Everything Right is Wrong Again: the death of discovery-based learning?

I have never had any formal training in “how to a teach” — my own graduate studies, for better or for worse, were purely mathematical — and although I do expend a little energy towards keeping up with the world of education, I still find myself blindsided on occasion.   Most recently, by the article Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction, appearing in the current issue of AFT’s American Educator magazine.  The thesis seems to be that, after 50 years of championing discovery-based learning, the educational establishment is changing its tune.  Fully guided instruction is the “it thing”, with exploratory learning appropriate only at the higher levels of study in any given discipline.  WOW!  This runs so contrary to my own indoctrination I had to check the cover to make sure I wasn’t reading the Onion by mistake.

Is the issue more subtle than that? Of course.  For example, lest the reader think that we are reverting to a pure “chalk-and-talk” model, the article makes a point to distinguish between independent student work and discovery-based learning, and extolls the value of the former (following the full, clear exposition of the topic at hand).

The pendulum and the pit

My more senior colleagues are less surprised than I at this turn of events — with their longer-scope experience, they see it as just another swing of the pendulum, and they take it in stride.  For me, the image this stirs is Poe’s Pendulum –  in my mind’s eye I see our students, huddling by the pit, watching the blade inexorably drop.

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5 Responses to Everything Right is Wrong Again: the death of discovery-based learning?

  1. Sue Jones says:

    When the pendulum swings widely, it seems that people from one end of the spectrum sort of try to leap to the other end. When somebody who only knows from guided learning jumps into “discovery” it often turns into “figure this stuff out for yourself,” forgetting that a lot of these things were only figured out the first time by somebody who then amazed the masses by *teaching* them what they’d learned… but, on the other hand, “guided learning” can turn into “here’s the recipe for today’s ritual” with no connections made.

  2. Mike Wheeler says:

    Yeah, I absolutely agree. I work in the sech sector as a trainer. Every few years it’s another new study, another new idea on how adults learn. Now, of course, formal learning is over, it’s all about social. 10 years ago, classroom training was dead, everything was online. And before that, scenario-based learning was going to revolutionize how adults learn. And so on.

    We could do a lot of good if we just started with the basics, and then added a little bit here and there dependent upon the audience, the subject and the behaviours we’re trying to instill rather than trying to make huge sweeping overhauls based on trends.

    There’s a guy named Reuben Tozman I follow. He commented on a discussion about the value of “reflection exercises” in classes: “first time I rebuilt an engine I learned while doing and it didn’t require a bit of reflection.” :)

  3. Avatar of Jonas Reitz Jonas Reitz says:

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks for the message. Hmm… I admit, I was writing that last paragraph in a bit of a state of shock, since I was so surprised by the message of the article. My point at the time was simply that our students are on the receiving end of various trends in education, and these trends can be contradictory — and given this, our students are left to deal with changing and conflicting messages regarding the best ways to learn, and grappling with these conflicts can be an impediment to and distraction from the course content they are intended to be focussing on. In reality (as with most things) the middle road is probably best — a balance of self-directed and fully-guided instruction, with that balance adjusted depending on the students. My upper-level students are much more ready to explore an idea on their own than my intro students — and indeed, for intro students, building some kind of base knowledge and (especially) confidence from which they can make their own explorations is one of the critical tasks, and this requires more careful guidance. I do try to provide some opportunity for discovery, even at the lowest levels, but results have been mixed (with the best results coming when I devote serious time in preparation, and serious time & support during the exploration — luxuries which are hard to afford, especially when the goal is a set syllabus with a lot of topics, as is almost always the case).
    -Jonas

  4. Mike Wheeler says:

    Hey Jonas, can you explain your last sentence a bit more? Do you think that guided learning will not get what they require without being more self-directed from the get-go? What does your current strategy look like? How self-directed are your students?

    Thanks,
    Mike

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