … most of what I discovered by discovery was stuff I already knew. The tiny amount that I resorted to the manual for, discovered myself in the manual, was in no way difficult. And because I needed the information and it was useful I learned it well.


Now think about a child who knows very little. The hurdles to their managing to learn via discovery are immense. How to find the manual and read it and also, perhaps, that manuals exist. But this is in an environment where they are not particularly literate in the stuff they are exploring. That, after all, is the purpose of school. To teach kids stuff they don’t yet know. If there is too much as yet unknown by the child discovery learning is torture. It just does not work. And it dramatically does not work for kids who are deemed disadvantaged. Possibly because their previous teachers tried discovery methods on them.


Elaboration – one of the top six learning techniques

I am currently suffering from pain on the right-hand side of my face. This blog is not for sympathy, though I am always up for that, but the diagnosis was one I was having difficulty remembering. This may be because I am getting older or the pain…

I phoned my doctor as she asked me to keep her updated on how I was feeling and she prescribed additional medication. But when I was trying to tell her what the issue was, the name of the condition, I kept wanting to call it scabies. It is not that but I could not remember the name. I knew it was the adult form of chicken pox. Many of you will now realise the word I wanted was shingles!

So as soon she said “shingles” I knew that was the diagnosis she had given me a couple of days ago. I could recognise the word but recalling was a difficulty.

The solution is to use elaboration. In this case, I linked the viral condition shingles to roof tiles which when made of wood are called shingles.

Elaboration is adding a richer description to something that one is finding it difficult to remember. I now think of having the “roof covering condition”. Sounds silly but “shingles” is now reasonably simple to recall. The fact that it is odd, weird makes the elaboration more effective a learning tool. And the concept of “roof” is very firmly secured in my long-term memory. It is pretty easily accessible.

Brain-wise I imagine this gives me a second route into the name of the condition.

If your children are having difficulty recalling then you might want to explain this process to them so that can create elaborations to support their learning.

Why teaching to learning styles works

It is probably for a few reasons.


First, you will have had to think carefully about what you are teaching and how students might respond to each different ‘presentation’. Thinking about learning is probably a good idea for a teacher.

Second, you will have planned the learning, and not just planned the lesson. Although you will have focussed more on the activities. Better is to place more effort into the learning process that students will go through than to pay detailed attention to the activities they will undertake. It is a balance.

Third, you will be presenting the material in more than one way. These differences may well ‘click’ with different students. This is most likely dependent on their prior knowledge and/or what they are more easily motivated by.

Fourth, you may well be presenting information in two formats which meet the requirements for dual processing.

That is probably it.

But what it is not doing is meeting the child’s learning style. There is no evidence that doing that works.

Do we learn better when we work things out for ourselves?

Image result for plumbingI think I have made a discovery. But to know what it is you have to be willing to read about my life and a bit of plumbing.

I was repairing some outdoor plumbing which had been damaged by the recent freezing winter weather. I live in rural Wales. It can be cold.

I did not want to buy new plastic fittings – the expense – so I knew that with a few wraps of PTFE tape I could reuse the current joints. I searched but I had none.

We also have a number of taps inside the upstairs shower room that shut off the water to parts of our large barn style home. I was asking my wife to turn these shut offs on and off while I checked the repairs I had been able to make. She commented that it was difficult to know what each shutoff controlled. I made a mental note to get some tie on labels.

I asked if she was going shopping and she said not ’til the next day. I said I need two things.

The next day she asked me what I wanted for the plumbing. I said PTFE tape and.. Image result for ptfe tapehmnnn… PTFE tape and … What was the second thing??? I had no idea. I knew I need two things.

She went shopping and that night I went to bed still not able to remember the second thing. I dreamt about plumbing and when I awoke on the morning I suddenly remembered that the second thing was tie-on labels. Was I pleased? Yep.

But that was months ago and let me tell you I will remember those tie-on labels forever. It will be a line on my gravestone – “remember the tie-on labels”.

Was my learning better because I had worked it out myself? Not really. What I had done is worked hard at the recall process and that is now very very secure.

My point is that we do not learn better by working it out for ourselves but what is important is that we forget or almost forget something and then work hard to recall it. That is what secures the learning not that I have ‘done it myself’.

I wonder is this is why some teachers think that learning is better when kids work it out for themselves, when this is an erroneous belief?


More on Rote, Knowledge and Understanding

This is an extension to my previous Knowledge and Understanding post. It caused some reaction on Twitter where I was asking what else there was. I want to hypothesise that a brain contains knowledge and links between those bits of knowledge. And that’s it in terms of learning. This has proved a little contentious but I don’t think I have been given any reason to disprove the hypothesis. I know others disagree. So say what you think or what you know.

Let me explain what I mean.

First rote: This is a thing which we have learned but have no useful knowledge of its meaning. Someone suggested this could be learning to say a word in a foreign language but having no idea what the word meant. I would add that it is impossible for our brain to learn simply rote. Whatever the rote thing is it will have some meaning. The foreign word will contain sounds, or letters/characters if we see it written. It has some degree of meaning. I believe when people talk about rote learning they are expressing, usually in a pejorative sense, learning where the usual meaning is not part of the learning of that rote item. For example learning times tables by rote. Chanting etc

Next is knowledge: Some people associate this with learning facts. Fine, let’s go with that. Remember facts can be correct or incorrect. One can learn a fact but hold it as a misconception. Knowledge will never be held as an isolated item. It will have connections to other things we know as in the case of a foreign word.

