One of Amir Huda's central points is that, throughout our education, we have become used to learning from teachers in a step by step, accumulative process, instead of discovering things on our own. Inevitably, when it comes to facing problems in our lives, we assume that to resolve them we need to learn about ourselves in the same way we learned about physics, grammar or history in school. Someone told us how things work, which method to apply in which situation, and we 'learned' it, passively accepting it all as true. Do we approach self-understanding in the same way? And if so, is it a surprise that we have failed to really understand ourselves?
Before getting into this fundamental question, I think it will be worthwhile to briefly examine the intrinsic value of a 'discovery approach' to learning in academics, purely for the sake of a better understanding of the external world.
The place of discovery in academic learning
How much guidance does a teacher need to give a student? That is, what kind of context and how much of it is necessary to facilitate meaningful learning, or 'discovery', in the child's mind? Even discovery does have to be facilitated; there is a continuum of guidance that the teacher can provide. Too much, and the child becomes a passive recipient of knowledge; too little, and nothing may be learned.
For years, psychologists have pitted these two 'ends' against each other under two camps, the 'discovery learning approach' and the 'reception learning approach'. In the first, learning happens when the student discovers relationships among concepts largely as a result of her own efforts. And in the second, the teacher structures the knowledge for the student, making connections explicit, and delivering knowledge in a relatively final form. Although it may be illustrative to compare these extremes, in actual fact most good teachers use a combination of both methods, moving back and forth along that continuum of guidance.
If I imagine that I am a student, what exactly does discovering something 'for myself' mean? I do not discover in a vacuum. There is always a context in which I find myself, which may include carefully chosen apparatus, some detailed instructions, a set of carefully constructed questions, or a teacher who is conversing with me and taking me through a process of guided discovery. Often the context is a well-structured lecture. In fact in most classrooms, if children understand anything it is because they 'discover' it from listening carefully, paying attention, making connections between what is being presented now and what they already know. These are the 'Ahas' they experience from day to day. It seems to me that discovery is neither impossible in a traditionally taught lesson, nor guaranteed in a hands-on discovery session.
A great deal of psychological research done over the past several decades has shown that the only consistent advantage of the discovery approach is enhanced student interest and involvement. We can't say anything conclusive about transfer, retention and problem-solving ability (typical measures of better understanding). Yet the benefit of increased student interest alone is worth a lot. Especially in alternative schools, the discovery approach remains a tantalizing image of the Right Way to Teach. Certainly, an over-dependence on well-structured teaching will produce children who wait for the teacher to explain everything, hesitate to work alone, lack a confidence in the subject, and trust the evidence of textbooks more than that of their own observations. So the value of interspersing discovery moments into one's teaching programme is indisputable. But would it be possible, or even desirable, to make most of a child's academic education just a process of 'reinventing the wheel'? One casualty would be the unpredictability and inefficiency of the process, as Amir Huda himself says. And the fact that, in some cases at least, the discovery will be slow in coming, if it comes at all.
More than this, if at all we value original discovery in the various disciplines, a lifetime may not be enough to rediscover earlier discoveries and then to make fresh ones! Let us not reduce the question to an absurdity, asking whether all concepts or knowledge have to be rediscovered. There must be some scaffolding, some skills given, some basic knowledge transmitted, based on which discovery learning can take place. And unlike in language, where discovery learning can be a very natural process, in other areas this isn't the case. We can't expect our children to become little archaeologists, or explorers. They can't set up complex laboratory experiments to discover, as Rutherford did, the nature of the atom.
Observation as discovery
But there is an entire class of things that children (and world-weary adults) can and do discover for themselves, without needing any special guidance or prior knowledge - things about their surroundings, things in the world around them that are manifest and accessible. For instance, about plants, insects, birds, natural processes, our bodies, our neighbourhood - anything in fact that falls within the ever-increasing reach of the growing child. There is no agenda and no timetable to this kind of discovery - it happens whenever one is not preoccupied with thoughts and feelings, and something catches your eye. Simple observation teaches a lot, never mind that such discoveries often run counter to accepted knowledge! (Everyone has good examples of this: my favourite one is a three-year-old's discovery that 'cows give milk from the front and apple juice from the back').
At a young age, it's beautiful to see that discoveries about human behaviour, wishes and feelings are as direct, uncomplicated and interesting as any others. A five-year-old told me once - whenever I see a picture of a chocolate, I feel like eating it! She wasn't asking for a chocolate, merely observing a curious fact about herself. Now at my age, I have had to rediscover (again and again) the power of thought in stimulating and perpetuating desire - and yet it does not change fundamentally. Once discovered is not forever realized. Each moment of discovery is complete within itself - not much carries forth to the next moment, where I may lapse again into inattention.
If discovery about the world around us means to build one's own knowledge as opposed to receiving it, let's grant that at least in the area of academic and experiential learning, the difference is important. But discovering the movements of the self may have nothing to do with the building of knowledge. It is a process that happens from moment to moment, and it is futile to accumulate these discoveries as knowledge about oneself. Dealing with our 'psychological problems' in this accumulative way may be an endless process.
For our 'problems' to be truly resolved, perhaps we have to be fundamentally transformed, we have to stop seeing ourselves as separate entities in a world of disconnected entities; stop seeing ourselves as selves. It doesn't seem that any kind of knowledge, whether discovered or received, will push me over that edge. Every discovery I make about myself is made from a safe place, from a hideout where I can remain a separate self, while at the same time 'understanding' that the self is an illusion! As long as I hold on to this safety, nothing much will happen. Like Alice, I've stumbled onto the edge of a mysterious wonderland, full of upside-down and unexpected truths. And unless I jump into the rabbit hole without a thought of how I will get out again, unless I drink from the DRINK ME bottle, and enter willingly into the adventure, I will always be where I am now.