Discovery learning – 9 approaches in authentic contexts

The sage on the stage model needs to go. Being the expert in the room doesn’t need to mean that you talk at your audience. How many seminars or lessons have you attended where someone reads out a PowerPoint and asks you to fill in the gaps in a workbook that replicates the same content. Yawn. What do you take away from these experiences? Probably not much.

There can be another way. Stepping off the stage, working beside the learners and learning alongside them by offering a discovery learning model can be so rewarding. The discovery learning model can be a constructionist or a social-constructivist approach where the learners can learn by doing. But what might this look like?

Here are some real world examples.

Start with a question

Using a tool like padlet or a discussion forum on your LMS, you can pitch a topic and provide students with an opportunity to ask their questions. Teaching a corporate workshop about property lending (banking context) students wanted to know what kinds of rules apply to different properties, what kinds of properties there are, how to figure out lending rates and where to cross-check information.

The students drove the content of the course and the facilitator could pepper in more questions once the students had started the inquiry. The teacher became a coach encouraging deeper inquiry and authentic finding and sharing of knowledge. Amazingly what the students wanted to find out was also what they needed to know for compliance purposes but the students had full ownership of their learning experience.

In a different context (junior high school Social Studies) I wrote ‘disasters’ as a title on a padlet and the students filled the page with questions about what they wanted to know. They then worked out which content should come first, next and last and also brainstormed what they might like to make to show their learning. We could then problem solve where might be best to find the information, how to know which information was most reliable and discuss what we found out together. I did not need to be the expert on stage, I could discover new facts alongside them while they eagerly replied to each other’s questions in real time learning.

Real world contexts and problem solving

Real-world learning is an important attribute of 21st Century learning. How can you enrich a topic with real world experience? For Still Life Photography, I used social media to reach out and find businesses who needed product photography who might be willing to exchange a reference in return for studio photographs. The result was that students were able to do real life product photography and have a real world audience at the end. The success criteria were provided by the business owners and my role as a teacher was to problem solve alongside the students carefully giving ‘I wonder what might happen if…’ answers rather than showing them how to compose, light and shoot their subject matter. The process was theirs to discover.

This connection-fostering and problem solving approach also resulted in amazing confidence in trying out new things. One student found the confidence to reach out to an artist with interview questions, another gathered the guts to send her folio to the brand that inspired her work (this resulted in an internship offer) and another student started doing wedding photography as a side hustle after trialing live action shooting for a mini project. Discovery learning and real world contexts offeres them authentic experiences of success.

Designing an experience for which there might be multiple answers

All roads lead to Rome? Maybe – but which road is the most direct route? When designing learning experiences you might pre-engineer options so that some work and some don’t on purpose. A dud alligator clip with a makey-makey, a flat battery, a tacky side up piece of copper tape, a faulty light bulb (teaching paper circuitry in an interactive envelope unit) these might be thought of as mean decoys but they encourage trial and error as well as necessary collaboration and social constructivist as well as constructionist discovery. Students might be able to build a circuit but they also need to know how to problem solve together, how to communicate effectively, how to get the electricity to flow on one hand and find their learning flow on the other. This learning will stay with them.

Recently I gave students a colour mixing activity but deliberately left off a colour they needed to make a colour on the challenge palette. Nothing worked. I then gave one student the missing element (cool blue) and the a-ha noises slowly went around the room as they shared the paint and realised that cool blue is vital for making turquoise and aqua and that warm blue makes muddy greens like khaki. Golden learning through discovery (except green in this instance).

They discovered their own learning together. I used my learning design expertise to engineer the experience to make it more meaningful but ultimately they discovered their own learning with much more authentic experiences. Isn’t that better than telling them or even showing them how to mix colours? I also (annoyingly) said, ‘there is a colour wheel on the board. I’m not sure if it could be useful today or not though.’ (It is tricky to ride the line between being cryptic and sarcastic though!) Thankfully the fun of discovery learning means that I can make these kinds of comments because they know I’m deliberately backing off to allow them to work it out on their own.


