Why I became radicalised or the problems with discovery learning.

“That’s not real reading”

It all began four years ago with that sharply worded reaction to my earnest and naive question.  I was sat in a meeting for new reception parents. I didn’t quite understand why the new head was changing the way reading was taught. When my eldest had done reception , two years previously, we had been amazed and thrilled by how quickly she had learnt to read.  Why were they going to jumble up all the easier books, rather than take each child systematically through a scheme that carefully added new difficulty incrementally? It seemed I had asked something that was not an acceptable part of the script. The deputy looked at the head and she swiftly moved in to close down any dangerous debate. She was actually shouting at me and I began to shake. Later the deputy told me, with shining eyes, that I should look on the TES website (she knew I was a secondary teacher) where I would find lots wonderful descriptions of success with their methods.

I did look, but it must have been in the wrong places. I found out that schools were meant to be teaching reading using methods outlined in the government  ‘Rose Review’ which advocated systematic phonics. That was what lovely Mrs Williams had done with my eldest but Mrs Williams, an experienced reception teacher, had now been moved to year 5 and I found my second daughter was getting taught using quite a different approach.  I was a parent volunteer and went in to do reading with the reception class and I could see the kids weren’t taking off as they had previously.  Among parents whose elder children had been taught by Mrs Williams there were increasing rumbles of discontent. Their younger children weren’t making the same progress and there were more tears as kids tried to read books they couldn’t access. Some parents reasoned that perhaps it was because child 2/3 was a boy or younger in the year. A few actively pressed for their child to be given those ‘Jelly and Bean’ books Mrs Williams had used. I had already been savaged once so I kept my head down.

Meanwhile I was on a journey, voraciously reading everything I could find. I bought ‘Beginning to Read ‘ by Marilyn Adams and ploughed through its complexities in only 5 days, outrageously neglecting my 2 year old in the process. I surfed the TES comments and read articles by Stanovich and Gough and Tunmer. I discovered the Reading Reform Foundation which was treasure trove of information on reading research. I went on Mumsnet and joined the endless debates on reading in the Primary Education section.  I tried to find out about the other side of the debate but it always seemed to be based on anecdote and didn’t address the research on reading. I was soon a fully paid up ‘phonics phanatic’. When the ‘ph’ word was mentioned the mists would descend and my friends would run a mile to avoid the inevitable rant.

However, it wasn’t my 5 year old in reception I was really worried about.  My eldest was in year 2 and didn’t seem to be learning anything. The new head stated proudly that children learnt best through ‘doing’. Most of the tables had been taken out of the year 2 classroom and after some whole class work, sitting on the mat, the majority of the day’s activities were optional. My daughter could choose between a lovely outdoor role play corner, Play Mobil and similar imaginative topical play stations or the literacy table and the maths mat. The literacy tasks were relevant to daily life and the maths was practical and hands on. For example for maths there was a water tray with gel filled numbers floating in it and fishing nets. Kids were meant to fish out answers to word problems. I think this was so the kinaesthetic learners could learn too. Work sheets were banned right up to year 6. At a meeting for parents we were given a worksheet with A level maths on it and asked how we would feel if we were asked to do it. We were then told that this demonstrated the problems with using work sheets. In year 2 the children chose what to study each half term. One half term they chose castles and the next they chose knights. Apparently they then chose ‘hot and cold’. The head told the children in assembly how much they now enjoyed learning and they then told prospective parents ‘how much they now enjoyed learning’.

But – arghhh – it was all so irrational!

-I was meant to believe that my daughter ‘chose’ her topics when I knew she had actually suggested other ideas.

-How could children choose stuff they didn’t even know existed, didn’t that just narrow their horizons? My friend’s daughter was learning about the Celts in her school and I was SO jealous!

-If teachers were actually free to interpret the children’s suggestions wasn’t the choice just a trick anyway?

-My daughter seemed like a dry sponge, thirsty to learn but just being given drops when there were floods of great stuff to learn.

-Wasn’t it exhausting for teachers to be continually preparing topics from scratch on the whim of six year old children who might say something different five minutes later? I knew that I taught a topic better second or third year running so although I had no problem with responding to student interests, why were primary teachers being forced to ceaselessly innovate?

-It was surely delusional to believe 6 year old kids offered their favourite play obsession, would then choose to do some extended writing or work out a few maths problems. The teacher finally stuck a sticker chart up to reward children that ‘chose’ maths and literacy options. The chart didn’t have many stickers on it and I was saddened that my daughter was being bribed to do something she would have done willingly, and enjoyed, if it was compulsory.

-Didn’t learning have to build on previous understanding so how could such a non -systematic approach achieve this?

-I could see that the lack of tables in the classroom meant it was never possible to do any form of desk work as a whole class. A teacher plus assistant can only ever work with two small groups. Were all those unsupervised six and seven year olds really  learning that much from a week playing with a marble run?

-There were big claims of all the different skills being learnt through these optional play activities but a strong feeling the justification came after the teacher chose the activity. I could as easily claim my children learnt skills such as cooperation, cultural awareness and problem solving when they agreed to watch Scooby Doo on a Saturday morning, or helped me clean the house. If skills could be picked up so easily, from activities my child also did at home, why should she go to school to do them?

