In a recent Education Week commentary, David Polochanin commented on how in preschool, discovering and exploring are the two strongest tenets of curriculum design. When does schooling become less about discovering and exploring, and why does this happen? In Kindergarten, children are still given time to move about freely, playing house or freely reading and moving about. Does this freedom end then in first grade when students are usually given a desk or table to sit at?
In order to continue discussing these questions, the ideas of discovering and exploring in the classroom need a more specific definition. If a teacher stands in front of a class of students and tells them the facts of the curriculum, then it is safe to say the students are not discovering or exploring. If a teacher stands before a class and using a Socratic type method leads the students to a conclusion they are discovering the answer, but they are not exploring the subject. They are led to the answer by the quickest path the teacher can get them there. If the teacher and students share any socio-linguistic knowledge, the student should be able to predict the answers the teacher wants. Discovering then involves the students using a process to decide upon the knowledge using their own previous knowledge and some guidance. Exploring is allowing a student to move through a subject with freedom to follow their own interest.
What then is the place of the teacher in a discovering and exploring classroom? Much like in preschool, teachers can help students by facilitating their learning without directly interfering with their choice of learning. Students in a preschool classroom I observed move about freely from one area of the classroom to the next. The teachers facilitated the students by creating learning areas for them. The teachers used tables, carpets, shelving, and couches to demarcate sections of the classroom. Each station would be setup with toys, tools, books, and art supplies to facilitate the students learning. Importantly, the teachers used themselves not as central pieces of the architecture, but as another tool to guide the students work. They suggested ideas, limited the student ratios, regulated time spent, and above all kept the students happy and learning. If a student became upset or unruly, often the punishment was redirection to a new station.
When do discovering and exploring return, or do they even ever return? Barriers to this free form learning lie in the vast amount of knowledge required in the world today. Exploring and discovering, though they lead to deep knowledge, take time. There are fears of students learning “garden path” methods of solving a problem. Standards set a large breadth of knowledge for students, and teachers only have around 15 hours of class time for each unit (based on an estimate of California Social Studies standards). Still, teachers can still be self reflective and try to incorporate discovering and exploring into their curriculum. As consumers of education, parents, administrators, and students can support their teachers in the use of discovering and exploring in their classroom.