Similar to the palette challenge activity above, hands on learning can be so rewarding with tinkering as a mode of discovery learning. Recently I designed a workshop for a corporate client who specializes in skin care products. She could have delivered a workshop that told students about the properties of this or that, instead I suggested a table of raw materials that students had to match to the essential oil. Another activity in the same workshop was playing with oil blends to create different aromas. Like the colour palette discoveries, the students can play and learn in a hands on memorable exploration of seeing and sensing ‘what if’ combinations of scents.

Tinkering with digital tools is another tinker option. Tinkercad, by name, is great for playing and building digitally. Teaching Giorgio Morandi’s painting compositions became much more meaningful when students could play with three dimensional shapes and make a digital still life. As they discovered what different tools could do, the excitement grew and they soon evolved from cylinders and cubes to complex pumpkin vases and teacups in their own increasingly complicated three dimensional compositions. My role in this was to share (from my class screen) new discoveries and ask students to explain how they did it. The students often surpassed my own tinkercad knowledge turning me into the student discoverer next to them.

A scientific method

Recording experiments in science is an important skill. But what about if you apply the same method to a different skill? What did you do? How did you do it? What is the result? This method can be applied to writing, painting, composing, mathematics and more. If the answer is x, how can you manipulate y? If the painting technique looks like this, how did you apply the paint? This approach shifts the learning to be focused on process over product because the product is already given. Students can gain confidence in experimenting to take one step closer to a chosen outcome and gain valuable experience in articulating what they have tried and why it did or did not work. Here are the answers, what is the algorithm? Test, debug, repeat. Rapid prototyping might also be used with stakeholder feedback as a consideration for tweaking the scientific/systematic method. This is a model I love playing with alongside the students.

Play based outcomes

With a slightly different focus, a discovery method can be made more playful if the outcome is withheld. Rather than mapping experiments and noting trials and errors like the scientific method above, a focus on play implies no fixed or pre-determined outcome. This means that materials can be explored as raw materials and students can experiment by their own design. What happens when? This is the most fun when you, too, don’t know what the stuff is likely to do. Here is something new – let us play with it and see what it might do! Why do teachers feel like they need to know what is going to happen all the time? Play means more fun discoveries together.

Fostering ako

Returning to the ‘start with a question’ approach, it may be that the best discovery is that there is another expert in the room. A native speaker in a language class, a hip hop champion in a dance class, a poet in creative writing – if the knowledge is shifted and not expected to come from the teacher, another student can become the teacher. Discovery learning can go both ways and not being an expert should not mean a return to the sage on the stage model. Not being the content expert might feel hard at first, but you can still be the expert coach and engineer for the experience of learning.

Comparing inquiry

Recently I encouraged a class to make a timelapse video of their process. None of us had made a timelapse video before. Before long everyone had a different ‘camera rig’ and they had to share what worked and didn’t work. It was great to see them problem solve, troubleshoot, trial and test together. It was iterative and social. Soon it became the quietest lesson I’ve taught in a while because they were all so absorbed in the process. When they don’t notice the end of the lesson and all want to continue painting, I take that as a big discovery learning win.

Tape and a jar – great problem solving!
Camera rig solutions for timelapse videography inquiry

Floating co-pilot

The co-pilot discovery learning approach comes out of pair programming. “Pair programming is an agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. One, the driver, writes code while the other, the observer or navigator, reviews each line of code as it is typed in. The two programmers switch roles frequently.” (Pair programming – wikipedia). This is well documented in coding sessions, but what if you apply it to other learning? The idea of floating co-pilot who can share the learning around the room is so fun. A rising tide raises all ships… discoveries from one student’s learning can be quickly shared to other students in a fun seemingly stealthy way. If you don’t like the idea of roaming co-pilots, give students an ‘aha’ document to share their learning digitally so that the document grows while the students discover from each other in real time.

Discovery learning doesn’t have to be all open inquiry and hands off teaching. Teachers can be engineers of authentic learning experiences providing learners with memorable methods that put the ownership of learning firmly in their own hands, heads and, long term, hearts.

What do you think? Does discovery learning have a place in your learning context? Which method excites you most? Have you tried any of the above?

If you want some help designing meaningful discovery learning in your learning context, send me a message, I’d love to help design something exciting and memorable.

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