240_f_104724914_1huztt9qesx9gc8gbfk4trgmceery7gpThink about the fact “That is a bus” which is indicated by me pointing at a large vehicle. If you can reliably tell me that the thing I point at in the same circumstances is a bus then you have a piece of knowledge.

Then Understanding: When you have seen a variety of buses in a variety of circumstances you will have developed a concept of a bus. If I point at an elephant you would not see that as a bus. Although elephants have some features that are similar to buses, they are a form of transport for people, they do not have enough features to be properly called a bus.

There is clearly no absolute dividing line between knowledge and understanding. It is a gradual slope. The more features we have linked, recognised, to a piece of knowledge the greater our understanding. I don’t think it is ever possible to say that we completely understand. What would complete understanding of buses mean?

It would include knowledge like:

What a bus looks like, shape, colour, size, destination on the front

What a bus carries, people, driver, conductor (perhaps), bus inspector

And loads of other things. A complete understanding could be said to include the history of buses, how they are repaired, why they have riveted body panels and a myriad of other items. The more these different ideas are linked to the central concept of bus the better our understanding of buses.

So what else is there other than knowledge and understanding? Understanding is, in my view, knowledge which is connected, in various ways, to other knowledge. So my view and somewhat supported by what I have read is that the only thing we can do to change a brain as a teacher is to provide access to, to teach, more knowledge. The brain encodes, turns it into a form that is held in networks of neurones, and links that network to other networks.These links may link to other knowledge, almost certainly will, and to out emotional centres. The other knowledge linked to, the strength, and perhaps speed, of these links, make one person’s knowledge somewhat different to another’s. I see a yellow flower. Wordsworth sees a host of golden daffodils. The retrieval process is not a simple retrieve the memory as though it was photocopied but is reconstructed as in the retelling of a story.

Brains contain knowledge and the systems to connect, retrieve and organise that knowledge. What else is there?

Knowing and Understanding

I wanted to title this piece “Knowing Me, Knowing You” but I decided not to.

A couple of folk, recently, have written about this. @daviddidau and @claresealey. I only want to add one smallish point to what they have written.


The essential idea is that understanding is no more than more knowledge. For me, this is obviously true but I know that for others that understanding is king where (mere) knowledge is a pauper. They use the idea of teaching knowledge, rote learning, as at best the lowest form of education. They are wrong. But I want to give my view on the ‘difference’ between knowledge and understanding.

I am agreeing with both the above bloggers that understanding is just more knowledge.

Complete understanding is unobtainable. Understanding is a growing process where more and more added knowledge, and critically, more linking to stuff we already know increases our understanding. In a programme I run with outstanding teachers I ask of anyone completely understands anything. Some take up the challenge but I can always find something they do not yet know, hence they do not fully understand anything. But I have shown their ‘lack’ of understanding comes from something that they do not yet know.

Understanding is knowing lots about something and having lots of linking to things we already know.

A rule of thumb that seems to work is that knowledge tells us what initially and how as the knowledge base grows. When linking is sufficient we can start to answer why questions.

In simple term to increase our understanding just ask, “What else do I need to know?”

I’d love to know what else I need to know to understand understanding.


In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

My daughter asked me to teach her 4 her old son, my gorgeous grandson, how to write numbers. Now I willingly take every opportunity to teach. A comment was once made that if I could I would teach a goldfish to dance. It was made after I had spoken about how I had trained my cat to do tricks like a dog. She would sit, roll over, wait etc. Jess, was a delicious cat who would do anything to be stroked. That was the was the way I trained Jess. Strokes in exchange for doing the trick.

I think it is clear that we would not use such a simplistic behavioural technique to teach children in school. Although all teaching will have some element of reward based training. In teaching we would be aiming to support intrinsic rewards, the value a learner puts on the success they gain from being able to complete a problem, for example.

So what does this have to do with agency? My grandson, Kyran (pronounced as in Kieran), said he did not want to learn how to write numbers. He and I have a great relationship so after asking him why. He said that he could not do it. I said that he could as I would teach him and related how I had taught him other stuff. To count to 100, build a very tall lego tower and also, critically, to type his name and to recognise numbers on a computer. He learned this stuff quite easily so I knew he certainly could write numbers.

He was choosing to avoid writing numbers. It was not that he could not. I said it was that he could not write number yet. I’ve done the growth mindset training 😀.

So I was then thinking about which number he should learn first. He is four years old so I choose 4. Not written like that but as three lines, two vertical and one horizontal. He likes being four years old. I drew the number 4 and explained the vertical and horizontal parts. He holds the pencil poorly but that will come in time. He immediately drew the number 4. Lots of praise (a bit like stroking the cat!). He can now write the number 4.

I then asked what number he would like to do next. He said 5. Too hard at the moment, I said so we drew the number one. Great success. Bit more practice and then there will be more tomorrow.

If I were to teach secondary pupils then I would not do much more for a reluctant pupil. Am I allowing a child to have agency? Is it harder to get young children to accept their responsibility for learning? Is that why agency seems to be a more important issue for teachers of young children than for teachers of older children? Do some teachers see valuing agency above valuing responsibility? Or what?