Here is a rather dramatic example of unguided (or self-guided) discovery learning. See also this PBS video feature on the same story. A man in India put a computer with net access in a wall next to an alley so that poor children could use it. They developed quite a fluency in its use. The man nudged them once, showing them that the computer could play music, too. But for classroom purposes, I was also interested in another little experiment he did with classroom students. The part quoted from the article is in italics below:
Well, I tried another experiment. I went to a middle-class school and chose some ninth graders, two girls and two boys. I called their physics teacher in and asked him, “What are you going to teach these children next year at this time?” He mentioned viscosity. I asked him to write down five possible exam questions on the subject. I then took the four children and said, “Look here guys. I have a little problem for you.” They read the questions and said they didn’t understand them, it was Greek to them. So I said, “Here’s a terminal. I’ll give you two hours to find the answers.”
Then I did my usual thing: I closed the door and went off somewhere else.
They answered all five questions in two hours. The physics teacher checked the answers, and they were correct. That, of itself, doesn’t mean much. But I said to him, “Talk to the children and find out if they really learned something about this subject.” So he spent half an hour talking to them. He came out and said, “They don’t know everything about this subject or everything I would teach them. But they do know one hell of a lot about it. And they know a couple of things about it I didn’t know.”
That’s not a wow for the children, it’s a wow for the Internet. It shows you what it’s capable of. The slum children don’t have physics teachers. But if I could make them curious enough, then all the content they need is out there. The greatest expert on earth on viscosity probably has his papers up there on the Web somewhere. Creating content is not what’s important. What is important is infrastructure and access … The teacher’s job is very simple. It’s to help the children ask the right questions.
And I would mention now, based on the earlier papers I cited in my last post, if the teacher followed up with the children on a lesson about viscosity, they would learn even more. That is what has been variously termed a teachable moment, or a time for telling. The students explored on their own and learned a great deal, but still had many questions and areas they did not understand, plus areas they may have understood incorrectly. The teacher at that point could help fill in the gaps, so to speak.