Opinion: How well does discovery learning work?


Now that the next school year is almost on the horizon, it seems a good time to return to a subject raised in The Delaware Gazette at the end of the last school year. At that time, the newspaper published an article on the very civilized action of Vermilion High School students to raise awareness about problems with the way that math was being taught in their school.

They assembled over 300 signatures on a petition that was then presented to their school administration. The main organizer of the petition, Lauren Buckley, is quoted as defining the issue this way: “Common Core is based on groups, so the teachers aren’t as involved as they would be in another curriculum. Sometimes, we do not even get to ask questions at all from the teacher, we have to work in groups and ask others who are just as confused as we are.”

This is a high school with a stellar graduation rate of well over 90 percent, so clearly the students have access to other resources to help them cope with the deficiencies of the discover-it-for-yourself, non-teaching method. Nevertheless, Buckley is concerned about the lost opportunity to continue on to higher-level math, and hopes that a change in approach will re-open that door for future students. Another quote from Buckley puts it this way: “We hope that by doing this, we can help students in the future to learn this subject and be able to take higher-level math classes in high school and college.”

What she is essentially saying is: “My classmates and I have lost the chance to take higher-level math classes. We missed out on too much material, material that we couldn’t figure out for ourselves in time to keep up with the class.”

What could be a sadder statement, especially considering the huge amount of time, money, and effort spent forcing the Common Core system into almost all of our public schools?

Nearly every state, with the exception of four holdouts, took the bait of potential extra funding (Race to the Top) in return for adopting, sight unseen, the set of standards now infamously known as Common Core. Most of these states are still using it, or a rebranded but otherwise identical twin, as is the case in Ohio. This means that its known failure to provide a sound foundation for higher mathematics is a nationwide phenomenon.

As a math tutor, my own experience confirms the dire state of basic math skills that is now commonplace. The triumph of illogic over logic, and fuzzy Utopian theory over proven methods of successful teaching, continues to astound me. Fewer and fewer students are capable of even basic arithmetic, not to mention algebra or higher. And they hate it.

It has become an unsatisfying struggle with unsuitable and often incoherent methods. The potential for delight, which was once open to all who appreciated the beauty of number, pattern, and logic, seems to have been lost entirely. Their lives will be forever poorer for that loss.

Areas of expertise requiring high levels of mathematical and/or technical ability are now dominated by students from overseas. Perhaps you have noticed that pattern in who runs the IT departments, does the mathematical analysis, or provides technical assistance to you at work.

Of course, learning in other areas is also affected. Although the “discovery learning” approach hampers the passing on of any body of knowledge, its effects are less quantifiable and less concrete in the humanities, and so perhaps easier to ignore there. Yet, the broader kind of understanding of human nature and the world around us that is developed by these subjects is no less important to the richness of life, and perhaps even more so.

If we hope to maintain our heritage as a free people, capable of weighing competing ideas, of analyzing proposed actions, of independent judgment, in short, of self-government, we will need to challenge the unrealistic philosophy of education that has taken over our schools.

The window of opportunity is closing quickly. We cannot afford to continue to sit on the sidelines waiting for “the experts” to solve the problem. “The experts” seem not to live in the real world. It is up to us — to you and to me — to take up the torch that has fallen from the hands of those we trusted, and see that the light does not go out.

By Deborah Kruse Guebert

Contributing Columnist

Delaware resident Deborah Kruse Guebert is a longtime educator who has taught in Europe and currently tutors students in mathematics in the local area.

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