-Can children really learn all about gravity from a marble run? When I took my kids to science parks they had fun with the hands on displays but did they really intuit many scientific principles? Surely a teacher explanation and a chance for everyone to have a go was more effective and enormously more efficient than a week (however lovely) of playing at the marbles play station?

-What about practice? I had no problem with my six year old having some time for free play in the school day and I thought playful learning was lovely but my daughter was not writing much or practising much maths.  Surely this approach was enormously inefficient? I knew as a secondary teacher that you can’t afford to waste whole stacks of time on one thing.

-Weren’t work sheets often an efficient way to provide practice and didn’t their effectiveness depend on their quality?

-I was continually told that because learning through play was fun it would create a love of motivation for life-long learning but I never saw the evidence. What if it just led to kids that could never knuckle down? I hadn’t got my qualifications by only do stuff when I enjoyed it.

-I was pretty sure that the head teacher would consider learning by some methods as ideologically unacceptable (learning with systematic phonics teaching wasn’t ‘real reading’) and so wasn’t she accepting poorer progress from the students because this was the best that could be gained with the methods she approved of?

I was one of a concerned huddle of year 2 parents, by no means all ‘Middle class’. I still felt a strong emotional loyalty to the school I had chosen for my first child. It was not the popular school in my small, affluent town because the travellers went there. I had decided it was good and been disgusted by the snobbery and, for a year or so, I had been right! But every week I now heard of another child leaving to go elsewhere. Then, in response to an invitation to parents I went in and looked at my daughter’s books. For a whole month she had done no writing whatsoever. Perhaps she hadn’t done much maths either but the writing was the one thing there had to be a record of. Another mum had complained and been told it was her problem that she was over anxious about her child. I was fired up as much on my friend’s behalf as my own and finally stuck my head over the parapet with a letter of complaint. The head knew that no writing for a month was indefensible and I got a properly apologetic letter but some rather awkward moments with the class teacher who knew she’d got it wrong. However, if there had been a few short pieces of written work for that month I would have been unable to complain and would that have been much better?

My daughter’s school had so lost its focus on the 3Rs that it was possible to pass a month without noticing a teacher had neglected her core duty to her class. The school had got so caught up in how to teach they had lost sight of the end product. They focused on whether the children were happy learners, not what they managed to learn. The school had got a ‘good’ from Ofsted and been praised for their pupil centred learning. When I looked on TES chat rooms  I could see that schools across the country were trying to emulate their approach or principles with little interest in what was actually being taught to the children. As long as they learnt it joyfully, actively, independently, collaboratively, in small groups not as a whole class and following the children’s own interests, it was good teaching. I teach secondary and cocooned in the private sector, without the pressure to produce Ofsted lessons, I somehow manage to get good learning with none of the above approaches.  My own research had now shown me that these methods are grounded in ideological assumptions about how children learn that can and should be challenged.

I have come across good, effective, teachers who would defend some of the methods I have described. I think they are good because they have a subconscious bottom line. They expect a certain amount of learning. They do not focus on the means for their own sake.  They do not consider jumping through some Ofsted boxes as the key to a good lesson. If primary teachers have success (rather than having to redefine the criteria because their students have not acquired the basics) good luck to them. However, as Tessa Matthews wrote in a recent blog, many of the most needy children are being short changed by a focus on methods whose innate effectiveness is highly questionable and so once more I will stick my head over the parapet to say I agree.


I moved daughter number two to a local village school. Daughter number one began year 3 at the local prep school where I can get  fee remission. She didn’t seem to miss her old school. Mrs Williams, possibly the best teacher in the school, left the next year. The results at the school gradually went down and so in the next Ofsted the school was given ‘requires improvement’ and the head took early retirement.

The story continues with part 2 here


23 thoughts on “Why I became radicalised or the problems with discovery learning.

  1. Some good stuff here can’t get in behind the work sheets though. I wouldn’t be doing discovery learning with beginning readers but 100% phonics is what I would recommend either. The best writing I have seen in this area is the late Michael Pressely especially what happens in exemplary first grade classrooms.

  2. Valid criticism, but important to ask why it happened. It isn’t always the tools but the quality of judgement about when to use the tools. Discovery learning is very powerful but only when combined with high quality input and extension which focuses on developing the learners’ thinking and offers new experiences, unknown to the learners until the teacher introduces them. Discovery learning requires a professional level of judgement yet it is often adopted as an easy-to-use approach. Clearly the level of monitoring and evaluating was well below adequate. Clearly the school had signed up to using one tool regardless of the others available. This may be poor professional practice but it isn’t necessarily the fault of the approach.

    We need to ensure that teachers of all including our youngest children have the professional judgement to select and monitor and where necessary re-think approaches, justify their choices and see beyond the latest slogan. Pulling in approaches from Victorian times, from industry, from horticulture, from Mars if you like – all fine by me but only as an intelligent part of the main purpose which is to support the next generation of humans to make the best of their lives.

