05/06/2011 12:35 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2011

Teaching Is not Learning -- The Guided Discovery Approach for Learning

Quite often the words "teaching" and "learning" are used synonymously. According to Ackoff and Greenberg, the authors of the book Turning Learning Right Side Up, "Traditional education assumes that for every ounce of teaching there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught."

Is this assumption true? If every ounce of teaching is transferred into an equal amount of learning, there would be no failures. All our children would be "A" students.

The reality is that teaching, as the word implies, is about teachers; learning is about students. We focus so much on teachers and teaching, the word "learning" has lost its relevance. Think about essential life skills, such as walking. A child starts with sitting, turning over, crawling, managing to stand with some support, taking the first step, breaking into running, fumbling, balancing and finally, mastering the art of walking. Learning to walk takes a lot of practice, patience and time. Children do not get frustrated by thousands of failed attempts and decide that they are not going to walk anymore. In fact, each failure seems to motivate them to do better next time. Every child is capable of acquiring this skill on their own by trial and error over a period of time. This is how actual learning takes place -- learning by doing. One can't learn swimming without getting into the water. Learning takes place when the learner is personally engaged and allowed to discover.

This is discovery based learning. The joy of discovery motivates students to learn. Remember your first successful attempt at riding a bicycle and the excitement you experienced? It is not that you were the first person in the world to ride a bicycle, but what mattered was that you discovered that you could do it. It is this process of discovery that we need to recreate for learning in classrooms. People learn through a discovery process. Rote memorization and teaching for exams never help students understand principles.

Pure discovery, however, can take a long time and may lead to frustration. What is needed in a formal education environment is to guide the learners through a discovery process. This is similar to providing a safe environment where children can make mistakes and learn from the failures.

Can we implement a guided discovery approach in our classrooms? Yes, a guided discovery process can be implemented at all levels from K-12 to college. Outstanding educators around the country already use some form of guided discovery approach such as scenario-based, inquiry-based or problem-based learning. Some concerns about discovery based learning that I hear from my colleagues and fellow educators are addressed below:

The guided discovery approach seems good for young children. Will it work for high school and college level students?

The guided discovery approach can be used at all levels and should be used where fundamental concepts are involved. Whether dealing with calculus in high school or engineering mechanics in college, the guided discovery approach is effective.

Is this really practical?
The guided discovery approach is rooted in experiential education, hence it is highly practical.

Won't this approach take too long? How do we cover all required material if we spend so much time in teaching concepts?

The guided discovery approach cannot be rushed -- students must be allowed to make mistakes, pick wrong choices, and face consequences. This requires more time, but will help learners develop a deep understanding of principles; therefore, learning follow-up material is lot easier and faster.

Why is this important?
Quite often we hear people say, "don't reinvent the wheel." From an educator's perspective, this notion is completely wrong and often counterproductive. There is no learning if there is no invention that is personally meaningful to a student. Every leaner should be provided an opportunity to reinvent. Guided discovery approach focuses on helping every student to reinvent important concept in their mind. Rote memorization and figuring out the right answer using blind techniques are not the way to develop understanding. Many concepts in science are not intuitive, even though most people believe in them.

Consider the example, why do all objects fall at the same time? When I ask this question, rephrased "as which object, one heavy and one light, will hit the ground first when dropped from the same height," some students answer the question correctly and others incorrectly. Further probing indicates even the students who answered correctly have no real understanding. They answered correctly not because they know this is a tricky question and they've heard that all objects fall at the same time.

We regularly witness even top performing students (who scored well in AP physics and calculus) show no understanding. This is dangerous. Real understanding is essential for success and it comes from experience. The guided discovery is an effective pedagogical approach that can truly engage learners by providing authentic learning experiences.

It is time to shift the focus from teaching to learning.