Striking a per-activity balance between explanation and exploration.
It is widely11 but not universally; this is a hard claim to validate. believed by those who study learning that we are more likely to make connections with, remember, internalize knowledge that we discover on our own than knowledge that is provided to us by another. But it is even more widely understood22 Every educational system assumes this principle, but there are a few individuals who disagree and choose not to educate. that unaided discovery takes much longer than does instruction—many generations longer, which is why we engage in education.
These two observations create a tension in teaching: the teacher’s33 This is true of all kinds of teachers, from parents to instructors to authors to reporters… twofold purpose is to convey information more quickly than it could be discovered unguided and to convey it in a way that is readily understood and internalized.
There are many approaches to trying to balance these two goals44 …and many fads that emphasize one over the other. Often these fads mention only the half they believe they do better than the status quo, leading to a lot of harmful false-dichotomy marketing. , and very few teachers don’t achieve some kind of balance. Textbooks don’t merely state truth: they provide motivating examples and lead the learner along a path where each principle, while given before the reader discovers it themselves, is given after the reader has enough context to retroactively create the discovery process. Learning through play spaces don’t merely allow discovery: they provide a set of toys and tools that lead the learner along a path where steps towards discovering particular truths are easy to tread. And there are many different organized approaches to mixing instruction and discovery, too many to even be worth summarizing in this post.
While there are many good ways to mix explaining and allowing exploration, there are also many bad ways. Often, when reflecting on a lesson that went poorly, I find that instead of guided discovery and supported instruction I provided a mix of unguided discovery and unsupported instruction.
An pseudo-example may make this clearer. Often when teaching a Sunday school lesson the time can be split into some “read, ponder, and share” activities and some “attend as I explain and testify” activities. On a good day, these might look like
I explain a bit about the circumstances of surrounding a particular passage.
I have them explore scriptural passages, pointing them to consider a particular aspect of them; we then discuss their findings.
I ask them to read again, looking through a more specific lens that will help them see my last point; since I know where I want to go, I share how I see it instead of opening it up to them.
I testify of the lesson I learned during my preparation, as well as any I was touched by from what they shared.
On a bad day, it looks more like
I explain a truth I learned from a passage I don’t think we have time to delve into.
I have them explore scriptural passages I was moved by, hoping they have the same moving experience; they struggle to know what I want, and the few who share during the discussion frustrate me because they missed the point.
I ask them to read again, looking for something stated in explicitly in the passage; they feel silly echoing the passage directly and mostly disengage.
I testify of the lesson I learned during my preparation but which they all missed, still unsure why they missed it.
Part of the challenge of good teaching is that, on a surface level, both of these examples consist of the same elements: non-discovery explanation, then open discovery, then focused discovery, then explanation supported by the discoveries. The difference is that in the latter case, while the lesson as a whole mixed discovery and explanation, the specific activities failed to do so.
I have been a teacher of one kind or another for nineteen years. I have attended uncounted trainings on good teaching led by educational psychologists and master teachers and inspired leaders. I have spent hundreds of hours carefully watching others teachings and reviewing recordings of my own. I have had observers observe my teaching and offer me expert advice on what they saw. I have read books about teaching in general, teaching the gospel, teaching computing, teaching specific demographies, and several specific teaching methodologies. But I have never, in all of that teaching and experience, found the magic recipe that lets me know how to reliably strike the right balance between guiding the students to truths and letting them find them on their own. I get a little better at it every year, but it remains a challenge.
More surprising to me, though, is that in all of my studies I have almost never seen this fundamental conflict identified explicitly. It is often hinted at; it is used to motivate specific strategies; but I cannot recall ever having it laid out for me the way I am have tried to lay it out in this post. Maybe that’s because it was laid out, made no impression, and I forgot it. Maybe it’s because people have found that pointing this out doesn’t help teachers. Either way, I hope my pointing it out will help some of you.