    1. I am conscious that my post does rather conflate the dangers of making the ‘how’ of teaching an end in itself with a debate over whether discovery can or should be used at all. The former in itself is not as controversial although many do argue that engaging in certain styles of learning is likely to develop generic skills, whatever the subject matter. I would question those assumptions and find Willingham’s arguments on the problems with generic teaching of skills very relevant.
      In the case of the latter, while I would generally not stop successful teachers choosing their own methods,I link in the post to research I find very convincincing that asserts that discovery is not generally a good method for novice learners.

  3. Oh my goodness – this piece SAYS IT ALL!

    Thank you!

    This should be sent out to every early years and primary school setting as a service to children and their parents – and actually to the many teachers who will understand entirely what you have written.

    This should be sent to every politician, every inspector and every advisor.

    In fact – why don’t I just way ‘to everyone’.

    Thank you again.


    1. Thank you for yours and the other kind comments. I feel a big sense of debt to you and the others at the the Reading Reform Foundation for helping me on my journey!

  4. I might need another blog! They are what I would consider much more sane. Since ‘being radicalised’ I now would question many assumptions, like a focus on understanding to the detriment of fluency in maths in most schools. However, I am very happy by comparison!

      1. It was very interesting to read your follow up post on your daughter’s new school. I see that you didn’t like the way things were done in Reception there very much either. This seems to an issue you have with the philosophy many early years teachers have. You are more than entitled your opinion.

        I would simply note that children learn to read and write whatever school or teacher they have. Undermining or challenging teachers and schools because of strong but clearly controversional opinions about the way children learn seems counter-productive on many levels.

      2. Thanks for commenting. I hoped I made it clear in this blog that I did not try and undermine the teacher. I felt very sorry for her and my only interactions were supportive. In my previous blog I only complained when there had been no writing for a full month in year two. The head teacher was incredibly apologetic in her reply to my letter. I would suggest that in the first school it was the teaching methods that were extreme, not my expectations.
        It is odd to assert that children learnt to read whatever school, or teacher they have. First because they did not manage to do so in this situation and second because there clearly must be differences in quality of teaching between schools. There is plenty of evidence of variation in success with reading between schools (and between schools with similar socio- economic background).

  5. In the 80s my 2 ch. purely by chance, attended one of the few ‘trad’ primary school in ILEA (it was only 5 mins. walk away). I felt guilty as they were missing the freedom, the open classrooms, the teachers called by their Christian names, the spaces full of books. However, very soon I saw that the children at their school learned to read, were interested in their work, worked hard etc. At some of the progressive schools reading failure had reached epidemic proportions.
    At 11, they ended up 2-3 years ahead of their peers and yet this multi-racial school in Brixton was derided by ILEA.
    This was the start of my journey – but thank you, Heather, for expressing so well what was actually happening on the ground.

  6. This is a response to the discussion further up the comments, which I can’t post immediately below it.
    Firstly, thanks for your measured response. I’ll make three points:
    1) Why would it be odd to assert that children learn to read and write whatever teacher or school they have for a short time? These are useful skills that every person in the country learns to a greater or lesser extent, and a great deal is taught through example at home. Schools are clearly not the sole transmitters of teaching and learning.
    2) Do you have any links to evidence which shows evidence of variation in success with reading between schools?
    3) Do you have evidence of variation of quality of teaching between schools?
    3) Writing letters of complaint is not ‘supportive’, no matter how strongly you feel about an issue of teaching policy. If you don’t like the policies a school follows, there are other avenues you could pursue, such as contacting governors or opting for another school.
    As with many aspects of education, many widely held ‘truths’ are simply opinions without evidence.

    1. I’ll work backwards. I didn’t mention writing any letters of complaint at the second school, where I said I was supportive. Given the mayhem going on in the classroom (remember a special meeting was called to allay concerns two weeks after my daughter joined) that could be viewed as supportive of the poor struggling teacher, or cowardly, depending on how you went to look at it. Regards the first school I really don’t think there are many people that would view it as unreasonable to write a letter when there has been no written work for a month, in year two. The head teacher didn’t think it was unreasonable and actually neither did the class teacher, who made a point of approaching me to tell me in a very embarrassing exchange that she’d got it wrong…
      Regards your other points I think you have your own agenda here. I have read your blog with interest and although my maths is not good enough to pass my own judgement it made enormous sense that schools are compared is indeed flawed. I certainly retweeted your blogs on the issue. However, I do not think that ALL variation in SATS/phonics tests statistics between schools of similar intake can be dismissed and I don’t think holding that view (regards SATS) is especially controversial either.

      1. Hi Heather, and thanks once again for considering the points I’ve raised. I did hesitate when I replied today, as there are clearly very controversial issues here, and as you know, I’m very sceptical about received and other opinions in education, and life in general!

        The points I raised in these comments were specifically about this post, not your follow up, by the way.

        And thanks for reading and drawing attention to the points I’ve raised on my blog – I do appreciate it, and as a fellow blogger I am aware that it is very easy to be taken to mean something which one might have intended.

        I look forward to reading your further updates and opinions in your future blogs, and I hope that my responses have been constructive in some way.

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