Discovery learning in the arts is madness. To leave children to doodle and fiddle with something until they arrive at a concept is madness. It’s a tempting madness indeed: more relaxed planning for the teacher, the children temporarily feel that they are learning something and beam with pride at their “creations”. These children cannot retain the concepts they’ve arrived at, or even recreate their works because they have not yet been equipped to do so. But everyone is happy, and it’s tempting. But still mad! The feel-good effect of discovery is not good enough.
The idea that a child can be handed an instrument and learn to play it on their own by experimenting and exploring is an upper middle class thinking that only really works when said child also has real support. It works when someone is also teaching that child alongside the discovery time. It works when that child has the instrument in their home and has endless amounts of time to ‘figure things out’.
For poorer families – the ones that do not have upright pianos and bass guitars in their homes – it is very unusual for their children to learn how to play and understand music theory through discovery in the short time frame that schools allow for it. Their children get left behind while privileged children with the pianos and the private tutors surpass them and it isn’t right. They deserve better. They deserve the same knowledge that their wealthier counterparts are getting at home.
The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that children cannot discover their way to learning arts without access to adequate information, instruments and guidance. It’s most uncomfortable for those of us raised in privilege because we presume to think that because we got to discover and succeeded, anyone else can if they continue to ‘explore’ and ‘work on it’. But what we forget is that we did not have exploration alone, we were taught how to do things at some point. We learnt the rules, the histories, the techniques. For the person currently thinking “I wasn’t all that privileged; it’s not a money thing”, I say to you – if you grew up in a home with heating, running water, regular healthy meals and educated parents then sorry to break it to you – you are privileged and you had a big leg up in your overall education.
Aspects such as discovery and experimentation should only come after knowledge and explicitly taught skills. Imagine this: you walk into a school science lab with no prior knowledge of chemistry or how to conduct an experiment, no knowledge of what to look for. Your teacher tells you to explore what some chemicals on your table would do if you mixed them up in a variety of ways. What would likely happen is that you’d note how they affected each other on a superficial level and enjoy yourself. But the reality is that you’d come away from that experience with no knowledge of what was happening on a molecular level and why those chemical reactions took place. You would have had fun and seen some goo change colour but you would know nothing about real Chemistry. I’m aware that many believe in this method of learning but imagine this instead; you walk into a science lab, spend time learning about the chemicals and how you can purposefully cause them to affect each other, then conduct an experiment and watch the things you’ve learnt take place in front of you. You would come away having had fun, and with a real appreciation for chemistry after a knowledgeable experiment.
In Music, we don’t have to imagine. We already know that if you show a child how an instrument works and teach them the skills that they need to play it well, they come away with appreciation, skills and knowledge to further their learning. After they have that, we know that this child is equipped to take the opportunity to experiment in their own time, to discover extra things that excite them. We don’t have to imagine! And children don’t have to be left to work it out on their own!
Here is where some might say, “Isn’t it healthy to learn to troubleshoot and solve your own problems?” and I say, yes of course it is very beneficial. However, you can’t troubleshoot what you don’t know. If you wouldn’t place a child in a maths room and expect them to eventually arrive at long division while you supervise, you shouldn’t expect a child to sit with a guitar and eventually arrive at a tune.
A ‘Discovery’ approach means that the majority are left behind, losing out on what could have been a full learning experience. It is a great disservice to poor children to have to discover in lessons when they could actually be learning from the expert in the room. They will likely never catch up to those who had the advantage of knowledge to supplement their discovery.
And therein lies the biggest problem. Knowledge is currently a supplement in music education and it shouldn’t be – especially when that supplement is not available to everyone. Success in a subject should not be reliant on private tuition. Discovery alone is just not good enough.