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The Pedagogy of Discovery
February 19, 2014 - 8:03pm

The idea is half a century old. But implementation has lagged far behind.

During the early 1960s, the educational psychologist Jerome Bruner called for discovery learning, which he contrasted with the standard pedagogy of the day, knowledge transmission. An updated version of John Dewey’s vision of an education that is social and interactive, discovery learning emphasizes inquiry, problem solving, and team work, as opposed to the passive absorption of information.

Founded on the notion that learning by doing is superior to learning by listening, Bruner argued that deep learning requires students to construct “mental maps,” conceptual frameworks that are best developed by authentic practice.

We are in the midst of a profound transition in pedagogy. Gradually and unevenly, a pedagogy suited for the industrial age is giving way to an approach more appropriate to the information age.  In this new paradigm, a “mass production” model yields to a more personalized approach.

A “transmission” model, in which content experts deliver a body of information to passive students, succumbs to more interactive forms of teaching that actively engage students in their own learning.  A more customized, self-paced approach to education replaces a “one-size-fits-all” paradigm, which assumes that all students should acquire the same information at the same pace.

Pedagogy 1.0: information transmission, slowly but surely, cedes ground to Pedagogy 2.0, inquiry- and problem-based active learning pedagogies.The time is ripe to move toward Pedagogy 3.0: a pedagogy of collaboration, creativity, and invention which treats students not simply as learners but as creators of knowledge.

Higher education’s undergraduate audience consists of three subgroups.  Some, primarily 18 to 22 year olds who attend college full time, are pretty well served. A second group, challenged by poor preparation and by demands of work and family, are not so well served, and many will drop out.  A third group of potential students, consisting of working adults and full-time caretakers, is too often unserved.

These second and third groups are especially deserving of our attention. But even the first subgroup may not be as well-served as we might wish. The level of academic engagement and learning among full-time students varies substantially.

Some certainly read widely, learn to write clearly and analytically, and wrestle with fundamental aesthetic, historical, and philosophical issues, while becoming conversant with the vocabularies, methodologies, theories, and empirical findings of the natural and social sciences. But for many, college is essentially a coming of age experience.

We can do better—and many talented faculty members are experimenting with a variety of engagement strategies to enhance student’s psychological investment in their education. These include questioning strategies that emphasize higher order thinking skills (e.g. evaluation, application, and generalization), debates and role playing exercises (like Mark C. Carnes’s “Reacting to the Past” program), highly interactive, web-enhanced lecture classes, and social and collaborative approaches that make students members of learning communities.

I’d like to add another strategy to the mix. The Pedagogy of Discovery treats college students as knowledge creators whose school work needs to be meaningful and subject to vetting not just by a single professor but a broader audience (ranging from class peers to, at an advanced level, public scrutiny).

Already, of course, students engage in activities that mimic professional practice. Creative instructors ask undergrads to draft policy briefs, press releases, and environmental impact statements, not to mention contributions to a blog or wiki or writing literature reviews, book reviews, and research papers.  But new technologies offer additional options. Let me suggest seven technology-enhanced options that allow for students to generate new knowledge.

1.  A Virtual Visual Tour
One way to break down classroom walls is to have students document a location, a venue or a theme that can be illustrated visually and through text. My own students have created women’s history and African American history tours, but the approach is applicable to many other fields. Urban sociology and history students are documenting individual neighborhoods across New York City and Chicago, art and architectural historians are reconstructing long lost exhibitions and sites, and students in environmental studies are analyzing the ecosystems of the Mississippi River and the Texas-Mexico border.

2.  A Paired Classroom
Technology gives the old idea of pen pals a fresh life. Now it is easy to connect multiple classrooms, using no-cost software, or to pair students across institutional boundaries, using voice as well as text. One of the most exciting examples I have seen paired a Russian literature classroom at the University of Texas at Arlington with a classroom in western Siberia. The students not only swapped ideas and interpretations of literary texts, but shared presentations about their communities.

3.  A Virtual Museum Exhibit
Museum exhibitions are among the most important vehicles for translating scholarship into a publicly accessible form. Virtual exhibits can be object-driven or theme-driven, using text, images, documents, and video to convey valuable background and contextual information, analysis, and arguments. In the process, students also discover the challenges of engaging an audience, organizing diverse materials in a compelling way, and identifying themes for the audience to take-away.

4.  An Annotated Text
Rather than relying on a professionally annotated text, invite your students to create one collaboratively. In addition to explicating difficult textual passages, students can insert brief essays that contextualize aspects of the text or explore themes or characters. In an online environment, annotations can include video clips of dramatic performances—which illustrate conflicting interpretations.

5.  A Collaborative Website
For one of my classroom projects, “The Blues: From the Delta to the South Side of Chicago,” students, working alone and in teams, created timelines, capsule biographies, photo essays, glossaries, and interpretive essays integrated into a single website.

6.  An Audio Tour
Modeled on the pre-recorded commentary that museums offer, an audio tour can teach a student how to provide essential background information, context, and analysis in a highly compressed form.

7.  A Digital Story
By combining narration, text, images, and background sound, a mini-movie, created with free software like PhotoStory 3 or iMovie, allows students to develop skills crucial for verbal and written self-expression, including concision, structure, rhetorical strategy, and narrative arc. The most successful digital stories tend to be highly personal – for example, using family images and oral history to reconstruct a landmark event or student-taken photographs to illustrate a student-written narrative.

By incorporating active learning, authentic practice, and 21st-century modes of presentation into our face-to-face, hybrid, and online classes, the Pedagogy of Discovery treats students as apprentice practitioners of our disciplines. Our colleges and universities differ markedly in their resources and mission.

Our students vary widely in their interests and background, but faculty members, by and large, received the same professional training, focusing primarily on research. The Pedagogy of Discovery taps those research skills and encourages us to overcome a division that needs to be eroded: between higher education’s mission of transmitting learning and its mission to create new knowledge.

Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

 

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