Thursday, June 30, 2022

Discovering Ancient Knowledge

In a preschool milieu plentifully populated with superheroes and princesses it was refreshing that these kids played at Dora the Explorer. They prowled the playground, the two of them, sometimes joined by a curious friend, looking for "discoveries."

A discovery could be anything at all -- a shiny pebble, a scurrying insect, a curious stick. They stirred one another up to excitement for even the most mundane finds.

One day, they dug up a cracked and faded plastic bucket from the sandpit. We had retired that particular type of bucket several years earlier, so, it was indeed an artifact from an earlier civilization. 

"This bucket is old."

"It's so old."

They took the bucket to the cast iron water pump and tried the "experiment" of filling it with water, but the crack rendered it useless for this purpose, so they instead managed to fill it with sand, wood chips and other debris. At some point they began using the word "ancient" to describe their special artifact.

"Look what we discovered, Teacher Tom. It's a bucket from the olden days."

I was once challenged by a man who objected to my description of play-based learning as "science, exploration, and discovery." "They don't discover anything," he insisted. "It has to be new knowledge to be a discovery." Once something has been discovered once, he argued, it can't be discovered again. 

I don't recall exactly how I responded, but I suspect I argued that the word "discovery" was valid because the discovered knowledge is new to that particular child. It's not invalidated as a discovery just because someone was there before.

I now know, in a way, that we were both wrong. Indeed, I wonder if at some level the notion of "discovery" itself needs to be re-considered. After all, Columbus didn't discover America. "It was here all along," writes Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. "I smile," she writes, "when I hear colleagues say 'I discovered X.' Experiments are not about discovery but about listening and translating knowledge."

A botanist, Kimmerer, tells us that it's hubris to believe that we discover anything, except in a personal sense. Everything has already known, it has already been discovered, although perhaps not by humans, or Europeans, or our classmates. All knowledge, every discovery, is as ancient as the universe itself. What we call discovery, whether it is attained by trekking out into the world with our backpacks like Dora the Explorer, or through the scientific method, is in reality the process of figuring out where knowledge might be stored, then learning how to ask our questions by experiment or observation, listening, then translating that knowledge so that we can understand.

After a time, the ancient bucket had revealed all the knowledge it had to share with our playground explorers, at least for this day. Before moving on, they returned it to the hole in the sand from whence it had come, and where it waits, perhaps until this very day, to be questioned, to be discovered, once again.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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