Discovery Learning / Authentic Teaching
Teaching is not acting
When I began my college teaching career in the mid-80s, I was an adjunct teaching Biology at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City.
Why Biology at a fashion school? Well, as it turns out, those who founded FIT intelligently wanted it to be an accredited institution, which meant having science and math courses in its curriculum.
Anyway, I remember when the adjuncts were about to go off to class, some would say, ‘show time’. At first, I agreed with that sentiment—that teaching was putting on a show for students. I quickly realized, however, that I didn’t want to be acting when I was teaching, I wanted to be myself. The question was: How could I be myself in class, but also be a professional at the same time?
In essence, I wanted to be authentic as an educator and I started off with the idea that being authentic was being true to my own nature. From there, I began to understand that my nature could be different in the different roles I played in my life.
Another way to put it is that the different parts of my nature might be more or less important / appropriate in a given role. Eventually in my role as a teacher trainer, I told my want-to-be-teachers that they should strive to be themselves in the classroom, but jokingly reminded them that the ‘self’ in classroom should always be professional and not have bare feet like at home.
One pedagogical concept that excited my authentic nature as an educator in the sciences was psychologist Jerome Bruner’s (1961) constructivist theory of Discovery Learning (DL). I put DL into action in my teaching by beginning my science education classes with a question about everyday occurrences that most students had probably noticed or heard of.
One such question was, ‘why does the shower curtain stick to your leg?’ From this observation we took several class periods to develop the concepts of experimentation, hypotheses, theories, proof, evidence, interpretation, data, measurement, argument, analysis, testing, sample, population, and error—all of which we summed up as the Scientific Method (Pestieau, 2018).
My role was to use Socratic Questions (Delić & Bećirović, 2016) to lead my students to discover the quality of their knowledge through the process of influence, in which people share what they believe and why, and then carefully listen to others doing the same thing.
I would tell my students that the goals of using influence included adding to their current knowledge, but also updating or amending their knowledge based on new information. These two processes are what the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, respectively, called assimilation and accommodation (McLeod, 2018).
In my Socratic Science Lessons, many of my students became enthusiastically engaged in contributing to the debate, and as they did, I would create breaks to approach the board to write down and formalize the latest concept they had just discovered. Through using Discovery Learning, I was advocating that my students approach teaching elementary school science by taking advantage of the well-known human desire to ‘do it by myself’, or in this case ‘teach myself’.
Discovery Learning took on a different face in my TESOL classrooms, where I had to prepare lessons more extensively in order to give my students even more independence, but it was the same principle.
Over the years, a number of educators have described my teaching as organic, and they seem to be puzzled at my success in getting most of my students engaged in learning. I took that as a great compliment, but I found out that trying to explain how I was able to get my students to actually enjoy learning was often a frustrating experience.
To be fair though, if we remember our best teachers, we have a hard time putting our finger on exactly what made them truly stand out for each one of us. Indeed, it is in the infinite nature of humans that the mystery of authentic teaching lies. It is not something that can be taught or explained, it can only be discovered and there is no end to the discovery.
A line from the movie A League of Their Own says it well, ‘It’s the hard that makes it good’, and so too it is with finding your true self as an educator.
Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31, 21-32.
Delić, H. & Bećirović, S. (2016, Nov). Socratic method as an approach to teaching. European Researcher 111(10): 511-517.
McLeod, S. (2018). Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development.
Pestieau, J. (2018). The modernity of Ibn al-Haytham (965–1039). Paper presented at the 6th International Congress on Physics of Radiation-Matter Interactions, Tangier, Morocco, 7-9 May 2018.
Dr. A E Schneider holds several graduate degrees from Columbia University, including a doctoral degree in Science Education, as well as master’s degrees in TESOL, Organizational Psychology, and Counseling Psychology. In 2015, Dr. Schneider took a master’s degree from The American University in Cairo, in International and Comparative Education. Please visit the links below if you interested in services that include professional editing, research paper development, business and conversational English, business coaching, teacher development, or school improvement. Special discounts offered for Thai residents.
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Thank you! This was a wonderful read, and I appreciate the citations as well. I hope the next article is about why you left a wildly successful career as a science teacher trainer to join the hordes of TESOL educators, having to work harder than you ever did before, for less praise or pay, all while putting your life at risk every time you try to cross a street. ;)
By Michael Ryan, Bangkok (8th September 2019)