Monthly Archives: December 2016

Discovery Learning and the Art of Reading


Mortimer J Adler’s and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book sets out to assist readers who want to read well.

Our subject, then, is the art of reading good books when understanding is the aim you have in view

In order to help the reader to do this the authors compare teaching to reading. When you are in the presence of a teacher, they write,  you can ask him a question and if you are ‘puzzled’ by the reply: ‘you can save yourself the trouble of thinking by asking him what he means. If, however, you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself.’

The reader has to do the work of analysis and thinking for themselves.

This is the difference between a present and an absent teacher. For the authors this is summed up by the difference between learning by instruction and learning by discovery. If you have learned a fact, they argue, you have only exercised your memory and you have not been enlightened, this only occurs when:

in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

You need to know what is being said, you need to know the fact, it is the:’prerequisite to being enlightened. The point, however, is not to stop at being informed.’ Instruction by itself is not enough.

Adler and Van Doren illustrate this with the following quote from Montaigne:

an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.

The first is the ignorance of those who can’t or won’t read and the second is the ignorance of those we could refer to as sophomores, those who might seem ‘bookish’ but are in fact ‘poorly read’. The Greek ‘sophos’ meant ‘wise’ and ‘mōros’, ‘fool’. The fact that the Sophists were often accused of being fond of rhetoric more than reasoning or knowledge, might also serve our understanding here. Adler and Van Doren are at pains to point out the difference between being widely read and well read.

If you assume that discovery is better than instruction because it is active, you assume wrongly.

Learning by instruction is being taught by speech or writing, learning by discovery is learning:

by research, by investigation, or by reflection, without being taught… In both cases, the activity of learning goes on in the one who learns. It would be a mistake to suppose that discovery is active learning and instruction passive.

They then go further deeming that instruction is, in fact, ‘aided discovery… it is the student… who must do the learning.’ So the difference is between, what they now refer to as ‘aided and unaided’ learning. When discovering with the help of a teacher the learner learns by being taught, either from reading or listening. Unaided discovery is the ‘art of reading nature or the world’.

Reading is therefore allied to ‘instruction, being taught, or aided discovery.’ In order to be an active reader one ‘thinks’. This is where people go wrong. The writers posit that people believe thinking to be an ‘unaided’ process of discovery which, they concede, it probably is when one reads merely for entertainment or information. However, it is not true of more ‘active reading’. This type of reading cannot be done ‘thoughtlessly’. The wise-fool would find the next step a challenge because it asks the reader to be be more involved.

During the activity of reading one also thinks, observes, remembers and constructs ‘imaginatively what cannot be observed’. The authors give us this lovely example:

many people assume that though a poet must use his imagination in writing a poem, they do not have to use their imagination in reading it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. They go on to say that all the same skills that are said to be required in ‘unaided discovery’ learning are needed for reading. Reading is discovery learning with ‘help instead of without it’. In order to do this best:

we need to know how to make books teach us well.

This requires effort, observation, imagination, memory, analysis and reflection. Reading is an active process. The rest of the book teaches the reader how one might read, actively and intelligently.

Teachers Should Pass Knowledge On


To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity

Hannah Arendt

According to the sleeve notes of their new album, Blue and Lonesome, Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards, wants written on his gravestone:

He passed it on

The gnarled rockers’ latest album returns to their roots, echoing their first LP, it is a homage, a love story, a dedicated exploration of the blues. With each of the twelve bars and harmonica blow the Stones pass it on and if they hadn’t ever bothered what would our musical culture be like now?

It is not for us, it is not for them, it is for the love of the music itself that they pass it on. From Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry the Stones helped introduce these guys to our shores. Nowadays some may complain about cultural appropriation, I prefer to call it cultural education, conserving and adding to our culture. From the swamps of the Mississippi and Can’t be Satisfied to Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No) and the Thames Estuary, the flow of time and the Hoochie Coochie would bring the bluesmen together, it is the music that they are servants to.

As Hannah Arendt said, education must be conservative, in the sense of conservation and this is an important part of the job. Pass it on, from oral, to written, to online; we have a duty to conserve the things that matter and even some of the things that don’t just in case that, one day, they might.

As Hector says in The History Boys:

Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.

The late great Alexis Korner the ‘father’ of British Blues said of the time just after the war:

In those days, between the ages of 12 and 18 you meant nothing. You were the extra place at the side table if someone came to dinner. You were too big to be petted or fondled or thought pretty and you were too small to work and you were of no interest to anyone, and you had a chance to learn—this is what’s missed today

In many of the arguments about what to teach many talk about what might be good for the child, what might be useful, accessible, engaging, fewer talk about what might be for the good of the subject itself. Maybe if the ‘needs’ of the child were to become less of a concern, instead of worrying about their destinations and putting their every piece of work under scrutiny, we could rebalance things. Teach what is good for the survival of the subject, one day it might make a difference to someone.

Teach Shakespeare’s plays for the intrinsic gift of the plays themselves. And play the Blues, because of the intrinsic gift of the blues. The chance encounter between Richards and Jagger on platform two at Dartford railway station, found the old school chums brought together by a mutual love of the blues, a band formed with the need to pass that love on, to add to it, and, now, on their latest album back to their roots again as they go full circle back to the tradition.

Teachers pass on the stories of their subjects, not because it is intrinsically good for the child, for the job market or for the betterment of humanity, but because they have to. This is the gift the teacher gives, every day. This is why what you pass on has to be qualitatively superior, as it is for the good of the art, and those arts, in turn, survive because they are the saviour of someone, somewhere, sometime, even though the charges in front of you in a lesson don’t get it, one day a child of a child of a pupil in front of you might, and that’s why you keep going.

Muddy Waters had no idea the satisfaction his music would create for two teenagers in Dartford, but thankfully he just passed it on. Changed it and passed it on.