Sunday, April 17, 2011

Backwards science... the de-emphasis of discovery

Most people have no idea of the value of manual arts in school. We abandoned wood shop at about the same time we began severe cuts to laboratory science and began to ignore the students' need for experiential learning. It has had bad effects.
"Above all, political discussion is stunned by a delusion about science. This term has come to mean an institutional enterprise rather than a personal activity, the solving of puzzles rather than the unpredictably creative activity of individual people." --Ivan Illich, Tools of Conviviality
"The history of science is studded with examples of men "finding out" something and not knowing it. I shall operate on the assumption that discovery, whether by a schoolboy going it on his own or by a scientist cultivating the growing edge of his field, is in its essence a matter of rearranging or transforming evidence in such a way that one is enabled to go beyond the evidence so reassembled to new insights."-- Jerome Bruner, On Knowing, Essays for the Left Hand.
The consequence of this "reassembly" is knowledge held deep, beyond a normal span of time that is readily accessed through clear memory rooted in the senses and organized as experience.

We teach chemistry and physics and other forms of science, devoid of opportunity for personal discovery. Text books are arranged by theory, not by actions or activities that lead children to think, explore, formulate hypotheses, test their own principles, and discover relationships between things and within themselves.

Is it therefore to be any surprise that adults question the foundations of science, and that American idiots have systems of belief based on what they are told by persons in some perceived relationship of authority?

One cannot whittle a stick without becoming engaged in hypothesis and discovery in its most simple form. The arts and sciences at their best are integrated spheres of discovery, and he or she who starts as a craftsman is engaged simultaneously on the foundation of science. The hands search for the truth and are thus constantly finding it. Now the question becomes, "how do we make schooling an act of continuous discovery?" I suggest the strategic implementation of the hands. Turn our schools into workshops and laboratories.

Make, fix and create. Discovery follows.


  1. Learning new things is something that all children do automatically- the hormonal response to this is very powerful. When students are inspired by discovering things, knowledge is gained as it connects to their soul and becomes permanent. However, teaching and learning science will cause boredom and undermine the fact that science is an exploration of our natural world. Unfortunately, we have reduced it down to a set of facts that allows us to gives grades and tests. Richard Feynman said it's the "kick in the discovery" that is the greatest reward of science. It's student interest that drives a good science class- without this you might as well strap a straight jacket on your students for 180 days.

  2. Chris, you put that well. We learn best when all the senses are engaged, which was something Comenius (1592-1670) knew but that modern educators have chosen to ignore. I said the essentially the same thing much later in my paragraph that was used as the introduction to ch. 1 in Matt Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft: “In schools we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement… Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”

  3. Thanks Doug. Having worked in the trades for 25 years and gone to college to become a teacher, I can relate to what you and Matt Crawford say. Your quote hit the nail on the head and it was an appropriate introduction for a fabulous book.