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September/October 2003
Volume 11 Issue 5

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Discovering How To Discover

by Denise Fleener

Just another day of discovery…

"Wow look at this bone over here! Hey did you see that skull over there?" My enthusiastic guide is leading me from exhibit to exhibit, diorama to diorama, bringing detail after obscure detail to my fascinated and attentive eyes—an old fracture scar in the leg bone of an Australopithecine boy; the distinctive curves of a female Neanderthal skull. My tour-guide could not be more insightful, nor more endearing. My tour guide, you see, is my nine year-old daughter. Child genius? No. Budding Einstein? Not at all. Just a kid who loves to discover.

In the course of a typical day, this otherwise painfully shy third grader can be found roaming purposefully from hall to hall in the two-story 50,000 ft. science museum where I work. In the computer lab, she almost always ends up helping visitors who can't seem to get a particular program to work. In the life science lab, she instructs hesitant visitors in the proper handling of Australian Walking Stick bugs. On this particular day, however, she is giving her one-member audience, me, an impressive tour of the museum's new exhibit on prehistoric man.

As a museum educator and mother, part of my daily routine includes picking my daughter up from school and bringing her back to the museum with me while I finish my workday. There, amid wind tunnels and giant turbines, fossils and frogs, computers and Van de Graaf generators, she roams safely and freely. She has done this for over three years now, and in the course of that time, has familiarized herself with nearly every exhibit in the museum. How does it happen? Do I have her fill out worksheets or questionnaires about each exhibit? Read pages and pages in some manual that explains the objective of each exhibit? Do I personally take her from exhibit to exhibit explaining to her why I think each exhibit is "sooooo cool?" No. I do none of those things. Instead, she simply does what she has been doing since she was an infant—she looks, she asks why, and she discovers.

To a child, it’s not called Science or Math. It’s not even called learning. It is simply—discovery. The process goes something like this: first you discover some, really cool thing about something; then you start wondering why it’s so cool. This is the essence of Discovery—coming upon some really cool thing, wondering why it’s so cool, then seeing if you can find out why.

Now you’re probably saying, "Oh sure, your daughter spends everyday in a museum! What do you expect?" This is true. She is fortunate in being able to spend large amounts of time roaming the halls of a science museum. But consider this—the science museum could just as easily be a city park, a wildlife refuge, a backyard, or even a bedroom!
For example, look around you right now. You could probably come up with at least a dozen ‘Why’ questions based on things that are within your immediate glance. Here's my list:

• Why is the glass in the window clear?
• Why is the paint in that upper corner of the ceiling peeling?
• Why does the plant sitting on top of the bookcase grow toward the light?
• Why do my fingers always get cold when I work at the computer too long?
• What makes the cursor blink?
• Why is my Spider plant so healthy while my Begonia looks so ill?
• Who was standing on this very spot a hundred years ago?
• Why is my stomach grumbling?
• Why does the computer make that humming sound?
• What are bulletin boards made of?
• How does an ink pen work?
• How are books made?

And so on. Discovery. Asking questions. Wondering why.

The importance of giving our children ample opportunities to discover cannot be overestimated. Being encouraged to discover early in life gives children the opportunity to process who they are in the world around them. It is the foundation of inquiry-based thinking and therefore nurtures inquiry-based learning. When I taught middle school science and math I was continuously stunned at the inability of many of my students to demonstrate inquiry-based thinking. Somewhere along the line, they had stopped asking why. In short, they had stopped discovering the world around them. They had become, for lack of a better name, "lazy thinkers." To place educators in the position of having to re-ignite the spark that once drove a child’s instinctive need to discover is, at best, an uphill battle. If parents would take the time to nurture the process of discovery in their children as infants and pre-schoolers, the results in middle and high school would be dramatic and rewarding.

It's so easy to help your child become an expert discoverer. All children love to inquire. All young children are eager to learn about their environment. Their natural inquisitiveness is what catapults them through their growing years! In their unquenchable thirst to understand "how this does that" or "why those look the way they do," children gain confidence and self-assurance, not to mention a profound appreciation for things that CAN be explained versus those that cannot........or at least not yet.

Every parent owes their child as many early, consistent opportunities to become fascinated with the world around them as possible – before the stereotypes dictated by our society squelch their natural curiosity for such things. Every great mind in history has had these opportunities because every great person in history was, afterall, once a child – a child who wondered "how" and "why" about a LOT of thngs! In that respect, my child is no different from yours, or from any other young Einstein.

How do you begin? How does any parent, who may never have been encouraged to discover as children, introduce their own children to the process of discovery? There are several ways. First, purchase or borrow two magnifying lenses – one for you and one for your child. This is the easiest and coolest way to make amazing discoveries. Take a walk with your child. You can start in your own yard or in any room of your house. Take along a flashlight for areas that are dark. Bring along a small, plastic container or a clear, plastic, zippered bag for collecting. A small pocket notebook and pencil are handy too for writing down questions. Then you can look up the answers later on the Internet or at your local library. Take a walk outside. Are there sidewalks on your street? Hunker way down with your son or daughter and use the magnifying lens to have a look between the cracks in the concrete. There’s a whole ecosystem of critters down there! The concrete looks very cool close-up too!

If you live in a reasonably sized city, visit your local science museum. How about visiting the zoo? Or maybe the natural history museum if there is one. If your budget allows it, consider buying an annual membership. If funds are low, check into possible free days or reduced-rate days that most museums and zoos offer.

Remember the list we started by just looking around where you’re sitting right now? You can do that anywhere. Ask your child to pick a room in your home. Sit together in the middle of that room and ask your child to simply observe. Observe everything.....I mean.....EVERYTHING in the room. See how many things you can both name. Write them down in the notebook. What’s the largest thing in the room? The smallest thing? Think of questions you could ask about the things that you see. Talk about possible answers to those questions. They may not be the correct answers but that's okay. Answers to your questions may not even exist. Talk about them anyway! This is what inquiry-based learning and discovery are all about – asking questions and wondering why! How is a carpet made? How do doorknobs work? Look out the window. Why does that tree have bark? Why does a bird sing a certain way? What is wind? How do fish breathe underwater? What happens when the water freezes in the winter? Do worms freeze when the ground freezes? Remember to write all the questions down. Save them for later! Maybe you can find the website for a science museum that can help you answer the questions!

True. Not every child will be another Einstein. But even Einstein was a kid once. And all kids, including any young geniuses or future Nobel Prize winners out there, have one thing in common – they want to know about the world around them. With the right guidance, every child on this planet learns early in life not just to see, but to look; not just to look, but to wonder; not just to wonder, but to ask why – to discover. The world around us and the world within us are both filled with an endless supply of wonders and miracles. Children are naturally amazed at these wonders. So what are you waiting for? Grab your magnifying lens and your son or daughter, and go find something to discover! I have to go now, I'm being called over to look at some fossilized dinosaur eggs.

Yep. Just another day of discovery.

About the author:
Denise Fleener has thirteen years of experience as a science writer/editor/educator. She says, “My hope is that the article lends some inspiration to parents who homeschool their children.”

Contact information:
Denise Fleener
Science/Math Education Writer
3135 NE 92nd Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97220
503 254-5885

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